VIRGINIA, MINN. - He grew up on the edge of an open pit mine that became his playground, and as a young man he cleaned motel rooms and delivered the local newspaper, making enough to loan his dad drinking money. His dad always paid him back, of which he seems quite proud.
He topped out at 5-foot-3, a fact he would use to comical effect and self-deprecating practical advantage the rest of his life. He worked in the mines, then became a long-haired hippie and drove a milk truck. He learned to speak a little Italian, Finnish and Croatian and got to know everybody, all of which would come in handy later. He moved to 120 acres in the woods, where he grew vegetables and shot pheasants for dinner.
To this day, Tommy Rukavina, talks a little like a hit man in an Eye-talian movie, and he will tell anybody who will listen, "Hey, I've got iron ore in my veins."
Rukavina, 61, retired from the Minnesota House of Representatives last week without fanfare, without giving one of his passionate populist speeches that have become folklore among political nerds the past 26 years.
When the session ended, he just sent out an e-mail saying he was done, then went home to chop wood. When Sen. Amy Klobuchar called to congratulate him, Rukavina said: "I'm out here choppin' wood. I'm tree huggin.' I give them a hug to see which way they lean before I lay my chainsaw to 'em."
Sitting in a restaurant here in his hometown, Rukavina traded barbs and jokes with anyone who passed. A waitress came to announce the salad of the day.
"Any meat on that?"
Then he mentioned to her that his relative was her relative's godfather. Still making connections.
A man passed by the table.
"How you doin' buddy," Rukavina greeted him. "Just saw your old man on Main Street."
At age 36, Tommy Rukavina ran for office to represent the Iron Range, an unapologetic lefty and defender of the little guy, literally and figuratively. He was a fierce advocate for the working man and woman, a defender of the local mining companies -- often to the consternation of environmentalists -- and skilled debater and storyteller.
But he says he's worn out.
"I'm going to take a rest," he said. "I had a good long run."
Rukavina was teasing his foes until the end, however, even on the last frantic night on the house floor. To conservative Rep. Mary Franson, whose union boss grandfather he knew: "I asked her if she was hauling a lot of dirt to replace that divot in the grave where her grandfather was spinning," he said.
But even when he was arguing, Rukavina seemed to be having fun. He said that has changed lately with the influx of newcomers who, he says, hate government even while enjoying the benefits.
"There's a few folks who had taken themselves too seriously, maybe thought they were more important than they are," Rukavina said. "Well, our jobs are important, but we aren't very important."
He still thinks government can do good. Standing in the parking lot on a hill above his hometown, he pointed out the public works that employ people or give them joy.
"The Soviet Republic of the Iron Range," he deadpanned.
Rukavina said he won't miss the acrimony, but he will miss most of his colleagues.
"Hey, I love [Rep.] Mark Buesgens," Rukavina said. "We are 180 degrees opposite, but he's politically honest like I am. And he's politically incorrect like I am at times. He's never going to stab you in the back, he's going to stab you in the gut, like I do."
Asked to rank the governors he's served under, Rukavina is predictably partisan and local, saying Rudy Perpich was his favorite. But he also admired Gov. Arne Carlson, who helped pass what Rukavina called his greatest achievement, a bill that prohibits mining companies from closing plants down before they can find another owner.
"I had a good relationship with Tim Pawlenty as a legislator. We had a lot of fun together," said Rukavina. "Then it kind of soured because he was going after the Range aggressively on funding formulas. To his credit, he did call me to the mansion and said we should bury the hatchet. Hey, I'd like Tim Pawlenty to be my neighbor, but he'd be my last choice to be my governor.
"I've gotten so many letters from Republican legislators and staffers," he said. "I got the most beautifully written e-mail from a Republican staffer -- it brought tears to my eyes, and I've got a reputation to uphold, you know. I don't want to show I have a soft side."
Rukavina had some hard times, too. His father died, then Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, were killed in a plane crash on the way to the funeral. Not long after, he got divorced.
"Those were some dark, dark times," Rukavina said. "I had never been depressed, but I was then."
Today, he's battle fatigued, but happy.
Rukavina insists he has no job lined up. He is getting remarried in the fall, however, and looking forward to a new life.
"Somebody called and said, hey, Tommy, how you feelin'?"
Rukavina paused. "I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'm feelin' five and a half feet tall.'"
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