Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Facing a new priority

Tom Rukavina not seeking re-election as he turns full attention to health battle

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/25/18

REGIONAL— St. Louis County Commissioner and longtime DFL legislator Tom Rukavina says he won’t be seeking re-election this fall as expected.

Instead, Rukavina will be turning his attention to …

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Facing a new priority

Tom Rukavina not seeking re-election as he turns full attention to health battle

Posted

REGIONAL— St. Louis County Commissioner and longtime DFL legislator Tom Rukavina says he won’t be seeking re-election this fall as expected.

Instead, Rukavina will be turning his attention to a newly-diagnosed illness that may require extensive treatment to overcome.

Rukavina was reluctant to talk about the issue Tuesday morning prior to the St. Louis County Board meeting in Ely. “I have some health issues and that’s all I need to say,” he said.

When asked if he would finish out his term he responded, “Oh yeah. I might have a lot of doctoring to do down the road, so I’m not going to run again.”

He said his constituents have always been his top priority. “If I can’t give them 150 percent, I’m not going to run. That’s not fair to my constituents.”

Rukavina, who will turn 68 in August, has stepped away from the electoral arena before, only to return to a career that has suited him well. An unusual combination of pugnacity, charm, and wit have been Rukavina’s calling cards and they have made him a popular politician, both in his home district as well as elsewhere in the state. Rukavina regularly won with more than 75 percent of the vote during his 26 years in the Legislature, representing the eastern end of the Mesabi Iron Range.

Former Virginia Mayor Steve Peterson, who grew up with Rukavina on Virginia’s north side, called him a fighter from his earliest days. “I have a special place in my heart for Tom,” he said.

“When he believed in a cause he would fight for it. You don’t see that much anymore. We’re going to miss his political leadership.”

Rukavina, who graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in political science in the early 1970s, worked his way up the political ladder, initially serving on the Pike Town Board and the Virginia School Board before winning a seat in the Legislature in the mid-1980s.

During his time in St. Paul, Rukavina was the Legislature’s most reliable generator of notable quotes, most in staunch defense of his beloved Range. “You’d all be speaking German right now if it wasn’t for the Iron Range,” Rukavina once told his fellow lawmakers, in reference to the region’s role in producing the steel that fueled the American military response in World War II. He later fought an effort to lower the blood alcohol limit for driving a vehicle from 0.1 percent to 0.08, arguing that it might prevent Iron Rangers from getting to work in the morning. “We wake up at .08,” he famously quipped to the amusement of his fellow legislators.

Rukavina rarely spoke publicly without a little self-deprecating humor, most of it centered on his five-foot-three-inch stature. He once famously used a stepladder on the House floor to deliver remarks on a bill.

In 2010, Rukavina mounted a highly credible, and nearly successful, run for governor, delivering an electrifying speech to DFL state delegates before bowing out at the last minute and endorsing Margaret Anderson-Kelliher, who went on to become the nominee.

Rukavina has long reveled in political battle sand regularly picks fights with politicians of various stripes. More than once, those fights got him in trouble with some in the Twin Cities media, who routinely tsked-tsked his more intemperate comments. Such admonitions, however, only cemented his support at home.

While often most notable for his colorful personality, Rukavina has pursued political objectives as well. A populist by nature, Rukavina backed tax and spending policies that benefitted seniors, workers, and veterans during his time in the Legislature. He was probably best-known in St. Paul for his advocacy for education, particularly for expanding higher education opportunities on the Iron Range. He served as chair of the House Higher Education committee in his later years at the capital and he was recognized for his efforts in 2014, when the new Iron Range Engineering School was named in his honor.

After retiring from the Legislature in 2012, Rukavina served two years as an aide to Congressman Rick Nolan before winning election to the county board in 2014. More recently, Rukavina has pushed a proposal to divide St. Louis County, arguing that too many county tax dollars are spent on jobs in Duluth as opposed to the Iron Range.

For Peterson, it’s just another vintage Rukavina issue. “He’s always fighting for the Range. That’s what he’s done his whole life.”

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