Nolan was a Congressman for Ely

Ely is only one of many, many communities in the state’s cavernous Eighth U.S. House District, but it had a true friend in Rick Nolan.
Nolan’s surprising announcement that he would retire at the end of the year, rather than seek a fourth term in a second Congressional stint, sent political shockwaves across the state and reverberated in the Ely area as well.
While just one dot on a spacious map that extends from International Falls and Grand Marais to the north and east to Brainerd and the Twin Cities suburbs to the south, Ely seemed to have captured the attention of its Congressman.
Nolan didn’t just campaign here once every two years.
He, as a Congressman should, fought for the community for causes large and small and made frequent visits.
Nolan carried the torch lit by the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and worked to make sure that long overdue reconstruction on Highway 169 came to pass, and that bureaucrats didn’t acquiesce to those who would have scuttled the efforts of a local task force.
Nolan understood the importance of Ely’s airport, both for its role in local commerce and as a hub for fire fighting efforts in the region, and he worked both for crucial funding and to keep Forest Service operations here.
Nolan always seemed to have an ear and an audience for local elected officials, whether in Ely or Washington. His staff, which included Elyite and one-time DFL primary opponent Jeff Anderson, was responsive and in tune with the district.
Of course taconite mining remains the driving cog in the Iron Range economy and when the industry fell on hard times, it was Nolan who fought to oppose the illegal dumping of foreign steel and enlisted the aid of the Obama Administration, even getting the Chief of Staff on the Range for an unprecedented summit.
And unlike some of the state’s elected officials in Washington, whose stance on copper-nickel mining is mysterious, nuanced and word-smithed, Nolan risked his political life by taking a stand on the issue.
Rather than pandering to both sides or walking a political tightrope, Nolan angered the anti-mining zealots in his own party with his unabashed support of copper-nickel mining.
When the Obama Administration dropped a political hammer on the Twin Metals project by taking away long-held mineral leases, Nolan first voiced his displeasure.
Then, he did something about it, appealing to the Trump Administration and joining Republican members of Congress, including Minnesotan Tom Emmer, both in a visit to the Twin Metals headquarters and by supporting legislation to restore the mining leases.
One could have understood, at least politically, if Nolan had taken a softer approach.
But speaking softly wasn’t in Nolan’s DNA, whether the issue was copper-nickel mining or any of the progressive causes he championed in Washington.
Perhaps that’s the reason why Nolan survived a Republican wave in 2014.
While the district supported President Trump by a whopping 16 points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Nolan survived with a razor-thin victory over Stewart Mills.
More than a few Eighth District residents crossed party lines to support both Nolan and Trump, and it seems as if he was the Democrats’ best hope to retain an increasingly competitive Eighth District.
But Nolan, who completed a rare feat by getting a rare second act in politics, returning to Congress in 2013 some 32 years after he left, has had enough.
His family and retirement beckons, and that must seem to be a more pleasant option than the rough-and-tumble world of another campaign, particularly when he faced the prospect of potshots from within his own party.
Nolan still has some work to do. He has nearly another year left in Congress and we hope one last visit to Ely is in store, so those in town can offer their thanks for a job well done.