Nolan, Mills Set for Round Two in 8th District

7 March 2016

While Republican and Democratic voters engage in a feverish presidential primary season, the race to represent Minnesota's 8th Congressional District features no such ambiguity.

A second go-round between incumbent Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, and Republican Stewart Mills is underway, promising fireworks in the months to come.

"It's going to be a heavyweight prize fight," Chris Fields, deputy chairman of the state Republican Party, said at February's 8th District endorsing convention in McGregor.

A rematch of Nolan's 1.4-percentage-point victory in 2014 finds the candidates in different places than they were then. Nolan is leaning hard on a growing track record, and Mills claims a benefit to being on more-familiar ground with his supporters.

"Two years ago I was just meeting these people for the first time," Mills said in McGregor before his unanimous endorsement from the nearly 100 people crammed into the Fireside Inn. "I was explaining why I was running and what I was going to do. As we got to know each other, we came together as a team."

Meanwhile, Nolan's advocacy for the flagging iron ore and steel industries is yielding results in the form of higher tariffs on a growing list of imported steel products.

Now a two-term incumbent, Nolan has taken to pressing a record that earned him recognition in the Washington Post last December as one of the most effective lawmakers in the nation's capital.

"There's nothing that would have disappointed me more than to have been elected to the Congress at my age and with the diversity of my experience in life and not have been able to get anything done," the 72-year-old Nolan said in a recent interview with the News Tribune.

One thing is for certain — what Nolan touts as accomplishment will be grist for the 43-year-old Mills.

Regarding Nolan's claim to the legislation that took logging trucks out of downtown Duluth and put them onto Interstate 35, Mills' response is that the congressman is taking credit for something started by Republican Chip Cravaack during his term atop the 8th District earlier this decade.

It's that sort of turnabout — coupled with his distilled brand of pro-gun, anti-regulatory conservative politics — that has won Mills fervent admirers.

"He's a fantastic candidate," said Duluth landlord Allan Kehr, president of the Arrowhead Multi-Housing Association. "It's a real joy to have somebody so knowledgeable about the issues."

But whereas Mills can characterize 10 years of PolyMet copper mine review as government overreach, Nolan can claim victory for having ushered along the process that cleared that same 10-year hurdle last week when its environmental review was deemed adequate, allowing the permitting process to proceed.

For the past year, Nolan told the News Tribune, he's been convening the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and partner agencies for monthly meetings intended to move the process forward by holding each of the agencies accountable to the other.

"If someone was dragging their heels," Nolan said, "I exposed them to everybody else."

It's the sort of behind-the-scenes effort that Nolan said goes beyond the obvious work of a Washington, D.C. legislator.

"Not everything a congressman does is done through amendments, bills and laws," Nolan said. "You've got some clout and I can be pretty shameless exercising that."

That clout was on display last December, during a summit on the Iron Range that featured Nolan bringing White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to meet some of the roughly 2,000 laid-off Steelworkers. Mills has repeatedly called it "a dog-and-pony show" that yielded nothing.

But that's not how Nolan's supporters characterize the congressman's efforts on behalf of the Iron Range.

"He has been our go-to guy," said Lowell Carlon, president of Virginia's United Steelworkers Local 1938, citing the 200-plus percent tariffs that are starting to be applied to a growing list of Chinese steel products as a way to dissuade the dumping of steel imports and revive the struggling American iron ore and steel industries. "This ruling that came out against China, that's Rick working. I'm not saying (Senators) Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken aren't involved, but this is Rick's district and this is his baby. He's taken it very seriously and we are very appreciative."

With each candidate having secured passionate base support, the campaign figures to gather momentum as the biggest race on 8th District ballots next to the presidential election. Mills said he believes that having no gubernatorial or U.S. Senate races benefits him; he's of the mind that Nolan rode the coattails of Franken's 11-point win to reelection.

"We won the debate but lost the election because of factors outside of our control," Mills said. "This time, in particular, the independents, the constitutionalists, the undecideds, we think they're going to be more receptive to our message."

With the multi-generational family business, Mills Fleet Farm, having been sold this year, Mills is devoting himself full-time to his campaign. And while he's hammering Nolan about Iron Range issues, he figures to work the southern half of the vast district more heavily. It's in those semi-rural exurbs that orbit the Twin Cities that Mills finds his strongest support.

"We know the southern part of the district is where we're going to be more fully engaged," he said. "We're not going to win every vote in St. Louis County."

Meanwhile, Nolan said he sees in voters a level of disenfranchisement not seen since his days in the state House at the height of the Watergate scandal. The thing he hears all the time, he said, is " 'Doggone it, why can't you people set aside your partisanship and get something done?' "

Nolan said he believes he's one of the few legislators who've been able to produce in a difficult political climate.

"You've got a congressman," he said, "who knows how to get stuff done."


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