If lawmakers have to tell people they are honest or genuine, they are neither. And if a congressman has to resort to deception about receiving praise in order to convince constituents he’s effective...well, his name is probably US Representative Rick Nolan.
In 2012, Nolan successfully campaigned on the premise that he served the Sixth District well during his prior term in Congress from 1975-80, claiming that the late investigative journalist Jack Anderson named him among the “most respected members of Congress for effectiveness.”
Facing a tough bid for re-election to the Eighth District in 2014, Nolan updated his narrative, now replacing Anderson with an equally well-respected government watchdog—the Sunlight Foundation.
As job performance became the centerpiece of his strategy to win the hearts and minds of voters, Nolan began repeating in stump speeches across the district that the non-partisan, non-profit organization, based in Washington DC, listed Nolan in the “top ten percent for effectiveness” during the 113th Congress—a claim the Sunlight Foundation says is not true. “We do not rate members of Congress and we are not claiming Nolan is effective,” says Jenn Topper, a spokeswoman for the Sunlight Foundation.
Nolan spokesman Steve Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
Nolan’s first documented reference to his own effectiveness came during the October 7, 2014, debate in Duluth with challengers Republican Stewart Mills and Green Party Skip Sandman. “Independent groups rated Yours Truly in the upper 10 percent of people who are able to introduce legislation and actively get it passed,” Nolan said at the debate, without identifying any independent groups.
After KSTP/SUSA released a poll on October 16 that showed Nolan trailing Mills, Nolan began attributing this claim about his effectiveness to the Sunlight Foundation in media interviews, such as the Daily Agenda with Blois Olson (October 21, 2014) and International Falls Journal (October 30, 2014).
Nolan barely survived the election and continued to beat the Sunlight drum of deceit in his “Monday Reports” (December 29, 2014, and January 5, 2015), as well as in guest editorials with the Pines and Lakes Echo (“Hard work, bipartisanship must mark 114th Congress,” January 7, 2015) and the Duluth News Tribune (“Unlike much of Congress, I proved effective in 2014,” January 12, 2015).
In addition to launching investigations and writing reports, the Sunlight Foundation uses technology to make information available to the public via a number of tools, such as OpenCongress.org, a website that allows constituents to track pending legislation.
Nolan’s claims to have received any sort of rating from the Sunlight Foundation are carefully crafted to suit his purposes—in a January 16, 2015, press release he trotted out the Sunlight Foundation to bolster his job performance and promote his priorities for the 114th Congress—but it’s still not true.
“In the OpenCongress tool,” says Topper, “we do list the number of bills sponsored and co-sponsored and the number made into law. But it’s stretching to use that profile to claim Sunlight rates him as productive or effective. It isn’t accurate.”
Nolan’s Fall 2014 OpenCongress profile doesn’t match his assertion that 24 sponsored bills became law. Only one of 17 bills he sponsored was made into law and only 14 of the 287 bills he co-sponsored.
His claim to have received an honor bestowed upon him by a highly-respected watchdog group is now an integral part of the 2016 “Working Hard For You” Nolan campaign narrative, appearing in recent letters to the editor in the Brainerd Dispatch (“Nolan is working for you,” March 25) and the Mille Lacs Messenger (“Nolan works hard,” April 8), which both state, “Rick was recently honored by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation as one of the 10 percent most productive members of Congress.”
Topper says she flagged the claim several months ago. “I shared with our staff that Sunlight is being used in a way we do not condone.”
She doesn’t believe they formally contacted Nolan, but she is concerned about his repeated misuse of Sunlight for political gain. “We are non-partisan and we have to be very careful about that. Again, we do not rate the performance of members of Congress.”
A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is an award-winning journalist.