The Minnesota Legislature’s most colorful member is retiring, in part because of a new and politically divisive mood pervading the Capitol.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, announced Friday he is not running for re-election. Republicans and Democrats alike immediately mourned the loss.
“I must say that the changing atmosphere at the Capitol has helped expedite my decision,” he wrote in a retirement letter dated May 3 but released Friday. “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 changes and I haven’t, so it is time for new direction.”
Rukavina has represented his Iron Range district since 1987, producing some of the most memorable and funny moments in the House.
Reaction was swift and sad.
Minnesota House Republican leaders were wrapping up a briefing with Friday morning and were caught off guard when a reporter asked their thoughts on Rukavina’s retirement.
“Really?” asked a stunned House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove. “Wow.”
After a moment of thinking, he added: “This is a really sad day. That is real bad.”
House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said he has used Rukavina as an example for GOP members.
“You’ve got to fight for your district like he fights for his,” Dean said was his message.
Rukavina’s belief in fighting for the district ran deep.
“I tried to be a good state representative, but I won’t deny that I never forgot that I was the state representative for District 5A,” he said.
“I recall the advice a friend gave me as I went off to St. Paul for my first term,” Rukavina said. “He said: ‘Tommy, ask yourself every day, what have I done for the people and you will do a good job.’”
Rukavina was known for fighting for Range issues, which expanded to requiring projects to use American-made, and Minnesota-made, materials.
In his last House debate, on building a Vikings stadium, he argued that 25 percent of construction materials and items sold at the stadium should be made in the state. The language ended up weaker than he wanted, but he said that was better than nothing.
The debate brought up one of the on-going jokes that surrounded him: that he always wears American-made underwear.
While refusing to show anyone, he assured them the pair he was wearing was American made, but in recent months he has admitted it is harder to find underwear made in this country.
Rukavina did not rise on the House floor early Thursday to deliver a retirement speech, a tradition for representatives who do not plan to seek re-election.
While some retiring lawmakers making speeches noted his absence, there was no indication Rukavina would leave. However, Zellers said he wondered why Rukavina was not there.
Rukavina loved to go on the attack against Republicans, but usually minutes later he could be seen hugging them and joking.
His feisty style did not come through in his retirement letter.
“I can’t emphasize enough how humbled I am to have the opportunity to serve my constituents for two-and-a-half decades. And I can’t tell you how honored I’ve been to have served with so many good people during my tenure,” Rukavina wrote. “But all good things must come to an end and I’ve decide to move on.”
Rukavina’s letter did not say what he plans next.
The Ranger unsuccessfully ran for governor two years ago.
Zellers said the news is bad for Minnesota politics.
“The Minnesota House as an institution has lost one of its statesmen and one of its characters,” Zellers said.
Immediately after the Rukavina news broke Friday morning, Capitol types took to Twitter to react.
“Rep. Rukavina was floored that I could be Croation and conservative,” House Republican spokesman Kevin Watterson tweeted. “What a hoot he was.”
“The MN House will never be the same after the departure of its big-hearted champion of the little guy,” tweeted Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “Nobody can replace Tom Rukavina.”
Even those in political battles with Rukavina praised him.
“I’m really going to miss Rep. Tommy Rukavina,” former State Auditor Pat Anderson tweeted. “Another retirement of a legislative legend.”
Anderson, a Republican leader, once was the butt of a Rukavina comment when he used her married name and called her “Osama bin Awada.”