‘Same story’ in race for 8th District: Nolan, Mills vie for middle class at forum

DULUTH - A long and congenial handshake at center stage ended Monday's debate between 8th Congressional District incumbent Rick Nolan and challenger Stewart Mills.

Congressman Rick Nolan makes a point during Monday's debate at the Depot while Stewart Mills listens and prepares his response. Bob King / Forum News Service

DULUTH - A long and congenial handshake at center stage ended Monday’s debate between 8th Congressional District incumbent Rick Nolan and challenger Stewart Mills.

But the hour that came before it gave the Duluth Playhouse audience the figurative Venn diagram it was looking for as the candidates showed how rarely they do meet in the middle - even on the middle-class issues they both pressed.

Nolan, DFL-Crosby, who is seeking a third term, and the Republican Mills, of Brainerd, diverged on nearly everything as they debated for the first and maybe only time during their rematch from 2014, when Nolan edged Mills by 1.4 percentage points.

When they did agree over, say, the use of pipelines as the safest way to move crude oil, it was to disagree some more.

Saying he understood both Mills and the oil companies’ desire to build pipelines in the straightest lines through the state and district, Nolan added, “As a representative, your obligation is to take the safest route.”


An anticipated squabble over gun owners’ rights failed to address core issues, including the role guns play in crime in America; instead, it became a prolonged, ragged argument over the usefulness of denying guns to people on no-fly lists.

Hefty topics such as the Iran nuclear deal that Nolan voted in favor of were left for fact-checking wonks to decipher, because to hear the candidates tell it the Middle East agitator nation is either closer to or further away from nuking the planet.

Nolan doubled down on the Affordable Care Act, saying he favored movement toward a single-payer universal system, while Mills punctuated his opposition to “Obamacare” and preference for privatized health care by saying poignantly enough, “Just being insured doesn’t mean you have access to health care.”

The debate hit its stride over middle-class burdens, and in these arenas both candidates found their best footing.

“They feel stuck in the middle and they’re getting hosed,” Mills said when talking about the same middle class Nolan described as having been failed by a generation of Republican majority politicians.

“The fact is we’ve lost our way,” Nolan said. “We have seen a situation where a powerful super millionaire, billionaire class is getting richer in degrees unparalleled in human history.”

The debate ticked through the list of middle-class grievances - for miners, soldiers, Social Security and Medicare recipients and minimum-wage earners.

On taking care of the country’s war veterans, Mills said he wanted to introduce a universal card that would allow veterans access to care at any hospital they walked into, regardless of whether it was a Veterans Administration hospital or not. Nolan thought it was a good idea after previously saying the way to take care of a nation suffocating on its debt was to get out of wars and nation-building altogether.


The inevitable clash over who could best look out for the workers on the Iron Range saw Nolan touting the endorsements he’s received and moves he’s made to help put 1,000 miners back to work. Mills said it all came too late.

“The people I talk to are nervous,” Mills said.

On the topic of escalating student debt, Mills said too much money is being put into infrastructure and administrators, offering to fight for price transparency and unencumbered credit transfers from one institution to the next. Nolan contended that money saved from getting out of wars could be used to pay for a free four years of college.

“The money we invest in public education is the best money we spend,” he said.

Nolan bucked for a national minimum wage increase to surpass $15, while Mills said different national markets demand different numbers and that states ought to set their own minimums.

On Social Security and Medicare, Nolan wondered of Mills, “Why are you so anxious?” as they argued about the solvency of both plans. Mills said it was time for bipartisan solutions to prevent the worst-case-scenarios, while Nolan said the plans are healthier than some insiders would have a person believe and that it’s long been the goal of Republican heavyweights like John Boehner and Paul Ryan to gamble with those dollars on Wall Street.

Both men cited family as their inspirations to hold office. Nolan’s father once advised him to “work for the common good,” he said, because the middle class needs champions.

Mills summoned his wife, who he met during a street dance in Nisswa when she was the divorced mother of three children. She kept her thermostat set at 63 degrees during the winter to save money, he said, and was forced at times to choose between groceries and gas for her car.


“As I go around our part of Minnesota I’m hearing that story more and more,” Mills said. “It’s the same story over and over again.”


By Brady Slater, Forum News Service

A nearly full playhouse in Duluth listens to the back-and-forth between Stewart Mills and Congressman Rick Nolan Monday morning. Bob King / Forum News Service

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