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Longtime Iron Range Sen. David Tomassoni dies at 69

Tomassoni, an independent lawmaker from Chisholm, was first elected to the Minnesota Legislature in 1992. He revealed his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in 2021, and continued to serve as a senator.

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State Sen. David Tomassoni speaks at Heliene, a manufacturer of solar panels, on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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CHISHOLM, Minn. — Longtime Iron Range lawmaker David Tomassoni has died at 69 after a battle with ALS, the Minnesota Senate announced Friday morning, Aug. 12.

Tomassoni, an independent lawmaker from Chisholm, was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1992. He was elected to the Senate in 2000, where he served the rest of his time in the Legislature.

Tomassoni revealed his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in 2021, and continued to serve as a senator. In his last session at the Capitol, he sponsored a bill to provide $20 million in grants for ALS research and $5 million to caregiving for people suffering from the disease. The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz this spring.

In a statement, fellow northeast Minnesota independent Sen. Thomas Bakk sent his condolences to Tomassoni’s family and called his colleague and friend a champion of hard-working men and women across the state. Bakk's wife, Laura, was Tomassoni's longtime legislative aid.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (left), state Sen. David Tomassoni and others walk the new pedestrian-bicycle-snowmobile lane on the deck of the new U.S. Highway 53 bridge in Virginia on Friday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (left), state Sen. David Tomassoni and others walk the new pedestrian-bicycle-snowmobile lane on the deck of the new U.S. Highway 53 bridge in Virginia on Sept. 15, 2017.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

“The legacy he leaves is enormous, and his passion for public service benefited countless lives,” said Bakk, whose district includes Minnesota’s arrowhead and International Falls. “His selflessness in advocating for ALS research could not save his life but may save the lives of millions who follow in his footsteps. His kindness to me, my wife Laura, and the good times we shared will live with me for the rest of my life.”

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Before politics, hockey

Prior to launching his nearly 30-year career in the Minnesota Legislature, Tomassoni played hockey.

A standout defenseman at Chisholm High School, he was a four-year letterwinner at the University of Denver from 1971-75 and skated in the NCAA Frozen Four twice.

Tomassoni-Gretzky
Team Italy defenseman David Tomassoni delivered a check to Team Canada forward Wayne Gretzky during a game in the 1983 world championships.
Contributed / David Tomassoni

He played briefly for the New York Rangers’ minor league system but then played professional hockey in Italy, his family’s ancestral home, for 16 years. He also played on the Italian team at the 1984 Winter Olympics for Team Italy in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia.

"Technically I played 15 seasons, because I took a year off after the 1984 Olympics," Tomassoni told The Rink Live in 2019 . "That was the year I sold Kirby vacuum cleaners, so I was really glad that they called me back to Italy."

When he returned to the U.S., he entered politics.

A 30-year career

Tomassoni won his first campaign in 1992, and served in the House of Representatives for eight years before he began serving in the Senate.

Tomassoni represented the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party until 2020, when he and Bakk left the party to form an independent caucus. He served as an assistant majority leader of the House from 1997 to 2001, a majority whip of the Senate from 2001 to 2007 and was elected president pro tempore of the Minnesota Senate for the 2021 session.

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Minnesota House members visit senators on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. In front, Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia leans over to talk to Sen. David Tomassoni while Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City chats with Sen. David Senjem of Rochester. Don Davis / Forum News Service
Minnesota House members visit senators on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. In front, Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia leans over to talk to Sen. David Tomassoni while Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City chats with Sen. David Senjem of Rochester.
Don Davis / Forum News Service

He outlined what he was most proud of accomplishing in a February 2022 statement to the Mesabi Tribune announcing his retirement.

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Employees carry out a large banner naming the new manufacturing facility after state Sen. David Tomassoni at Heliene on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“During my service, we grew the mining industry on the Iron Range and preserved its high-paying jobs, built the second-largest renewable solar module manufacturing plant in America, invested millions in new schools for our kids on the Iron Range and did the things government should do: invest in clean drinking water, advanced wastewater treatment, strong infrastructure for our cities, good roads, and recreation trails for hiking, biking, snowmobiling and ATVs,” Tomassoni said in the statement to the Mesabi Tribune at the time.

Senator until the end

Even as his ALS progressed over the last year, severely limiting his mobility and speech, Tomassoni kept working.

When he announced his diagnosis in a letter published in the Mesabi Tribune in July 2021, he vowed to do just that.

“I give you my word that my brain and my body will continue to represent you with the same passion and vigor I’ve tried to give in the past,” he wrote.

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Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk greets State Sen. David Tomassoni on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron after announcing the new manufacturing facility at Heliene will be named after him. Heliene is a manufacturer of solar panels.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said he lived up to that promise, participating in a committee hearing via video earlier this week.

“He never stopped working for northern Minnesota,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

Last month, from the Solvay Hospice House in Duluth, Tomassoni spoke with the News Tribune using a device that tracked his eyes, which he used to select letters and phrases on a screen in front of him, and then confirmed them by tapping a foot pedal.

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He was unable to speak and besides tapping the foot pedal and nodding “yes” and “no,” he was unable to move.

Sen. David Tomassoni uses an Eyegaze communication device to answer a question in his room at the Solvay Hospice House
Sen. David Tomassoni uses an Eyegaze communication device to answer a question in his room at the Solvay Hospice House in Duluth on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. Tomassoni is living with ALS, and he's no longer able to communicate verbally or walk.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Still, he wanted the Legislature to reconvene for a special session and finish the bills that were agreed to before they adjourned in May.

“And yes, I will be a part of it,” he said.

His legacy: a step toward ending ALS

Tomassoni was already a legend in the halls of the Minnesota State Capitol, known for befriending and working with people of different parties.

"His larger-than-life personality endeared himself to colleagues on every side of the aisle," Senate DFL Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, said in a statement.

But after his ALS diagnosis, Tomassoni spent his final legislative session championing a $25 million bill to fund ALS reserach that was signed into law.

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State Sen. David Tomassoni, a Chisholm independent, (left) looks on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, as Gov. Tim Walz signed into law a proposal to spend $25 million for ALS research and caregiver services.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

That will be his legacy, said David Kolquist, president of Never Surrender Inc., a Hermantown-based organization that raises money to help people with ALS.

“No one has done more to raise awareness of ALS than Sen. Tomassoni has since his diagnosis a year ago,” Kolquist said in a news release. “He leaves a lasting legacy of helping those with ALS and their families. thanks to his ability to secure $25 million for research and care for Minnesotans living with ALS, knowing that he would never benefit from it.”

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said Tomassoni became a strong advocate after his diagnosis.

"When he was diagnosed with ALS, he turned heartbreak into action and became a fierce champion in his final months for people and families like his," Flanagan said in a statement.

Tomassoni told the News Tribune last month: “It’s my goal in life to hopefully put an end to this horrendous disease.”

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This story was updated at 4:20 p.m., Aug. 12 with additional information on Tomassoni's life and additional quotes from people remembering him. It was originally posted at 12:16 p.m., Aug. 12.

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