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Iron Range political icon Tom Rukavina dies

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Tom Rukavina talks to delegates at a DFL party convention in Duluth in 2010.
Derek Montgomery | File 2010

 Updated 4:50 p.m. | Posted 1:54 p.m.

Longtime Iron Range politician and former DFL state lawmaker Tom Rukavina has died after a battle with cancer. He was 68. 

State Sen. David Tomassoni, a friend and colleague of Rukavnia's, confirmed the death Monday, saying Rukavina — "a passionate giant in the fight for the little guy" — had been battling leukemia. 

Known for his fiery populist rhetoric, sense of humor and unwavering support for mining and everything else on the Iron Range, Rukavina served a quarter-century in the Minnesota House. 

Before that, he counted milk truck driver, garbage truck driver and three years as a miner among his early jobs, according to his legislative biography.

He was perhaps the last of a breed of politician in Minnesota who could mix it up in a bare-knuckled fight with a political opponent and then grab a beer with them later. 

"Sometimes, I wasn't politically correct but I always tried to be politically honest," he told MPR News in 2012. 

"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."

The humor was evident sometimes on occasions when he didn't have the votes. Speaking in 2007 of a new statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, Rukavina remarked, "I don't know anyone who goes to a bar to get healthy."

He was a proud populist who spoke often about fighting for working people over corporations. He carried a letter his father wrote in 1963 challenging the chairman of U.S. Steel to a debate. 

During debates on the House floor and in interviews, he sometimes hammered that point, saying for people on the Iron Range, "greed is the biggest sin there is."

Born in Virginia, Minn., he was elected in 1986 and served until his retirement in 2012, after which he successfully ran for the St. Louis County Board, representing the county's 4th District. He retired from that seat at the end of 2018.

He made a run for governor in 2010, one of 11 Democrats at one point running in the race. Calling himself the "love child between Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura," Rukavina said he'd fight for the little guy and work for universal single-payer health care and a fair tax system.

DFL chair Ken Martin called Rukavina one of a kind.

"Tom was a bulldog for, not only his constituents on the Iron Range, but all of the working men and women in Minnesota," Martin said in a statement Monday, adding that Rukavina was "known for his honesty, his authenticity, and his advocacy for those trying to build a better life for their families."

Of all the legislation he worked on at the Capitol, Rukavina told MPR News in 2012 that he was most proud of a bill signed in the 1990s by then-Gov. Arne Carlson to protect workers in the event of a mine shutdown.

As a St. Louis County board member in 2017, he joined a lawsuit of citizens who sued fellow DFLer Gov. Mark Dayton over his opposition to mining near Minnesota's Boundary Waters. 

Rukavina's legacy will "live on in many places," St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray said in a statement, noting  that Rukavina helped establish a community college scholarship fund for county students using iron ore royalties. "Our county is a better place because of Tom's dedicated service, and we will miss him."

In his 2012 goodbye letter to colleagues at the Legislature, he took time to thank "the working people at the Capitol who clean our bathrooms, empty our trash cans, and cook our meals. Many of you have become my friends and I'll always cherish that."

MPR News reporter Jon Collins contributed to this report.