VIRGINIA — Tom Rukavina, a longtime political leader and unapologetic champion of the working class on the Iron Range, died Monday after battling leukemia. He was 68.
Respected across Minnesota for his hold-no-punches style, passionate speeches and unwavering support of mining, Rukavina served for more than a quarter century in the state’s House, before being elected to the St. Louis County Board.
He leaves a legacy as a true flag-bearing politician, known among colleagues for the fight and integrity he brought to the floor.
“We lost part of the Range today and who we are,” said State Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, who is set to be sworn into Rukavina’s House seat Tuesday. “To follow in his footsteps is an honor and privilege. Nobody had a bigger heart for the Range than Tom Rukavina.”
A DFLer with a populist punch, he was a throwback politician that mixed it up with opponents whom he would treat as friends moments afterward. He once called himself the “political love child of Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura,” referring to the independent streak that endeared him to people on the Range.
Never shy of his stature — standing just over 5 feet — Rukavina was quick with a short joke, but colleagues and friends remember him as the biggest advocate in fights for blue-collared workers and the mining industry.
“A passionate giant for the little guy — if he wasn’t yelling at you, he probably didn’t like you” said State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. “I’m going to miss the guy. He was my best friend. You could call him my partner in crime. We hung around together for the better part of 20 years. Just hard to see him go.”
Working class hero
Rukavina was born in 1950 and raised on the northside of Virginia, at the edge of a mine pit, where he played as a kid and eventually worked as a college student.
Tracing back his Iron Range roots, his maternal grandfather homesteaded near Orr and his paternal grandfather was a miner. His father was also a miner and also a staunch organizer for the United Steelworkers of America. His mother, uncles and aunts were involved in the union as well.
His family, part of the Farmer-Labor wing of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, taught him the importance of union strikes and standing up for himself to secure good-paying mining jobs that put food on his table.
It was that working class background and his willingness to speak up that made him the anchor of political and mining rallies around the Range and, over time, helped him form a relationship with the United Steelworkers Local 1938 at Minntac, where Rukavina worked as a miner.
Local 1938 President John Arbogast said Rukavina was a regular at the union hall. When he stopped to inform Arbogast of his upcoming bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota, the union president went to his executive board with a request: Name the meeting hall, where so many rallies for the Range’s way of life were held and headlined by Rukavina, after the former state representative.
It was approved and a ceremony was planned for after his hoped for recovery.
“That really took him back,” Arbogast said. “I knew it hit him. He was really excited and taken back, especially being a member of 1938, that we were going to do that. We had no idea this was going to happen.”
The union meeting hall is still scheduled to bear Rukavina’s name at a later date, with a plaque and ceremony honoring him.
“He wasn’t just about the miners and the Steelworkers,” Arbogast said. “He fought for everyone on the Iron Range. He fought for the underdog and working class people no matter who they were. One of the greatest champions for the Iron Range that we ever had.”
A life in politics
Before politics, Rukavina worked as a milkman, garbageman, logger, naturalist at the Ironworld Discovery Center, an assistant director at Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort and a miner.
In the 1970s, he served on both the Pike Town and Virginia school boards. In 1982, he unsuccessfully ran as a DFL legislative candidate, but won the House District 5A seat in an uncontested race in 1986. At his Capitol office, he hung up a photograph of former Gov. Floyd B. Olsen, who served the state during the Great Depression when he initiated a progressive income tax, environmental conservation programs and the right for unions to collectively bargain.
After his years in the Legislature, he found himself especially proud of a bill that Gov. Arne Carlson signed in the 1990s to keep mines up and running despite shutdowns or bankruptcies.
In October 2002, he was part of a tragedy that shook and altered Minnesota political history. Paul Wellstone, a U.S. Senator at the time, was flying to attend the funeral of Rukavina’s father, Martin, when his plane crashed near Eveleth. Wellstone, his wife, daughter and five others died in the wreck. As a tribute to his friend and fellow DFLer, Rukavina would use the phrase that he was “for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers.”
Rukavina was also known for his sense of humor in debates. During a 2005 discussion on lowering the state’s legal drinking limit to 0.08, he said the law would be unfair to Rangers because they wake up at 0.08.
Seeking higher office in 2010, he made an unsuccessful run for governor before retiring from the House in 2012. He continued his political career on the Range by winning a race in 2014 to become a member of the St. Louis County Board.
Former 6B State Rep. Jason Metsa replaced Rukavina in St. Paul, where he served between 2012 and 2018 before running for Congress.
“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 the way. He was a mentor and friend and I will miss him dearly.”
In 2017, his independent streak showed again when he joined Range residents and an Ely nonprofit in suing former Gov. Mark Dayton over withdrawing state leases from a controversial copper-nickel exploration.
Rukavina served the county until the end of 2018 when he decided not to run for a second term, saying he wanted to devote time to leukemia treatment.
Today, politics still run in the Rukavina bloodline. His daughter, Ida, works for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. In a statement, the senator said “Tom Rukavina understood the dignity of hard work, and was a force for Iron Range workers and their families. He spent nearly three decades in elected office on the Range fighting for miners and bringing good-paying union jobs to the region.”
Rukavina’s death comes on the same day Minnesota installed its constitutional officers, including Gov. Tim Walz, who acknowledged the former lawmaker in a press conference Monday. Newly-elected legislators are set to be sworn in Tuesday.
Tomassoni joked that Rukavina’s timing was too perfect for the occasion.
“It might of been planned — his way of saying ‘I’ll make you remember me regardless,’” Tomassoni said with a laugh. “He will be remembered for a long time to come, and there aren’t a lot legislators that will be able to say that.”
Rukavina is survived by his wife Jean, daughter Ida and son Victor. Details about funeral arrangements are pending.