As political endorsements go, Rick Nolan’s public approval holds as much meaning as these things tend to have.
So when the six-time congressman endorsed Quinn Nystrom for the 8th Congressional District's Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination in November, it raised eyebrows. Nystrom, despite her lifelong diabetes advocacy, was new to the national political scene, and there remains time for new candidates to enter the race prior to the party’s May endorsement convention.
Still, Nolan threw unqualified support behind Nystrom a year before the election, and in a way that evaded 2018 DFL nominee Joe Radinovich.
“Rick knows that if elected I will fight like hell for everybody,” Nystrom told the News Tribune.
The story behind the wholehearted endorsement is one of shared passions, proximity and family history. Nolan, 76, and Nystrom, 33, are both Brainerd lakes area natives, and before he knew her, Nolan knew her mother, Rachel Reabe Nystrom, a Crow Wing County commissioner who Nolan described as having served with distinction. Nolan knew others in Nystrom's family, too, including a former county sheriff and her father, a longtime school board member.
“I’ve always admired the family going back to her grandparents,” Nolan said. “We grew up in the same general neighborhood and have a long-standing relationship.”
Nolan’s support for Nystrom was won even before her candidacy announcement in October.
"Before I even jumped into the race, he said, 'I don’t care, Quinn, who announces after you,' " she said.
He’d seen her work as part of the Baxter (Minn.) City Council and had received her in his Washington, D.C. office multiple times to organize around her work with diabetes advocacy and insulin affordability.
“Rick Nolan is very loyal and when he feels like there is somebody who is a great candidate or somebody he respects, he puts 150% behind them,” Nystrom said.
For Nolan, the endorsement last month was a contrast to his support of Radinovich in 2018, when the DFL nominee and former Nolan campaign manager was roundly defeated by Pete Stauber.
In that case, Radinovich received an 11th-hour Nolan endorsement during the 8th District DFL convention in Duluth. Eight hours into the day and six rounds of delegate voting in, Nolan, who was not at the convention, endorsed Radinovich with a statement authored on-site and approved over the phone by the former congressman.
In the months that followed, Nolan’s support of Radinovich evaporated as the two split over a controversy that involved Nolan’s rehiring of a longtime congressional aide onto his 2016 campaign staff despite prior harassment allegations involving the aide.
“I can’t speak to what happened last time,” Nystrom said. “All I can speak to is Rick and how this all came about. Rick Nolan has known my family for years.”
There’s more to it than familiarity, Nolan said. He sees in Nystrom a candidate who is tough, articulate and “experienced enough,” he said, when coupled with what he portends as another Democratic wave similar to 2018.
“I think it’s going to be a terrific year for women in this election contest,” he said, “and the Democrats are going to benefit from that.”
He still considers the 8th District highly competitive despite some national markers that view the seat as safe for Stauber. He explained the early endorsement as one he hoped will help to unite the party — a party that has split locally between labor and progressive/environmental factions.
“The sooner the party gets out behind one good candidate, the better,” Nolan said. “Getting behind a good, strong candidate now gives them the best chance for winning.”
For all her family ties to Nolan, Nystrom said she first met him in 2013. They were on the same airplane and she’d already been reaching out to his office to arrange events for the American Diabetes Association.
She introduced herself at baggage claim.
“I’m very passionate about affordable health care and access to it,” she said, describing how she’ll corner folks if and when it’s opportune. “Rick gets off the plane and I picked up speed, because I had a chance to get his undivided attention.”
He agreed to do a town hall meeting in the district related to health care. And he gave her his cellphone number to call ahead any time she was going to be in the nation’s capital.
“That’s how my friendship with Rick Nolan started,” Nystrom said. “He did two big events back in the district. And every year after that I always got to have personal meetings with him in D.C.”