Q&A with retiring Rep. Tom Rukavina

Tom Rukavina
Iron Range Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, shown in this photo taken April 24, 2010 in Duluth, Minn., has announced he's retiring after 26 years in the State House of Representatives.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Known for his humor and commitment to working people, Iron Range Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, has announced he's retiring after 26 years in the State House of Representatives.

Rukavina spoke to Tom Crann of All Things Considered on Friday about his legislative accomplishments, bipartisanship and his plans for the future.

An edited transcript of that discussion is below.

Crann: You forewent all the celebration, the retiring speeches that are part of the end of a legislative session. Why did you choose to do that?

Rukavina: I just wanted to get home and I felt it was better, more my style to put out a letter first to my constituents, which I mailed yesterday. And then do the email the press release to my other political friends, and colleagues and the press.

Crann: There might be a lot of people who are surprised that you gave up the opportunity for one more speech.

Rukavina: My speeches have a meaning, most of the time, I hope they did, and my babbling was totally unnecessary.

Crann: In your letter of resignation, you allude to the fact that things have changed in your time in the House. In the 26 years, what's changed enough that you made the decision to leave?

Rukavina: When I first got elected, you could learn about your Republican counterpart across the aisle, and your families got to meet each other, and there were more events to go through before that gift ban, which I think really has hurt the bipartisanship at the Legislature. And you got to know somebody and understand where they were coming from. And we don't have that kind of interaction anymore.

Plus, given the fact that there's this new Tea Party movement within the Republican Party that seems to dislike government so much that they don't want government to do anything good for people anymore. It just felt to me like after 26 years, it was the right time to leave.

Crann: Today the House Speaker Kurt Zellers, a Republican, had this to say: "He's a great guy, a great friend, I'll miss him deeply." How important is it to hear praise like that from the other side of the aisle?

Rukavina: I've made a lot of friends on the other side of the aisle, Kurt's a good man. And there are a lot of very, very good people there that have become my friends even through their political philosophy is totally different than mine.

I've helped people with issues in their district when I was in the majority, and even this session to be able to pass legislation that made sure that Minnesota ore was used in the steel that's going to build the stadium. And to pass an amendment that made sure that after the stadium is built, that we're going to see Minnesota-made products in there, at least 25 percent of everything sold, whether it's Grain Belt Nordeast or Summit Beer or Hormel hot dogs. It made me feel good that I still had so many friends on both sides of the aisle that understood where I was coming from, and [to] make things work in a positive way down there.

Crann: In this age of more scripted talking-point politics, why was that important for you to be a bit of a maverick in your statements?

Rukavina: Sometimes, I wasn't politically correct but I always tried to be politically honest. Even though it's a very, very serious business we do at the Capitol and very important for people's lives, I always tried to use a little self-deprecating humor to lighten up the situation and charm and win people over, and I hope sometimes I was successful at it.

Sometimes, in more recent years, people are just a little too scripted and a little too serious. And sometimes I think a few people think we're more important than we really are down there. I was hoping that my humor and self-deprecating humor could lighten things up once in a while.

Crann: In your letter of resignation you said you got advice from a friend when you went into the Legislature, 'Ask yourself, what have I done for the people?' When you ask yourself that question now after 26 years, what's your answer?

Rukavina: From minimum wage bills to labor issues to made in America issues to setting up things that were really important, not only for my district but for the whole state. If I could think of one bill that I'm really happy I was able to pass, it was in working with Gov. Arne Carlson, getting him to sign my plant-closing moratorium, where if a mine shut down on the Range, the state stepped in and made them keep that mine in operating condition. Because of that Keewatin Taconite was able to open up twice and United Taconite in Eveleth was able to reopen. And up at LTV [Steel], hopefully the infrastructure was saved to start the first copper-nickel mine. On a local level that really stands out on my mind.

And on a statewide level, being able to use the mineral rights at our land grant university, the University of Minnesota, They're selling iron ore to the mining companies up here. I was able to, with the help of my senator...set up that Iron Range scholarship, which goes out to all kids, all kids from all over the state of Minnesota, from every high school in the state of Minnesota... It's now the biggest scholarship at the University of Minnesota, growing exponentially. And those are the kinds of things that I hope people remember me for.

Crann: What's next for you? Is your political life over, or do you have more plans?

Rukavina: I'm going to certainly stay active in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and work on that wing of the party that I really believe in, and that's organized labor. And make sure that the people who gave us the Middle Class are taken care of.

I'll be working on a few campaigns, just trying to help out and get people elected this fall. And I'll also be taking care of my first and newest grandchild. And I'm going to get married in October, so I've got a lot of things coming up here.

Interview transcribed and edited by Jon Collins, MPR reporter.

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