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2010 campaign: Rukavina pledges honesty, open door

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, visits with students Friday in Bemidji State University's Lower Hobson Union. Rukavina, chairman of the House's higher education committee, is a Democratic candidate for governor. Pioneer Photo/ Brad Swenson

Everyone might not like what Tom Rukavina says, but he won't waffle on the issues as some politicians may be prone to do.

"I've been a straight shooter for 23 years," says Rukavina, the state representative from Virginia who is running for governor as a Democrat. "Sometimes, I'm not politically correct but I say it like it is, and I think people are looking for that kind of a politician."

Rukavina comes from the Iron Range, a place where Republicans are scarce and the workforce is mostly union, especially in the mines. But he believes he can appeal to a broad range of Minnesotans.

"I call myself a progressive Libertarian," he said Friday in an interview while meeting with students in Bemidji State University's Lower Hobson Union. "I support guns, I'm not a gun controller. I support multi-use, whether it's snowmobiles or ATVs."

Minnesota has two of the largest manufacturers of snowmobiles and ATVs, he says, "and we can't not support them or try to restrict them. Minnesota is the third largest land owner in the United States of America, behind the feds and Alaska. We've got more than enough public land to be able to have multi-use."

He says he's been progressive on criminal justice issues, "making sure our civil liberties are protected and our Constitution is protected,"

Rukavina opposed legislation making seat belt violations a primary offense, allowing law enforcement to stop vehicles just for not wearing a seat belt. "We had one of the highest compliance rates in the country for seat belt wear, why do we need to make it a primary offense, so we can raise more money? It's not a way to raise money fairly."

Those positions make him a "middle of the roader," he believes.

"I think people like my straightforward honesty, and I can appeal to that suburban voter and get that independent voter and blue-collar voter," he says. "The most common, ordinary person can walk into my office door for the last 23 years, and I've sat down and listened. .... They're my boss and I listen to them."

As an Iron Ranger, much of Rukavina's support comes from blue-collar workers. He already has been endorsed by five locals of the United Steel Workers union.

"I've been a blue-collar worker all my life," Rukavina said. "I've driven truck, I've been a logger, I owned by own saw mill. I know what it's like to wake up in the morning and go out and work when it's 40 below and change a fuel pump."

He knows what it's like not to have health insurance, saying he paid out of pocket when his son was born.

"I've carried those philosophies and life experiences to the Capitol," says Rukavina, who chairs the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Finance and Policy Division. "I've always fought for the little person. I'm a strong union supporter, I'm not ashamed of that. Unions gave us middle-class status in this country."

With the state facing what could reach an $8 billion budget deficit in the next biennium, Rukavina wants to grow more jobs, through new energy business, but also by bringing more jobs back to the United States and Minnesota.

He's the author of the bill that requires any U.S. flag sold in Minnesota be of U.S. manufacture.

One of the reasons we're in this mess is because union participation is back down to where it was in the last depression," he said. "One of the reasons we're in it is because we don't make a lot of things in this country any more."

He'd also restore the state income tax cuts that were made in flusher times in 1999 and 2000. Most people didn't see that tax cut on their paycheck, he said. "Unfortunately, 42 percent of that income tax cut, about $2 billion a biennium, went to the top 4 percent of the wage-earners in this state."

Those top earners can pay their share like they used to, he maintains. "We need to go back to a proportional income tax revenue-raiser in this state."

Rukavina goes back to 1980 with a similar state budget crunch under Republican Gov. Al Quie. After seven special sessions, Quie, who had a no-new-taxes position, finally agreed to a 10 percent income tax surcharge.

"He saw that if he stuck to it (no tax pledge), it would destroy this state," Rukavina said. "They were there until Dec. 31, signing the bills the day before they went into the next session. That's what we should have had the guts to do. We should have dug in, fought with this governor, who refuses to negotiate, refuses to compromise, broke the Constitution with his unallotment, and we should have had a surcharge."

He was referring to GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty last spring refusing to sign a tax increase bill to fund state government, and instead unilaterally unallotted $2.7 billion in spending.

Rukavina likens himself to another Iron Ranger - the late Gov. Rudy Perpich, who won election as governor as an underdog.

"Rudy Perpich came back from Europe in 1982 ... they said he'd never beat (state attorney general) Warren Spannaus) but he proved them wrong," Rukavina said. "And I'm going to prove them wrong. His issues then are the same today -- jobs. People need jobs and they need a good education.

"I've had good innovative ideas and I'm going to bring them to the governor's office and we're going to put Minnesotans back to work," he added. "We're going to make things in this state again."

He even defends one of Perpich's job creation ideas of a chopsticks factory on the Iron Range.

"The chopsticks factory wasn't a bad idea - they had the market, the problem was they couldn't make a smooth chopstick with that equipment," he said. "It was a private-public sector project, trying to work together in an innovative way to create jobs. That's what I've done."

He talks of new technology on the Iron Range in taconite mining where new pellets can go into a foundry anywhere, such as Bemidji.

He worked with local legislators when Ainsworth Lumber Co. closed to reuse the factories. "There's companies that are moving in to try to make value-added products with our forest industry. And that's what we've got to do."

Hibbing and Virginia's electrical power plants have been converted to burn wood instead of coal, he said.. Iron Range towns have used the state's Community-Based Energy Development program to go "green" such as adding wind mills for energy production.

"We're giving the loggers $12 million to $14 million a year in cash buying their waste wood instead of buying coal from Montana or North Dakota," Rukavina said. "We've got to do that here in Bemidji, we've got to do it in the agricultural part of the state."

Another Iron Ranger, Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, also is seeking DFL endorsement for governor.

"I've got a record of accomplishments, from pushing minimum wage increases while in the minority because the Republicans like me even though they hate my philosophy," Rukavina said. "I'm a straight shooter with them. ... I've been around longer than Bakk. I know where all the skeletons are hid."

Besides, Rukavina says, "he's a union rep - he should defer to my seniority."