Congressional comeback

Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) returned to Congress after a 32-year absence and he brought a few familiar faces back with him.

Four staffers from Nolan’s previous congressional tenure are now working for the lawmaker again.

ADVERTISEMENT
All four — Jim Swiderski, Jodie Torkelson, Steven Johnson, and Ione Yates — went on to have strong careers working with the administration, lawmakers, and even working abroad after Nolan left Congress in the 1980s. 

Yet each of them said it was a “no-brainer” to come back and join the office of “Rick van Winkle,” as he is often called on Capitol Hill.

Nolan served as the representative for Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District from 1975 to 1981. Last year, he defeated first-term Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack to represent the 8th District in the 113th Congress.

Nolan’s comeback began when he was asked to find a contender for Cravaak. Yet, when he would speak with people about who they would like to see in office, many of them told him, “You should run,” according to Swiderski. 

Swiderski, his legislative director, has been with Nolan the longest. 

He began by volunteering in December 1971 for Nolan’s first congressional campaign, which he lost. He stayed with Nolan for the next campaign and, when the lawmaker took office in 1975, Swiderski was staff director for a House subcommittee that Nolan chaired. 

Upon Nolan’s retirement, Swiderski left Capitol Hill to work in agriculture and the computer industry, introducing new technologies to agriculture. He also worked with Global Volunteers, an international volunteer agency. He’d gone back to work as a lobbyist for these groups when he got the call to come back to Congress.

“It was just one of those [things] you didn’t think would happen, but you really hoped it would,” Swiderski said about Nolan returning to Washington.

Torkelson, Nolan’s deputy chief of staff, was just an intern during her first tenure with Nolan. In the summer of 1980, she came to D.C. to file and do the work “full-time staffers don’t have time to do,” she said. 

In the years after Nolan’s retirement she worked with then-Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) and was director of staff for former President Clinton’s administration. Her most recent position led her back to Minnesota, where she was city administrator in Thief River Falls, Minn., for nine years.

Johnson was Nolan’s press secretary when he was brought onto the team in the lawmaker’s first term. After Nolan’s exit, Johnson went on to serve as director of communications for former Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.) and other law firms. He is now Nolan’s communications director.

“I never had any hesitation about joining him,” Johnson said. “I remember saying to myself, as much as I love the Congress and the Hill I don’t think I’ll do it again unless it’s with him and, lo and behold, it happened.”

Yates has also been with Nolan since his first term in office, working as his chief scheduler. She returns to the same position but, during her time away, she worked in customer relations for Canon USA and made two trips to Africa to work at orphanages for children who’d lost parents to AIDS.

All four staffers said their time with Nolan was a career highlight and praised the lawmaker for his public service.

“When you can work again for someone you believe in, and who you watched make a difference, you don’t hesitate to come back,” Swiderski said.

And it wasn’t just working with Nolan, all four said they are happy to be together again.

“If you’re a fan of the ‘Blues Brothers’ movie, it was like that,” Johnson said. “We were getting the gang back together.”

Despite 32 years away, they describe coming back together as natural and said their relationship may be even better now. 

Although they have always thought of each other as family, Torkelson said they “are closer. [The staff] becomes your brothers and sisters.”

“We spent our weekends together, holidays together, and when we had weekend trips, those were together,” Yates said. “We’re like lambs on our own because we counted so much on each other.”

They were all 20-something staffers during their first tenure with the congressman. And the three-decade break allowed them to come back to Nolan’s office with new experiences from which to draw from. All four staffers said they were happy for the time apart, believing that it made Nolan a stronger politician and made them stronger aides.

According to Yates, it allowed them a maturity they didn’t have in their first terms. 

“I was probably pretty naïve back then,” she said, chuckling.

“We’re doing this to make a difference, not to have just the office and the titles,” Swiderski said. “We made a big difference three decades ago when we were kids. We’re now a lot smarter about all this stuff. We’ve honed our talents. And now we kind of have an obligation to use these skills to make an even bigger impact.”

“I look at what I do now as community service,” Yates said. “It’s my change in this ugly world, and I’m going to keep working at it.”

“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Johnson added. “I can’t let him do this alone. As long as he needs me, I’ll be here. And as long as the 8th District wants us, we’ll be here.”