In his 26 years in the state House, Rep. Tom Rukavina earned a reputation for full-throated oratory and a sharp wit. Whether jousting with fellow lawmakers on the floor or delivering one of the working-man stemwinders that became the hallmark of his 2010 gubernatorial bid, Rukavina — or “Rukie,” as he is known to colleagues — sought and commanded attention.
So when the DFL stalwart finally decided to call it quits this spring, it was surprising that he eschewed the traditional farewell speech. Instead, at the end of the legislative session, Rukavina returned to his country home on the Iron Range and quietly sent a letter to constituents informing them of his decision. Then he sent an email to his colleagues and the media. It was a private, subdued departure for an anything-but-subdued public man.
Born into a mining clan on the Range in 1950, Rukavina took to politics early. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Rukavina returned to his hometown of Virginia, where, at 22, he became the youngest member ever elected to the local school board. Establishing himself as a fixture in DFL precinct caucuses and conventions, Rukavina went to work at a taconite plant and became active in the steelworkers union.
Although he found employment in a variety of fields — teacher, logger, milk truck driver — Rukavina remains best known for his long and productive tenure as a lawmaker. Always a vociferous champion of unions, Rukavina considered it his mission to “stand up for the little guy” — a figure of speech he often followed up with a self-deprecating crack about his short stature (5 feet 3 inches).
Asked about his most important legacy, Rukavina cites a law he championed that requires mining companies to maintain shuttered plants in operating condition. Since it was signed by Gov. Arne Carlson, Rukavina says, that law preserved valuable infrastructure and facilitated the resurrection of two mining operations, with a third on the way.
“That’s kept jobs on the Range and money flowing to the school trust fund and the University of Minnesota,” Rukavina says. Another point of pride: a 1993 law that directed the flow of mining royalties into scholarships for college students.
After Rukavina announced his retirement, state Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) called his colleague “the populist conscience of the Minnesota Legislature.” Iron Range journalist Aaron Brown put it more colorfully, referring to Rukavina’s brand of old school, Iron Range politics as “rarefied, high-fructose, 80-proof-cooked-up-from-a-homemade-still-in-the-woods populism.”
Rukavina’s departure from the House has not completely ended his life in the public sphere. Until the end of the year, he continues on as chairman of the powerful Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.