Former state legislator Tom Rukavina of Pike Township, whose decades of public service was fueled by a passion for his beloved Iron Range and its mining heritage, died Monday at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis.
He was 68.
The always colorful and often controversial Virginia native never shied from political fights — and he could initiate them, too — especially when he believed the Range was being shortchanged or slighted at the State Capitol during his 13 two-year terms in the state House of Representatives.
Born in Virginia, Rukavina was a University of Minnesota-Duluth graduate with a B.A. cum laude in political science.
He served on the Virginia School Board and the Pike Town Board before setting his sights on the state Legislature.
Rukavina unsuccessfully challenged DFL Rep. Dominic Elioff in 1982 in a narrow contest finally decided by a recount. He would win the District 5A House seat in 1986 and had clear sailing in elections after that until choosing not to run for re-elction in 2012.
But he quickly returned to the political fray two years later, winning the St. Louis County Board Fourth District seat in 2014.
Rukavina often claimed the Range was mistreated in the massive geographic county because Duluth received preferential treatment economically. He even advocated for splitting the county in two.
Rukavina announced last April that he would not seek re-election in 2018 because of health concerns, saying he had a major personal battle to fight.
Rukavina was often on the statewide political radar and no more so than in 2010 during his campaign for the governorship.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher won the DFL endorsement that year, but it was Rukavina who commanded center stage at the party convention for his stirring speech that embraced DFL traditional values and his strong personal, political and social beliefs. It was called “electrifying” and delivered with typical Rukavina zest and fire. He would later withdraw his nomination and throw his support to Anderson Kelliher.
Kelliher would lose the 2010 DFL primary to Mark Dayton who would go on to win two terms as governor. Dayton decided not to seek a third term in 2018 and was succeeded on Monday, Jan. 7, by fellow DFLer Tim Walz.
Funeral arrangements are pending.