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2012-12-14 / Features

Rep. Tom Rukavina retires:

A common man with uncommon character
By Jean Cole
HTF Editor

HUGE DISCLAIMER: I have a relationship with Rep. Tom Rukavina - he’s my husband. And so, not unlike Editor Bill Hanna of the Mesabi Daily News, it’s difficult for me to be objective when it comes to this man. The main difference, for journalistic purposes, is Tom returns my phone calls! I promise to accurately quote him (and everyone else) and to keep his (and everyone else’s) words in proper context.

VIRGINIA – Choose your adjective: fiery, passionate, compassionate, devoted, combative, witty, smart, abrasive, loyal, obsessive, vertically challenged, insane, legendary, wily, dedicated – they all work when describing Rep. Tom Rukavina. He even refers to himself as “passionately insane” – the inevitable result of his Croatian-Italian ethnicity. One thing he is not, is forgettable.

For Rep. Tom Rukavina of District 5A, the last several years have been full of milestones. In 2009-2010 he ran for governor; in 2010 his daughter Ida was married and he was reelected to his 13th term to the legislature; in 2011 he became a proud grandfather and the recipient of a new knee; in May of this year he announced his retirement, and in October there were nuptials.

U.S. Senator Al Franken, Tom’s Auntie Gloria (Folman), U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Rep. Tom Rukavina at the Nov. 19, 2012, Ruk Roast retirement party in Mt. Iron. Photo by Gary Larson. U.S. Senator Al Franken, Tom’s Auntie Gloria (Folman), U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Rep. Tom Rukavina at the Nov. 19, 2012, Ruk Roast retirement party in Mt. Iron. Photo by Gary Larson. January 4, 2013 marks the official end of his 26 years representing the Iron Range in the Minnesota State Legislature.

His retirement announcement, delivered via letter as opposed to the traditional speech on the house floor, caught most people by surprise. It brought a barrage of Twin Cities and local media interviews and stories, emails, cards, and letters. Retirement parties were held (one in St. Paul, and one recently in Mt. Iron – a fun-spirited “roast” attended by close to 500 family, friends, constituents, and colleagues – including Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken). The oftenhilarious evening was testament to the fact that Rep. Rukavina isn’t the only one with a keen wit.

The inundation of thanks, praise, and best wishes from every corner of the state, from both Democrats and Republicans, and from people he knew and people he didn’t know, took Rukavina by surprise. “If I’d known people were going to be so nice to me, I would have retired a long time ago,” he quipped.

Rukavina was a relentless advocate for the working man and woman, labor unions, farmers, miners, K-12 and higher education, and middle-class Minnesotans. He leaves St. Paul with a legacy born of his deep love for family, friends, and the Iron Range. The son of a proud political, social, and cultural tradition that built a nation, Rukavina’s retirement marks the end of an era.

“I recall a kinder and gentler time here when even the most conservative members of our body still believed government could do good things for the people. But times have changed and I haven’t so it’s time for a new direction,” he said.

Going to bat for constituents

One of the hallmarks of Rukavina’s 26- year tenure in the Minnesota legislature was his extraordinary service to individual constituents in District 5A. He tells the story of the advice given to him by a friend when he set off to St. Paul for first term as a legislator. “He told me, Tommy, ask yourself everyday what have you done for the people, and you’ll do a good job.”

“I often got criticized for going overboard but I always thought my job was to protect people when government wasn’t protecting them,” he said recently. “In fact, just this week I was rewarded because [a constituent] was trying to get a job helping a vulnerable adult, which requires a background check, and she was in jeopardy of not getting that job because the check was 60 days out and the employer that was going to hire her couldn’t wait any longer. So I called the Department of Human Service to expedite the background check. I just got a card from her thanking me. She needed that job badly, she had no income and she was in a crisis.”

That is one example of hundreds. “I can’t verify this but I was told nobody called the Department of Public Safety more than me to help people get their drivers licenses back after a DWI. Of course I wasn’t always successful, but even when I was unsuccessful at least I got the rules so [the person] had a path to get back to work and make a living.”

Calls to bureaucrats to smooth out glitches in the system which create nightmares for people weren’t the only way Rukavina was willing to help. He wasn’t afraid to pass (or try to pass) a bill to benefit a single individual - critics be damned.

“I remember once some old timer called me because he’d been applying for a moose license for 20 years, he was in his late 70s. He thought he would die before he ever got a moose license. I was on the Ways and Means Committee and so I kept adding amendments that would allow people over 75 who have applied repeatedly to get a moose permit, to get one. I kept hounding them. By chance the old man actually got a permit and he thanked me even though I never did get the amendment on, but hey, who knows what happened?”

Rukavina’s long-time legislative assistant Sue Scott knows better than anyone about constituent service. “Tom knew he was elected by his constituents, not special interests,” said Scott. “Constituent letters and phone calls always came first, and we responded to everyone and tried our best to do everything possible to resolve their problems. For 26 years he did the work of the people of his beloved Range - he signed on to be, and was, a public servant extraordinare. He cared about people.”

“The bureaucrats respected me for

always trying to help my constituents,” said Rukavina. And not only the bureaucrats. Fellow legislators on both sides of the aisle knew they could learn a thing or two about constituent service from the man from 5A.

Important accomplishments

Plant closing moratorium

If you’re one of the hundreds of employees at KeeTac Mine in Keewatin or United Taconite in Eveleth (or a business that supplies them), thank Rep. Rukavina. “Working with Gov. Arne Carlson, I got him to sign my plant-closing moratorium bill, where if a mine shut down on the Range, the state stepped in and made them keep that mine in operating condition,” said Rukavina. Because of that bill, “Keewatin Taconite was able to open up twice and United Taconite in Eveleth was able to reopen. And over at the former LTV Steel site, hopefully the infrastructure which was saved will be used to start the first copper-nickel mine.” If not for the moratorium, those plants could have gone the way of Butler Taconite in Nashwauk, which was immediately dismantled and sold for scrap after its closing in 1985, never to be reopened. “I saw what happened at Butler and said we can’t allow that to happen again,” said Rukavina. “The whatif scenario was scary.” He considers it the most important piece of legislation, particularly to the Iron Range, he passed during his 26 years.

Iron Range Scholarship Fund

If you’re a high school student applying to the University of Minnesota, thank Rep. Rukavina. “I was able, with the help of Senator Tomassoni, to set up the Iron Range Scholarship, which is awarded to kids all over the state of Minnesota who attend school at any of the U of M campuses. It’s now the biggest scholarship at the University of Minnesota, growing exponentially, funded by the mineral rights at our land grant university.”

Iron Range Engineering program and the “Ruk U” vision

If you’re an employee or a student at Iron Range Engineering, thank Rep. Rukavina. “From the first day I was elected, I had a vision, I saw what higher education meant [economically] to other [Minnesota] communities, like Mankato, and I had a vision for a university on the Range,” said Rukavina.

Not for lack of trying under previous adminstrations, it took until 2008, as Chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, that Rukavina was able to wrangle $2 million a year from taconite production taxes to be designated for higher education on the Range. The Iron Range Engineering program, located at Mesabi Range College, in Virginia, was born. It’s an educational collaboration between Mesabi, Itasca Community College, and Minnesota State University-Mankato. For two years now, students have been earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering right here, and getting good jobs.

But that’s not all. “I thought, how criminal is it that the University of Minnesota has this huge endowed trust fund with money generated from mineral rights, but they have no mining engineering program. So one of the last things I did was pass legislation to divert monies from the permanent university trust to a new fund to be used to establish a University of Minnesota mining-related engineering program at Mesabi.”

And there are other possibilities. “At Hibbing Community College, we’d like to establish a cooperative program with the University and possibly train dentists in Hibbing… actually have graduate dental students living in Hibbing and finding out that rural Minnesota is a good place to live, and maybe they’ll stay.”

His goal has been to “use the taconite money wisely.” If not a full four- year university, “we can have niche programs like this with 70-80 students living and going to school and spending money on the Range.”

Minimum wage

If you’re a minimum wage worker, or a server in the hospitality industry, thank Rep. Rukavina. “I always carried the minimum wage bill, and raised it three times in my 26 years. I warded off attempts to steal tips from servers and now Minnesota is one of only seven states that doesn’t allow businesses to pay sub-minimum wages to servers.”

Mining issues

Rukavina is an unapologetic supporter of mining. “I love the Iron Range with all my heart,” he said. “And without mining there is no Iron Range. I don’t want to see the Iron Range become like the U.P.,” he said.

When asked about environmental concerns, he raises his hackles and points out the hypocrisy of environmentalists who use cell phones and computers and want electric cars and wind turbines and solar panels and mass transit trains – all of which require non-ferrous metals that could be mined here. “We all demand these products and as far as I’m concerned it’s disgraceful and dishonest for legislators to turn their heads the other way while we export our pollution to third world countries and not do it responsibly right here in Minnesota. We’re all on this planet earth together. No one is going to get a permit in Minnesota if they can’t meet the requirements. It [Polymet] would be the most environmentally friendly mine in the world.”

“Mining is our livelihood and I’m proud of what we contributed to our state and the nation. We won two World Wars and saved the world from facism and Nazism,” said Rukavina. “Without taking natural resources from the ground there is no quality of life like we’ve come to expect.”

Undefeated and unindicted

“Every time, in a secret ballot, [my constituents] gave me 70-80 percent of the vote,” Rukavina said. “I’m proud and humbled by the support I received over the years. I’m proudest that no matter where I go, people are smiling and thanking me. I never betrayed their trust and I’m leaving office undefeated and unindicted, which in today’s world is a pretty good accomplishment, don’t you think?” And he laughs.

Rep.-elect Jason Metsa

Rukavina supported Rep.-elect Jason Metsa in his campaign to be his successor. His advice to Metsa: “Never betray the trust that people put in you. I told Jason what my father-in-law told my son Victor. Victor, who was named after his uncle, didn’t like his name [when he was young]. My father-in-law told him, ‘A name has never shamed a man, but many a man has shamed his name.’ And I told Jason, the Metsa name is a very proud name on the Range, don’t ever embarrass that name by betraying their trust in you. Be honest and be forthright. Okay, you can embellish a little bit, I always did that, but your main job is to help your constituents.”

What’s next for Rukavina?

Despite my connections with the retiring representative from Pike, I can’t say what’s next –with the exception of putting up firewood, gardening, skiing, spending time with granddaughter Delia, and myriad home projects that he says, “I’ve neglected for 26 years.” Only time will tell!

NOTE: A Farewell Video documenting Tom’s years at the Capitol is available for viewing on YouTube. Pictures and great music! Credits to Sue Scott and Minnesota

House Photography. HSw&

Rukavina was a bulldog

Lyrics by Lee Bloomquist and Steve Peterson

Rukavina was a bulldog Was a good friend of mine I never understood a single word he said Cause all he ever did was whine But he always found good reason to whine

Singin’ joy to our schools All our boys and girls now Joy to Pawlenty and the GOP Joy to UMD

If he were the king of the Range Tell you what he’d do Hand all the money to his four Quad Cities And screw the rest of you

Singin now Joy to our schools All our boys and girls Joy to iron mining and the DNT Joy to the IRB

You know he loves Pike Sandy Joe Begich is his chum He’s a short, short timer And a blue collar rider Straight-shootin’ son-of-a-gun I said a straight-shootin’ son-of-a-gun

Joy to our schools All our boys and girls Joy to the engineers at MCC Joy to our comm-u-ni-ties

Joy to our schools All our boys and girls now Joy to Bill Hanna at the Mes-a-bi Joy to Jesse V.

Joy to our schools All our boys and girls Joy to Keith Nelson and a split county Joy to 4-foot-3

Joy to our schools All our boys and girls Joy to the thrill of cutting down a tree Joy to Jean and me Joy to Jean and me Joy to Jean and me

Performed by Steve Peterson, Lee Bloomquist and Mark Pomier, at the Ruk Roast at Mt. Iron Community Center, Nov. 19,2012.


From articles, emails, letters, cards and proclamations on Rep. Rukavina’s retirement

“I simply can't imagine a Legislative Session without you. Over the years you have entertained us, aggravated us, inspired us, and endeared yourself to us.

When you leave, it won't be the same without you! I have often sat here at my desk working and watching the House in session on my computer - and somehow even during the most tense debates you managed to work your special brand of magic and cut right through that tension - before you knew it, you had everyone laughing (DFL and GOP!!).

“I can assure you that your gift of humor especially on the House floor will be sorely missed. You will long be remembered, not only for your stories, jokes, and wit, but you will be remembered for your passion and your total devotion to the service of your constituents. Even when people felt you were completely on the wrong track, they had to admire you for your spirit and your tenacity. Tom, I don't believe that anyone will ever be able to completely fill your shoes - and, I feel that the entire House of Representatives will be diminished by your leaving us.

“Although you and I have never had a chance to work together, (I doubt that you will even know who I am) I want you to know that you will be missed, more than you know, by people you probably have never even met.” - Judie Hirasawa, Legislative Assistant to Reps. Kurt Bills and Andrea Kieffer

“Your parents would be extremely proud of you. Your soul is a reflection of the Iron Range immigrant spirit. You honestly and brilliantly represented the values of the Iron Range immigrants and passionately protected and promoted those values in the MN legislature. Your emphasis on the value of education and the leadership you provided in the development of and support for K-12 and post-secondary programs is extraordinary.

“The legislature will never be the same without you. You are a consummate leader speaking for and valiantly representing the vulnerable, elderly, low-income, labor, and middle-class against the powerful lobby for the wealthy and well-connected. You will not be present in body but your spirit will be ever present in the MN House of Representatives.” – Claire Seppi, Virginia

“Thank you Tommy for a matchless career of service to the underserved; for making Minnesota pay greater respect to the Range; and for making the Range a better place to live, work and raise families.” – Jim Oberstar, former U.S. Congressman

“His passion and commitment to his district, his constituents, the State of Minnesota, and his progressive values have made him a political giant…his sense of humor, kindness and sarcasm have created an indelible bipartisan legacy…and his tireless advocacy for the working man, labor unions, farmers, miners and middle-class Minnesotans has given him a reputation as a common man with uncommon character.” - Chris Coleman, Mayor of St. Paul (Proclaiming it Tom Rukavina Day in St. Paul)

“Rukavina served the entirety of his career in an Iron Range emerging from the big economic collapse of the early 1980s. Every year of his service represented a titanic battle to save some part of the Iron Range… from decline or political attack…Rukavina spent his career fighting for a good life for people like his kids, who are my age, and thus me, too…There will not be another like him. Not ever. With his well-earned retirement, those who come next may only hope to develop such earnest passion for the Iron Range and its people as Rukavina has demonstrated. Indeed, they must if we are to have any hope of a future here.” – Aaron Brown,

As I’ve told you many times before you've been my hero at the Capitol. Thank you for helping to teach a dumb farm kid from Appleton about tenacity, honesty, the willingness to speak up, the importance of treating everyone with respect and kindness, and a lot about how to laugh and have fun. Skol ! - Scott Moen, lobbyist, Minneapolis

You have been the voice of compassion and reason for most of my years of employment at the House, and I can't imagine the Minnesota House of Representatives without you. - David G. Surdez, Legislative Clerk, MN House

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