Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

He fought for the Iron Range

Legendary legislator passes away after cancer battle

Marcus White
Posted 1/9/19

REGIONAL - Longtime state legislator and one-time county commissioner, Tom Rukavina, died Monday following a months-long battle with leukemia. He was 68.

Rukavina had a storied career in Minnesota …

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He fought for the Iron Range

Legendary legislator passes away after cancer battle

Posted

REGIONAL - Longtime state legislator and one-time county commissioner, Tom Rukavina, died Monday following a months-long battle with leukemia. He was 68.

Rukavina had a storied career in Minnesota politics spanning more than three decades, serving 26 years in the state House along with a term as Fourth District Commissioner on the St. Louis County Board. He died on the very day that his county board successor, his longtime friend Paul McDonald, took the oath of office to replace him.

Rukavina, a populist DFLer, had a reputation as a fighter for average Minnesotans, most particularly for residents of his beloved Iron Range.

“Minnesota and the Iron Range have lost a true champion for workers,” said U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar after hearing of Rukavina’s passing. “Tom Rukavina understood the dignity of hard work and was a force for Iron Range workers and their families. He spent nearly three decades in elected office on the Range fighting for miners and bringing good-paying union jobs to the region.”

He came from humble beginnings, growing up on the north side of Virginia. He worked as a milkman, drove a garbage truck, and worked for a time in a local taconite mine— jobs that frequently put him in contact with residents across the area. That undoubtedly proved useful when he ran for the Virginia School Board and won. He also served as a supervisor in Pike Township, where he lived most of his life. Along the way, he completed a degree in political science from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

In 1986, with the Iron Range in the midst of a collapse of the mining economy, Rukavina vowed to do what he could to help the Range recover and he won a seat in the Legislature that he would hold for the next 26 years. While a dedicated and progressive DFLer, Rukavina was a part-time partisan, who maintained good friendships across the aisle even as he railed against GOP opponents. At times, his comments got him in trouble with the Twin Cities media, but they only boosted his popularity at home, where he routinely drew 75 percent of the vote in his East Range district.

Among his many Republican foils, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was probably his favorite target during Pawlenty’s eight years in the Governor’s mansion. Rukavina at one point filed suit against Pawlenty when he sought to raid a state fund dedicated to economic development efforts on the Iron Range.

Rukavina mounted his own impressive run for governor in 2010, but was ultimately not endorsed by the DFL. Mark Dayton went on to win election. Rukavina later filed a brief and unsuccessful lawsuit against Dayton when his fellow DFLer refused to back a copper-nickel mine proposal on the edge of the Boundary Waters.

“Mining is what we do for a living,” Rukavina said at a hearing in Duluth two years ago. “It’s what we’ve done for 135 years. And you people get to come up to the wilderness that you love, because of how we’ve taken care of the environment.”

As a legislator, Rukavina championed new policies that required that mining companies maintain their infrastructure, even during shutdowns. The foresight allowed mines to quickly bounce back from economic downturns and even bankruptcies.

While a backer of the mining industry, he fought hardest of all for mine workers and, several years ago, sponsored legislation to study the long-term health effects of working in the state’s mines. He also worked to get money from taconite companies to create endowments funds at various University of Minnesota campuses and Mesabi Community and Technical College that provided scholarships for students. Throughout his career, Rukavina was a consistent advocate for education, particularly higher education. He served as chair of the House Committee on Higher Education during his later years in the Legislature. In 2014, an addition to the Iron Range Engineering School was named for him, in honor of his efforts to bring four-year degree opportunities to the Range.

Rukavina once said he was “the last socialist in the Minnesota Legislature”, fighting for greater benefits for miners, supporting universal healthcare and passing a requirement that flags sold in Minnesota must be made in the United States. Rukavina, who was Croatian and Italian by heritage, took a liking to the sensibilities and politics of many of his Finnish neighbors. “He liked to say that he was a “born again Finn” since his kids were half-Finnish and because he had ‘sisu,’” said longtime friend Chuck Neil, of Embarrass. “He loved the socialist history, frugal nature and sisu of his Finnish neighbors, friends, in-laws and constituents,” recalls Neil.

Hints of Rukavina’s sisu were evident early on, including in his brief career as a ski jumper back when Lookout Mountain was home to its own ski jump. Neil recalls Rukavina’s doggedness in later life as well, as he worked to expand his organic garden. “I watched him remove boulders of a size that younger, bigger and stronger guys would leave in the ground,” remembers Neil. “Using only a breaker-bar the little big man would keep at it until he got them out.” Neil remembers that Rukavina, who lived most of his life on a relatively meager legislative salary, was never motivated by money. Rather, he enjoyed spending time providing free daycare for his grandkids and working in his garden and his woods — at least when he wasn't raising hell on behalf of his constituents.

Rukavina’s love for the Range and his willingness to work with others, no matter their political affiliation, brought in tributes from both DFLers and Republicans alike following his passing on Monday.

“He was a passionate and devoted public servant,” said newly-elected Congressman Pete Stauber, who served alongside Rukavina for the past four years on the county board.

“Tom Rukavina was known for his honesty, his authenticity, and his advocacy for those trying to build a better life for their families,” said DFL Chair Ken Martin in a statement. “Today Minnesota lost a one-of-a-kind individual who left a deep impression on everyone who knew him.”

Newly-inaugurated Gov. Tim Walz also weighed in with reporters on Monday. “I went up there [the Range] many times because people said, ‘You have to work with Tommy Rukavina. See if you can get his support.’ They also told me, if he doesn’t swear at me the first time, he really doesn’t like you.”

It was that larger-than-life attitude that drew people to Rukavina, whether it was on the sidewalk during a campaign, or at a legislative hearing.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, told MPR News he remembered a hearing on healthcare where he and Rukavina argued back and forth on varying points of healthcare reform in the state. But while they differed, Garofalo said he and Rukavina went on to become friends and were laughing about the exchange shortly after it happened.

Perhaps, though, the legacy that Rukavina has left on the Iron Range could be best summed up by his once political opponent, Dayton, when the former governor spoke following Rukavina’s first retirement from politics in 2012.

“Tommy, you have been a terrific champion for the people of the Iron Range, for all of Minnesota. That’s because you spoke from your convictions, from your heart and from your soul.”

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