PIKE TOWNSHIP — Former state Rep. Tom Rukavina made official this week what had been rumored for months: he is running for St. Louis County Commissioner in the Fourth District.
Rukavina, who served in the Legislature for 26 years, has most recently worked as an aide to Congressman Rick Nolan, but he’s been hinting at a return to the campaign trail for almost a year.
“People have been telling me they’d like to see me in office again. I want to see if they’re bs-ing me,” he said.
After three decades in elective office, Rukavina said it’s been a tougher transition than he thought, even though he continues to work in politics. “Wherever I go, I still work the room like I always used to,” he said.
And Rukavina said he still draws enormous satisfaction from helping constituents wade through the bureaucratic tangle that government often represents. “St. Louis County is a big bureaucracy and people still get tangled up in it,” he said.
He said he’ll also fight to ensure that residents of the Fourth District get the assistance they deserve. “My agenda is to help people,” he said, “by ensuring that services are delivered to the elderly, to the poor, and to our veterans.”
Rukavina, who makes no bones about his generally libertarian philosophy, said he’ll also be asking why the county spends so much of its budget these days on law enforcement and corrections. Currently, he notes, the county is spending a third of its budget in that category, which now consumes more of the county budget than human services. “When you have little kids who aren’t being fed, elderly losing their homes, and veterans not getting the services they deserve, I think you have to question why we’re spending so much on law enforcement.”
If elected, Rukavina will join a group of commissioners that have often bickered over a variety of issues, and those disagreements have sometimes frayed relations on the board. Rukavina is well-known for his pugnacious political style, as well as a number of longstanding disagreements with Virginia-area commissioner Keith Nelson.
But despite his combative approach, Rukavina said he’s always been able to get along with others, even those who disagree with him. “I don’t take political disagreement personally,” he said. “I don’t mind working with people who have different opinions than I do. I had friends on both sides of the aisle in the Legislature.”
Rukavina has always defied traditional political stereotypes. He’s most often described as a progressive or liberal populist, with a libertarian streak. But he often parts company with fellow progressives on environmental issues, particularly in his staunch support for opening up the Superior National Forest to copper-nickel mining. Rukavina said he’s proud of the area’s mining heritage and wants to see it continue into the future. At the same time, he said, he tries to be environmentally responsible in his own life. “I think I’ve been a good environmentalist. I lead a pretty simpleº life,” he said. He spends a considerable amount of time in the summer tending his large organic garden.
While Rukavina represented the Virginia area in the Legislature for many years, as a Fourth District commissioner, he would oversee a district of nearly 4,000 square miles, stretching almost 150 miles north to south. His rural Virginia residence is located within the boundaries of the Fourth District, which has been represented by Ely’s Mike Forsman for the past 15 years. “When Mike indicated he wouldn’t seek re-election, I started looking at it,” said Rukavina.
Rukavina’s current job with Congressman Nolan does raise some potential conflicts, and Rukavina said he plans to step down from his position soon after finishing up a few projects he’s currently working on. He said he expects to ramp up his campaign by the 4th of July, and will be participating in a number of local parades, including Ely and Tower.
Rukavina joins a race with two other announced candidates, including Kirsten Reichel, of Greenwood Township, and Christina Hujanen, of Vermilion Lake Township. Both were the subject of previous stories in the Timberjay.