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'He loved the Iron Range': Rukavina remembered as the last of a political era

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Twin Metals public listening session
St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina speaks in support of renewing the Twin Metals mining company's mineral leases in 2016 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2016

Tom Rukavina drove a milk truck. He drove a garbage truck. He worked in the iron mines. And then he ran for office.

But even after his election to the Minnesota House in 1986, the populist DFLer from Virginia, Minn., never stopped fighting for working people. He was a throwback politician, someone who made genuine friendships with the Republicans across the aisle.

Here he is in 2012, during a hearing on taxes in the Minnesota House: "You're trying to turn us back to 100 years ago, when we're going to have to fight for pensions, and health insurance, and an eight-hour working day. No, don't you lecture me, young man." 

That "young man" he was addressing was state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. 

"And when we got done," Garofalo said, "we went out in the hallway and slapped each other on the back and laughed about it — and remained good friends." 

Rukavina, Garofalo said, was an example of what American politics needs more of. 

"At a time when there seems to be this focus on not working together, Tom Rukavina demonstrated that you could be passionate, you could be principled, but you could also get the job done by working with the other side of the aisle," he said. 

Rukavina, an Iron Range icon known for his fiery speeches and his devotion to northeastern Minnesota, died Monday after a battle with leukemia. He was 68. 

Rukavina, born in Virginia, the heart of the Iron Range, was an evangelist for his region, said Iron Range political blogger Aaron Brown. 

"He loved the Iron Range," Brown said. "And it came through. And that's, I think, why people believed in him so much."

He knew everyone here — and their families, going back generations. 

"He's one of those guys [who], if you follow him around, everybody says, 'Tommy!' Everybody knew him," Brown said. 

"But he knew them too, and he knew he knew everything about them, and he had one of those almost mythical political memories of politicians who just knew their district, their constituents." 

He even knew their families' native languages.

State Sen. David Tomassoni, a longtime friend and colleague of Rukavina, said his days as a milk truck driver served him well. 

"He got to know all the people on his milk route," Tomassoni said. "So he got to know their history, their lives, their nationalities — and he learned to speak their languages, too."

Croatian, Serbian, Italian, Finnish. He could converse in them all, Tomassoni said.

Former state legislator Tom Rukavina
Former state legislator Tom Rukavina served 26 years in the Minnesota House.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file 2014

"When we would do parades," he said, "he knew absolutely everybody that was in the parade route. And he'd be waving to them and yelling to them in their native language. ... He not only knew the issues, but he knew the people." 

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. He sponsored a bill in 2007 to require that all American flags sold in Minnesota be made in the United States. He helped secure funding for a study on iron miners' respiratory health in 2008. 

He made a run for governor in 2010, pledging to fight for the little guy and work for universal single-payer health care and a fair tax system.  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.

In recent years, Rukavina embraced a passionate advocacy for copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota. For more than a decade, mining companies' pitches to establish the state's first copper-nickel mines near some of its most pristine wilderness areas have pitted environmentalists against industry and unions in a fight over the region's identity and future.

"Mining is what we do for a living," he said during a public hearing on copper-nickel mining in Duluth in 2017. "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." 

But he always stressed that he fought for mine workers, not mining companies. 

"He was one of a kind. There will never be another one like him," Tomassoni said. "He was passionate, he fought hard for absolutely every issue he got involved in. He made everybody know exactly where the Iron Range was. ... He was a giant in the fight for little people."

For 10 years, former northeastern Minnesota Rep. Tom Anzelc's office was next to Rukavina's at the state Capitol. 

"And I'd see him there, after the supper hour," he said, "back on the phone, writing emails and talking to people who really depended on him to be their problem-solver." 

Anzelc says Rukavina will also be remembered for his support of education. He helped create a scholarship program at the University of Minnesota funded by iron ore royalties. He also spearheaded the creation of a highly touted engineering program at Mesabi Range College in his hometown of Virginia. 

But Rukavina will likely be remembered most for his larger-than-life personality, even if he himself barely cleared 5 feet. 

Gov. Tim Walz, a former U.S. House member who represented southern Minnesota, said he learned early on that if he wanted to get anything done on the Range, Rukavina's support would be key. 

"I went up there 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," Walz said. 

"He did swear at me, that first time..."

Rukavina retired from the state Legislature in 2012 after 26 years in office. But he didn't stay out of politics long. He won a seat on the St. Louis County Board in 2014, and served a single term. 

He said last year that he'd decided not to run for re-election because of his declining health. 

He died on his very last day in office as county commissioner, culminating 30 years of public service in northeastern Minnesota.