This week’s untimely passing of longtime state legislator Tom Rukavina is a huge loss to both his family and to the Iron Range he loved and fought for throughout his political career. Known affectionately as “Tommy” to his friends and constituents alike, he was a quintessential Ranger, who never backed down from a political fight, whether at the Legislature or, more recently, during his service on the St. Louis County Board.
Rukavina had a well-deserved reputation for pugnacity, but frequently used his remarkable wit and personal charm to win over those on the other side. A proud and progressive DFLer, Rukavina stood up for the little guy— the working stiffs, the seniors, and the students, trying to make life a little easier. He was a happy warrior, who relished his political battles with GOP opponents in St. Paul, whom he saw as too willing to represent the interests of the One Percent. Yet he was content to finish the day sharing Grain Belts with the very legislators he had denounced hours earlier.
In that sense, Rukavina was an old school politician, who recognized that political differences didn’t have to become personal. He recognized that government and politics can greatly improve the lives of people— all people— and that was a mission to which he devoted himself until the very end. It was fitting that one of his last political statements was in a letter to the editor of this newspaper, in which he extolled the values of recent immigrants to this country who comprised much of the workforce at the Twin Cities hospital where he was undergoing treatment for a rare form of leukemia.
Rukavina, however, was not just a political leader on the Range. He was an astute and accomplished student of all things Iron Range, who knew the history and the interpersonal connections between the families and ethnic groups that have made this region home for the past four generations. It seemed he could share a few words in just about every language from every group that ever settled in the region and, at times, it seemed he belonged to them all. No politician could work an Iron Range gathering like Tom Rukavina, who could spend hours meandering his way through a crowd, greeting nearly everyone by name. With a handshake here, a touch on a shoulder there, and always remembering to inquire about a spouse, a son or granddaughter, he had a true gift for connection with the people of this region. It was no wonder he regularly received 75 percent or more of the vote during his 26 years representing the East Range in the Minnesota House. Without a doubt there have been more than a few glasses lifted high across the Iron Range this week to remember the little guy with the big heart who fought the good fight for the people he loved.
Sadly, his cancer diagnosis, which Rukavina reluctantly revealed in April, was one fight that Tommy was fated to lose. Nonetheless, he leaves a legacy that will be remembered on the Iron Range for many years to come.
Rest in peace, Tommy.