Tom Rukavina, an Iron Range political icon, dies

Tom Rukavina, an Iron Range political icon who represented the Ely area on the St. Louis County Board the last four years, died Monday in Minneapolis after a brief battle with leukemia. He was 68.

While standing less than five-and-a-half feet tall, Rukavina was remembered Monday as a political giant who pulled no punches.

The Virginia native represented his hometown in the Minnesota legislature for 26 years, and was known for his acerbic wit and passionate support for his constituents and northeastern Minnesota.

"Minnesota and the Iron Range have lost a true champion for workers,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement released a new hours after Rukvaina's death. “Tom Rukavina understood the dignity of hard work, and was a force for Iron Range workers and their families. He spent nearly three decades in elected office on the Range fighting for miners and bringing good-paying union jobs to the region.”

A Democrat, Rukavina ran unsuccessfully for his party's endorsement for governor in 2010.

He left the legislature two years later, worked briefly as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and returned to elected office in 2014, when he won the county board seat vacated by Ely's Mike Forsman.

During the last four years, Rukavina had an office in St. Louis County's Ely facility and became ingrained in the area's political scene, advocating for his district and Ely area causes. Late in his tenure on the county board, Rukavina successfully established a scholarship fund, allowing graduates of high schools in St. Louis County to attend regional community colleges - with scholarship proceeds generated from royalties paid by mining companies.

Rukavina announced last April that he would not seek re-election, citing serious health issues.

The last several weeks, Rukavina had been hospitalized in the Twin Cities as he prepared for a bone marrow transplant.

Former mayor Dave Lislegard of Aurora, who now holds the seat Rukavina once held in the Minnesota House of Representatives, said “we lost part of the Range today.”

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who served side-by-side with Rukavina on the county board, called Rukavina “a passionate and devoted public servant... he cared deeply about Minnesota and will be missed.”

Former State Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing, one of Rukavina's former legislative colleagues added “I thought he'd live forever. His legacy will.”