I still remember the first time I met Tom Rukavina.
It was 1986 and he was running for the Legislature for the first time. He was taking some flak from friends who were upset he was supporting the creation of a National Guard camp south and east of Babbitt.
It was the worst of times for jobs on the Iron Range and Rukavina was supporting the camp (the brainchild of then-Gov. Rudy Perpich) in the hopes that it might employ a few Iron Rangers. “I’d sell my soul to the devil to bring jobs to the Range,” I remember him stating with a vehemence I would later come to recognize as Tommy’s style.
It turns out, of course, that in an era when politicians seem to sell out time and again, Tommy was never one of them. He remained true to his principles and his passion through 26 years in the Legislature.
Tommy is a pure product of the Iron Range, and its populist cultural and political traditions were reflected in so much of what he did during his political career. He was loyal to a fault, valued education and organized labor as keys to success, and was an unapologetic advocate for the mining industry even when it sometimes rankled his friends and would-be political allies.
He was never one to back down from an argument, nor was he a stranger to fiery, sometimes intemperate, language. He drew criticism some years ago from the Twin Cities media when he referred to then-State Auditor Pat Anderson Awada as “Osama bin Awada,” for her support for slashing local government aid. And he used terminology we can’t republish here in an official letter to Dick Wray, who had irritated him (and many others) during his tenure as head of the Minnesota Seasonal Recreational Property Owners group.
While such behavior may have generated tsks-tsks from the metro pundits, it only made Tom more popular here at home, where he was re-elected year after year by huge margins.
While Tom could dish it out, he could take it just as well as he gave it. I always knew with Tom that even if I beat him up in a column one week, I could still talk and laugh with him the next. He may have fought his political battles with passion, but he didn’t take things personally.
Through it all, of course, Tom used humor, usually the self-deprecating kind, to keep the battles from becoming personal, which is one reason he was among the most liked legislators in St. Paul. It’s no surprise that some of the warmest accolades came from some of his former political opponents. Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum positively gushed when I called him this week.
Unfortunately, the invariably gracious Sviggum and Rukavina are politicians from an era that seems to have faded. Tommy was disappointed to see that political differences had taken on a harder edge at the Legislature in recent years, a development that played a major part in his decision to leave.
In recent months, it was clear that he was increasingly frustrated, with political friends and foes alike, and I worried it had begun to cloud his judgment. When I heard he had sent a letter to Pequaywan Township officials threatening to strip the township of their taconite tax relief after residents there approved a resolution critical of copper mining, I feared he was heading deep into the weeds. While he fortunately never followed through on the threat, it was an error in judgment nonetheless. Taconite tax relief shouldn’t be contingent on a community’s political beliefs, and the Tom I’ve known and respected over the years would have been the first to agree.
Tom apparently realized himself that he needed a break from it all.
Over the years, Tom’s political instincts have usually been sound, and his skills were amazing to see in action. I’ve seen plenty of politicians operate over the years, but none could work a room like Tom could. Even in large halls full of people, he seemed to know everyone, not to mention their grandparents and their kids. With a friendly hand on their arm or shoulder, Tom exuded charm and sincere interest as he inquired about this or that. And there was nothing feigned about it. Tom didn’t have to take the time if he didn’t want to. He knew his office was his for as long as he wanted it. There is no question but that Tom has felt deeply these past 26 years that the good folks of District 5A were his people, and his connection to them has been one of the most important things in his life.
He went to St. Paul every year to fight for them to the best of his ability. And he did so with all the heart and soul that anyone could ever hope for from their elected representative. And he made one hell of an impression along the way. He’s going to be a very, very tough act to follow.