DULUTH – Lately, Iron Range Sen. David Tomassoni, I-Chisholm, shows his emotions easily and unexpectedly.
"I'm watching these chick flicks, right, and at the end of the movie I start crying," he said this week. When the Minnesota Wild scored three quick goals to win an April game, "I started crying. It's just weird. I'm supposed to be a big, tough hockey player."
The unexpected emotions are an effect of Tomassoni's recent diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The popular senator announced his diagnosis last week in a letter to his constituents published in an Iron Range newspaper. The news shocked his State Capitol colleagues, with Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka calling Tomassoni "one of the most beloved members of the Senate" and noting in a statement that "the whole Senate is fighting alongside you."
Tomassoni, 68, has no plans to quit.
"I'm going to keep fighting for my district and keep working across the aisle," he said.
Tomassoni, who is Senate president pro tem, is a longtime DFLer who controversially split with his party to form an Independent caucus with Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, last fall. Tomassoni was elected to the state House in 1992 and then to the Senate in 2000.
He began noticing strange symptoms about a year ago. He had a hard time using his left hand to tuck in sheets on a bed or to turn down his collar. He dropped pens and struggled to lift weights, and then his speech slurred during a television interview, and again when he had a couple glasses of wine. He eventually sought medical testing after he lost 10 pounds. His diagnosis came in early June.
"I'm feeling good after exercising, I'm eating healthy, and I am hoping to hold this baby off for as long as possible," said Tomassoni, who, with his wife, Charlotte, has three grown children and six grandchildren.
ALS is an incurable progressive neurological disease that leads to loss of muscle control. Since his announcement, Tomassoni has been buoyed by friends and supporters and heard from advocates and people living with the disease. He hopes to take part in clinical trials and become an advocate for ALS research himself.
"The fact that there are people living and working with and being active with the disease six to seven years into it is a very encouraging thing," Tomassoni said.
A former college and professional hockey player who played for Italy in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, he's working with a physical therapist and using his hockey training to strengthen his muscles.
"That type of mentality is coming back to me and motivating me to keep my body in tiptop shape," he said.
While he's still processing his diagnosis, he doesn't see it changing how he approaches today's divisive political landscape.
"My approach to my job is to get to know people. I'm a people person," he said. "If you develop relationships with people you work with you tend to have more success. I don't think it changes at all."
Longtime colleague Bakk learned of Tomassoni's diagnosis the day he received it.
"It was emotional for both of us," he said, and recent days have been difficult for senators and Senate staff, who are a tight-knit group.
"In all my years in the Legislature I've never seen a member who was more well-liked by members of both parties," Bakk said.
Tomassoni's immediate jump into exercises that can help delay the effects of ALS are typical of his personality, he said, and his "affable, upbeat" nature will serve him well.
Tomassoni's passion for his constituents is "unparalleled," said longtime friend Steve Giorgi, who recently retired as director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.
"I know David," he said. "There is no doubt he will still be able to accomplish good things for our region."
Tomassoni, whose term ends in 2023, said he will likely run again if he feels as well next year as he does today.
"It's one of those things where you wonder, why me?" Tomassoni said. "But you've just got to deal with it and forge ahead."
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450