Fiery Iron Range Rep. Tom Rukavina announced Friday that he will retire from the Legislature after 26 years.

"The changing atmosphere at the Capitol has helped expedite my decision," Rukavina said in a letter announcing his retirement. "I recall a kinder and gentler time here when even the most conservative members of our body still believed government could do good things for our people. But times have changed, and I haven't, so it's time for a new direction."

Rukavina, a DFLer from Virginia, is known as a pint-sized powerhouse around the Capitol, renowned for impassioned floor speeches and a relentless zeal for taking on GOP governors. He once called himself the political love-child of the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and former Gov. Jesse Ventura. He parlayed his colorful tenure into an unsuccessful run for governor in the last election. Rukavina gave an electrifying floor speech at the DFL state convention that momentarily shook up the race. During the campaign, he passed out underwear with the words "Refreshingly Honest" emblazoned on the backside.

"I've tried to do what I could in order to make life better for the people of the Iron Range and Northeastern Minnesota," Rukavina wrote. "I leave with a heavy heart on one hand; but I also leave with the hope that the legislators who remain will come together to do good things for the people of Minnesota."

Rukavina was among the first DFLers to take on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2009 for using an emergency budget-cutting maneuver to unilaterally cut $2.7 billion from the state budget. Rukavina then slammed other Democrats for failing to "come out swinging."

The state Supreme Court eventually threw out the budget reductions, saying Pawlenty had overstepped his authority.

Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson said of Rukavina: "He's really a good man, a good legislator and a fierce fighter for the Range. He's also a very solid negotiator. I thoroughly enjoyed negotiating with him."

Rukavina joins at least two dozen other legislators opting not to run again, including longtime Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista; Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, and Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said he was stunned by Rukavina's retirement.

"He's been a tremendous legislator," Dayton said. "You know where Tom is on everything. He's got the strength of his convictions, and he is a terrific person."

At the Capitol, Rukavina's interests were never far from labor issues or job-creation efforts on the Iron Range. In recent years, he has been the ranking Democrat on the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee. He also served on the capital investment, taxes, and ways and means committees.

Rukavina, 61, has been a full-time legislator lately and serves as chairman of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, an economic development agency in northern Minnesota.

"No one has more passion and heart in standing up for the little guy and for being a champion for his home area," said IRRRB Commissioner Tony Sertich, who served with Rukavina in the House. "Over the past 26 years, Tom fought hard for every person and every community that he represented."

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044