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Rukavina roasted, regaled at event honoring retiring state lawmaker

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By John Myers. Forum Communications

MOUNTAIN IRON, Minn. — More than 400 people crammed into the Community Center here Monday night to munch on brats and Polish sausage, sip beer and tell stories about retiring state Rep. Tom Rukavina, most of which were probably true.

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“My mother always told me that if you can’t say something nice about someone, you shouldn’t say anything at all,” said Gov. Mark Dayton, at which point he walked off the stage to great laughs.

But, of course, the governor came back to tell several Tom Rukavina stories.

“Tommy, you have been a terrific champion for the people of the Iron Range, for all of Minnesota,” Dayton concluded. “That’s because you spoke from your convictions, from your heart and from your soul.”

Dozens of past and present state lawmakers and local politicians, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Rep.-Elect Rick Nolan joined corporate executives in fancy suits and local labor representatives in plaid shirts and union baseball hats to say thanks to Rukavina for his 26 years of service in the Minnesota Legislature. The feisty, vertically challenged DFLer announced in May he wouldn’t seek re-election.

“Tommy Rukavina knows the Range. Tommy Rukavina speaks for the Range. Tommy Rukavina is the Range. I begin my remarks with those three quotes from Tommy Rukavina,” Franken joked.

Rukavina countered that he and Franken, who is nearly as short, were really twin brothers, separated at birth.

“I was the runt of the liter,” Rukavina claimed.

Even Rukavina’s daughter, Ida, got in some sharp barbs, accusing her dad, a stalwart supporter of labor unions, of violating child labor laws by making her split and stack wood and weed their garden. But she added that her father would help anyone who asked, even giving the shirt off his back.

“It just wouldn’t fit most people,” Ida Rukavina said, referring to her dad’s short stature.

Organizers of the roast served Rukavina Red Ale, billed as “radical refreshment” and the first big batch of brew from the yet-to-open Canal Park Brewery in Duluth. Less popular on Monday night was Greedy Ass Ale, which included a poster with an elephant balancing on a keg, although a few Republican state lawmakers were on hand.

Tickets were $5, with all the money going to a scholarship fund in Rukavina’s name at Mesabi Technical and Community College Foundation.

“We knew we wanted to do something to honor Tommy for his 26 years of service and a roast seemed like the perfect thing for him,” said Gary Cerkvenik, host of the roast, longtime Iron Range pol and former county commissioner who co-organized the event. “The fundraiser part just made sense considering Tommy started the engineer program at the community college. ... When people are thinking of Tommy 26 years from now it’s going to be as much his impact on education as it will be about his crazy personality.”

Rukavina, DFL-Pike Township, was first elected to the House District 5A seat in 1986. He often made up for his lack of physical size — he’s about 5 feet 3 inches tall — with an explosive personality as he battled for Democratic causes from organized labor to social programs to public funding for economic development.

“He’s gotten a little conservative in his old age. He’s a socialist now,” said state Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing.

Legislatively, Rukavina may be best known for bills requiring mining companies to keep their plants intact and maintained during shutdowns, even bankruptcies, of the 1980s. That allowed all of the plants to re-open, sometimes after multiple shutdowns during economic downturns.

Rukavina cites as successes a new, $50 million endowment at UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute and a new mining studies scholarship offered at University of Minnesota campuses, all funded by royalties from taconite mining on University-owned lands on the Range. And he’s become a huge supporter of engineering programs and Mesabi Range Community and Technical College.

While Rukavina once boasted that he was the last socialist in the Minnesota Legislature, in recent years he became an unabashed supporter of the same multinational mining and steel companies he once disparaged for being unfair to union Steelworkers. Rukavina also had become one of the biggest supporters of expanding the Iron Range’s existing taconite industry and delving into a new generation of copper mining to bolster job opportunities for local people.

Rukavina made his political start on the Virginia School Board and Pike Town Board in the 1970s. He lost his first DFL primary race for Legislature in 1982 but then won in 1986 when the incumbent, Dom Elioff, left the primary race. Before becoming a full-time lawmaker, he worked as a logger and as a naturalist at the Ironworld Discovery Center in Chisholm, worked for a time at the Minntac taconite plant and as an assistant director at Giants Ridge Ski Area. He ran unsuccessfully for the DFL convention endorsement for governor in 2010.

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