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Former state lawmaker, county commissioner Tom Rukavina dead at 68

Tom Rukavina, then gubernatorial candidate, gestures while speaking during the DFL Convention Saturday April 24, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in Duluth. (file / News Tribune)1 / 2
Former Minnesota lawmaker Tom Rukavina died Monday at 68. (2015 file / News Tribune)2 / 2

Tom Rukavina, a feisty Iron Range politician who made his mark in the Minnesota House and ended his political career last week as a St. Louis County commissioner, has died.

Rukavina, 68, died Monday as a result of a yearlong battle with leukemia. Rukavina died at University of Minnesota Medical Center, where he was being treated to receive a bone marrow transplant.

“I’m terribly saddened to learn about the passing of my friend, former State Rep. Tom Rukavina,” Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement. “Tom was a bulldog for not only his constituents on the Iron Range, but all of the working men and women in Minnesota. Tom Rukavina was known for his honesty, his authenticity and his advocacy for those trying to build a better life for their families. Today Minnesota lost a one-of-a-kind individual who left a deep impression on everyone who knew him.”

Tom Rukavina talks on the phone in his office at the State Office Building in St. Paul in 2005. (file / News Tribune)U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar sent her own tribute Monday afternoon: “As Tom would tell it, he was for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers — a tribute to his friend and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash on his way to attend a funeral for Tom’s father, Bennie. Tom also taught his children the value of service. His daughter, Ida, leads my northern Minnesota office and shares her father’s strength and tenacity. My prayers are with Ida and the entire Rukavina family today.”

Rukavina decided last year not to run for a second term on the County Board because he was devoting time to be treated for his illness.

Rukavina, DFL-Pike Township, was first elected to the House District 5A seat in 1986. He often made up for his lack of physical size — he was about 5 feet, 3 inches tall — with an explosive personality as he battled for Democratic causes from organized labor to social programs to public funding for economic development.

“Tommy, you have been a terrific champion for the people of the Iron Range, for all of Minnesota,” then Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said during a 2012 roast after Rukavina’s retirement from state politics. “That's because you spoke from your convictions, from your heart and from your soul.”

Rep. Pete Stauber worked alongside Rukavina as commissioners on the County Board. Stauber issued a statement from Washington, D.C., upon hearing the news.

“He was a passionate supporter of our Iron Range and cared deeply about Minnesota,” Stauber said. “My prayers are with his entire family during this difficult time.”

Legislatively, Rukavina may be best known for bills requiring mining companies to keep their plants intact and maintained during the shutdowns, even bankruptcies, of the 1980s. That allowed all of the plants to re-open, sometimes after multiple shutdowns during economic downturns.

When he retired from the House, Rukavina cited as successes a $50 million endowment at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute and a new mining studies scholarship offered at University of Minnesota campuses, all funded by royalties from taconite mining on university-owned lands on the Range. And he was a supporter of engineering programs and Mesabi Range Community and Technical College.

While Rukavina once boasted that he was the last socialist in the Minnesota Legislature, in later years he became an unabashed supporter of the same multinational mining and steel companies he once disparaged for being unfair to union Steelworkers. Rukavina also had become one of the biggest supporters of expanding the Iron Range's existing taconite industry and delving into a new generation of copper mining to bolster job opportunities for local people.

Tom Rukavina speaks in favor of mining during a rally in July 2017. (file / News Tribune)

Rukavina made his political start on the Virginia School Board and Pike Town Board in the 1970s. He lost his first DFL primary race for Legislature in 1982 but then won in 1986 when the incumbent, Dom Elioff, left the primary race. Before becoming a full-time lawmaker, he worked as a logger and as a naturalist at the Ironworld Discovery Center in Chisholm, and he worked for a time at the Minntac taconite plant and as an assistant director at Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort. He ran unsuccessfully for the DFL convention endorsement for governor in 2010.

He ran for an open seat on the St. Louis County Board in 2014, easily gaining victory for the district that covers the northern half of the giant county.

By midafternoon, charming anecdotes about Rukavina and his outsized personality were pouring out on social media. There was the time he regaled the Capitol floor about losing his dog “Sparky” to wolves, or singing karaoke with a reporter two weeks after a heated back-and-forth email exchange with the journalist. After asking a Republican lawmaker if he wanted to step outside following a contentious committee hearing, Rukavina is reported to have said, “I may be little, but I’m tough.” Wearing a neck brace on the floor, Rukavina once claimed Gov. Tim Pawlenty put him in a headlock. The stories go on and illustrate a man who never lost his personality or humanity after the fight was over.

Tom Rukavina jokes about an encounter with Gov. Tim Pawlenty when Pawlenty placed him in a brief headlock. Courtesy MN House

Mike Jugovich, 7th District St. Louis County commissioner, was on his way to the swearing-in of Rukavina’s replacement on the County Board, Paul McDonald.

The event, Monday afternoon in Ely, promised to be downcast with the news.

“I’m going to miss him so much,” Jugovich said. “It didn’t make any difference if you were Tommy’s friend or not, he could fight with you until the bitter end and go have a beer afterward. I loved him — a wonderful person.”

Jugovich is the former mayor of Chisholm, where he got to known Rukavina.

“If he was going to champion something he was all in — 110 percent,” Jugovich said. “No one fought harder or longer. He believed in what he was doing. He was a model for people in politics.”

Joe Begich of Eveleth, who served in the state Legislature from 1974 to 1992, said he and Rukavina roomed together when both were in the House. Sometimes described as a mentor to Rukavina, Begich said theirs was not just a political alliance but a close personal friendship.

“We were good, good buddies,” said Begich, 88. “He was a great, great guy. Worked hard, did his homework. He was fair and honest to the people that he represented.”

Rukavina and his wife stopped to see Begich and his wife in November before the Rukavinas traveled to the University of Minnesota for the bone marrow transplant, Begich said. “I knew he was very sick.”

Jeff Anderson, of Duluth, worked alongside Rukavina on Rep. Rick Nolan’s congressional staff.  

“There is nobody who stuck up for working men and women like Tom,” Anderson said. “He was one of a kind.”

Former state Rep. Jason Metsa, of Virginia, worked closely with Rukavina throughout their years in government and called him a mentor and friend.  

“The people of Minnesota lost a champion today,” Metsa said. “Tom’s passion for making life better for working families will live on through those he helped along his way.”

News Tribune reporters John Myers, Brooks Johnson, John Lundy and Brady Slater contributed to this report.