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Iron Range legend Tom Rukavina dies at 68

Gubernatorial candidate Tom Rukavina gestures while speaking during the DFL Convention Saturday Apr.24, 2010, at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in Duluth, Minn. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 2
Tom Rukavina, new on the St. Louis County Board, listens during discussion at a board meeting in 2015.2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS -- Tom Rukavina, a feisty Iron Range politician who made his mark in the Minnesota House and ended his political career last week as a St. Louis County commissioner, has died.

Rukavina, 68, died Monday, Dec. 7, after a yearlong battle with leukemia. Rukavina died at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, where he was being treated to receive a bone marrow transplant.

“I’m terribly saddened to learn about the passing of my friend, former State Rep. Tom Rukavina,” Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement. “Tom was a bulldog for not only his constituents on the Iron Range, but all of the working men and women in Minnesota. Tom Rukavina was known for his honesty, his authenticity and his advocacy for those trying to build a better life for their families. Today Minnesota lost a one-of-a-kind individual who left a deep impression on everyone who knew him.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar sent her own tribute Monday afternoon: “As Tom would tell it, he was for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers — a tribute to his friend and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash on his way to attend a funeral for Tom’s father, Bennie. Tom also taught his children the value of service. His daughter, Ida, leads my northern Minnesota office and shares her father’s strength and tenacity. My prayers are with Ida and the entire Rukavina family today.”

Rukavina decided last year not to run for a second term on the County Board because he was devoting time to be treated for his illness.

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 was 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.

Rep. Pete Stauber worked alongside Rukavina as commissioner on the County Board. Stauber issued a statement from Washington, D.C., upon hearing the news.

“He was a passionate supporter of our Iron Range and cared deeply about Minnesota,” Stauber said. “My prayers are with his entire family during this difficult time.”

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

When he retired from the House, Rukavina cited as successes a $50 million endowment at the University of Minnesota Duluth’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 Iron Range.

Duluth News Tribune reporters John Myers, Brooks Johnson, John Lundy and Brady Slater contributed to this report.

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