Tom Rukavina: the MinnesotaBrown interview

My semi-regular series of interviews with DFL gubernatorial candidates continues today with State Rep. Tom Rukavina. My previous posts have included Tom Bakk, Paul Thissen, Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza, John Marty and Susan Gaertner. I’ve got four more candidates to interview, including House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher who is speaking to me later this week. Other candidates include Steve Kelley, R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman. I’ve had some contact with the Kelley campaign but I’m betting that my interviews with Rybak and Coleman will wait until after their respective Minneapolis and St. Paul mayoral re-election efforts are complete.

Before I get into my conversation with Tom Rukavina, let me disclose that I’ve known him since I was a 16-year-old campaign worker for the DFL and that he and my family go back a ways, too. (He goes back a ways with everyone’s family on the Iron Range). I am maintaining my pledge to remain neutral for the rest of this year but my conversation with Tom was a good deal less formal than my other candidate interviews. We met Aug. 6 at the Sawmill Inn in Virginia, Minn.

The interview

“This is a wide open race,” said Rukavina. “Anybody has shot at the convention. There are a lot of us running who don’t have a million bucks in the bank who need the endorsement and I’ve got as good a shot as any.”

His primary appeal?

“I’m a common man and I always have been,” said Rukavina. “I live in the woods, I built my own house and ran my own sawmill. No one defends their constituents as well as I do. Now I want to defend the whole state. I think I can win a statewide election. I can bring back some of the lunch box types who have left and still appeal to the suburbs.”

Rukavina, serving his 12th term in the House, has been a teacher, logger and — as he often mentions — milk truck driver. He’s well aware of his reputation in Minnesota politics, the passionate and sometimes quirky voice of the Iron Range. A core progressive on economic, educational and health care issues, Rukavina has also broken with the DFL on issues related to land use and personal freedoms such as his opposition to the smoking ban and gun control. His Iron Range bonafieds have made him a popular figure in this region, drawing 78 and 80 percent support in his last two elections, one of very few to outperform Jim Oberstar. But at the dawn of his gubernatorial campaign, Rukavina touts his ability to work with the opposition.

“I passed a minimum wage increase when we were in the minority,” said Rukavina of his landmark 2005 legislative victory. “I can work with a lot of different people and I’m not going to turn my back on Republicans and independents. They’ll be in my cabinet. I’ll take advice from both sides of the aisle.

Rukavina describes himself as belonging to the “Farmer Labor” wing of the Democratic Farmer Labor party. Central to his campaign message is an old Farmer Labor Party pamphlet from the 1930s that he’s been carrying around lately. The bill lists issues like helping people on relief, the needy and elderly and the phrase “our youth deserve a place in the economic sun.” As chair of the House higher education committee Rukavina is well aware of the challenges facing young people in a weak economy.

“Our kids graduating from college today are terrified about the job market,” said Rukavina. “I’m not going to be afraid to raise these issues.”

With that comes his talk on taxes.

“I’m not going to be ashamed to talk about revenue and taxes (as a solution to the budget problems),” said Rukavina. “This governor is a fraud as far as I’m concerned. He’s raised taxes and done a lot of harm along the way.”

Rukavina is referring to Pawlenty’s adherence to a “no new tax” pledge that held state income taxes while property taxes, fees and other local revenue collections increased by large amounts. His criticism of Gov. Tim Pawlenty is not new. He and Pawlenty have had famous sparring matches since their days together in the House of Representatives. Rukavina believes that Pawlenty’s national ambitions caused him to wreak long term havoc on Minnesota’s finances for short term political gain.

“I’m not going to praise Sarah Palin for much but at least she stepped down when she set her sights on higher office. I’ve taken this guy on for years. I’ve been the voice of the DFL caucus on this issue and I think people appreciate some straight talk in this day and age.”

Rukavina, like many of the DFL candidates, believes economic strength is more related to educational quality than tax rates. Rukavina’s job creation platform includes some provision for job incentive programs, but is much more focused on higher education as an economic driver.

“We have totally neglected our standing in the United States (on higher education and research) and how higher education has benefited our quality of life,” said Rukavina. He cites the possibility of expanding the use of electric vehicles for government agencies and the familiar refrain of using green energy production as a job creator. All of this, he said, comes from the initial research done at places like the U of M, along with predictions about economic trends.

Rukavina cites the University of Minnesota research back in the 1930s and ’40s that led to taconite production technology used on the Iron Range since the 1960s. That development saved the region from total detestation.

“Agricultural and mineral research has benefited the whole state and it’s important to keep that machine going,” said Rukavina.

That’s where Rukavina waded into the sometimes controversial waters of new mining initiatives in northern Minnesota. Proposed copper and nickel mining, along with other nonferrous mineral extraction, is key to the state’s economy, said Rukavina.

“We need to mine copper and nickel to get the minerals needed for this green economy,” said Rukavina, who points out that new technologies increasingly rely upon the minerals at stake in this debate and that mining them here would be more responsible than mining them elsewhere.

Rukavina said his ability to work with the interests of mining companies along with their workers demonstrates his ability to work with the state’s business community, despite his pro-union reputation. He said the Iron Range economy is a living example of a close relationship between industry and public officials.

“The Range can be used as an example,” said Rukavina. “We’ve added value to our products. We’ve made (economic development) mistakes, but we’ve had successes too. When you add value to a product, whether its corn, soybeans or iron ore, you become competitive.”

He further believes that the public incentives for high speed internet connectivity will allow more options for businesses and workers in greater Minnesota, citing the success of the Department of Revenue center in Ely.

“No absenteeism, little turnover,” said Rukavina. “Blue Cross and Delta Dental have found the same (on the Iron Range). We need to get more of those kinds of businesses and opportunities to the places that need them.

On his campaign strategy, Rukavina remains mum.

“Why would I tell you my strategy?” he asked, the first of the DFL candidates to reject the premise of the question.

He is adding staff soon, he said, and has been on the phones trying to raise funds. Rukavina believes he’ll go to the convention with $250,000, enough to run an effective if economical campaign, he said. He has vowed to abide by the endorsement and will support the endorsed candidate if it’s not him.

“I don’t have millions, but I have you and you’re worth millions; that’s what I’ve been telling people,” said Rukavina.

The primary blight on Rukavina’s record, a 2004 DUI conviction, remains on his mind and the lips of critics. “I tell people I don’t have any skeletons in the closet,” said Rukavina. “People already know about them.”

Fundamentally, Rukavina hopes that voters and delegates find resonance in his straight-forward style and deeply working class background.

“I know what it is to drive a milk truck or a garbage truck for a living,” said Rukavina. “I know how it feels to wake up sick with the flu but you work anyway because no one else will do your job. I’ve been without health insurance when I had a couple of young kids. People in my district know me well and seem to like me. I’ll compare my record with anyone, Democrat or Republican.”

My analysis

Rukavina’s strategy can be summarized quite simply: populism. Not just any populism, but rarefied, high-fructose, 80 proof cooked-up-from-a-homemade-still-back-in-the-woods populism. Having grown up around an Iron Range political universe in which the Napoleon-sized Rukavina casts the longest shadow, I can tell you that Rukavina is not acting when he talks about this driving the milk truck and sticking up for regular folks. His claims about constituent services are valid; he does an extraordinary job fixing glitches and opening doors for people who might lack political power or notoriety.

Along the same lines I remain in awe anytime I’ve been in public with Rukavina. Perhaps unsurprisingly everyone seems to recognize him, but he also seems to know most people he sees, too. Whether on his side or not, Rukavina retains the ability to spar, joke and converse with almost anyone. He knows people’s names. He knows their parents’ names. He knows their grandparents’ names. That, in a nutshell, is Iron Range politics and why, regardless of the 2010 outcome, here he will be regarded as a Range political legend. I get the sense that he’s genuinely looking to do more for more people in a higher office.

When I talk to friends about Iron Range politics I often describe Rukavina as a Shakespearean character. On one hand he is a skilled politician with a strong voice who genuinely cares about people. On the other are his tragic flaws: a lack of verbal discipline and a demeanor that often strolls past good natured criticism into what some consider brow beating. Rukavina dismisses that notion, but the sentiment remains among some outside of politics. Just like the Iron Range itself, you’ve got to know the back story to properly understand Rukavina. Many voters in this state have a woefully inadequate understanding of the Iron Range and will probably begin 2010 with an inadequate understanding of Tom Rukavina as well.

Rukavina seems deeply enthusiastic about this race but is behind his opponents on the organization of his campaign. He’s just staffing up now and has yet to establish his exploratory website. It doesn’t help that a political opponent of some kind owns the domain and is using it against him. Rukavina is correct in working out his finances first, but needs to catch up on the basics very soon.

On the trouble of there being two Iron Rangers in the DFL race — Rukavina and State. Sen. Tom Bakk — I agree with Tom (both of them, I guess) that there isn’t anything wrong with having more greater Minnesota candidates in the hunt since the field is so overwhelmed with Minneapolis and St. Paul area names.

Remember, there are only about 50 delegates that are officially “Iron Range” in origin. Even if they split, the eventual endorsee will need to do well elsewhere anyway. In some ways, the ability to close the deal interpersonally next June in Duluth might be what puts the eventual winner over the top. I actually have no idea if this is good or bad for Tom Rukavina.

A year is a long time in politics That’s the cliche, anyway. If I had to take any kind of guess at the 2010 political climate I’d predict an angry electorate. Democratic interests like progressives and labor will be either disappointed or riled up about shortcomings in the federal health care bill. We’ve already seen the deep anger bubbling up on the Republican side with the coordinated disruptions of town hall meetings and just a general sense of fury on Fox News and talk radio. An improving economy will ease some of the anger, but not all of it. Something about this year’s governor campaign reminds of me of an edgier, darker, less predictable 1998. That was the year we elected ex-wrestler and uber-populist Jesse Ventura. Add to this the fact that the GOP also has an open race for its nomination. Additionally, the winner will inherit what might be the worst budget situation in Minnesota history. Rukavina is the closest thing economic progressives have to a street fighter and, under a divine alignment of the stars, he could catch fire in 2010.

Tom Rukavina is the true heir to the Farmer Labor tradition in Minnesota DFL politics. You will not find a more interesting and passionate speaker about issues like the economy, education and health care. He will have very little money and a long row to hoe in winning over delegates from outside the Iron Range. He is a distant long shot, a self-described “wild card,” but the rocky, unpredictable political climate of 2010 earns him the official title of “dark horse” in this wide open race.

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