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Minnesota state Sen. David Tomassoni, a Chisholm native who played professional hockey in Italy before serving three decades at the Capitol representing the interests of the state's Iron Range, died Thursday. He was 69.

Tomassoni, who was diagnosed in June 2021 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, passed away at 10 p.m. after a long battle with the illness, state Sen. Tom Bakk and longtime Tomassoni legislative aide Laura Bakk said in a statement.

"We know everyone will miss him terribly," they wrote in an e-mail to senators and staff. "We are blessed to have visited him just hours before he passed."

Tomassoni was a beloved and gregarious figure at the Capitol, where he briefly served as the Democratic Senate president in the Republican-controlled chamber and vigorously defended the mining jobs that were critical to his region. In his final weeks in St. Paul, he successfully pushed legislation to pour tens of million of dollars into ALS research.

"His selflessness in advocating for ALS research could not save his life but may save the lives of millions who follow in his footsteps," Tom Bakk, I-Cook, a fellow Iron Ranger who was one of his Tomassoni's closest confidants in the Legislature, said Friday. "The legacy he leaves is enormous."

Before entering politics, Tomassoni was a star hockey defenseman at Chisholm High School who followed his family roots to Italy, where he lived and played professional hockey for 16 years. In 1984, he played on Italy's Olympics team.

Family eventually brought him home to Chisholm, where he successfully ran for a vacant state House seat in 1992. In 2000, he was elected to the state Senate, rarely facing tough re-election battles in his longtime DFL stronghold, even as President Donald Trump and Republicans started to flip parts of northeastern Minnesota.

Sen. Karin Housley embraced Sen. David Tomassoni after a news conference on ALS legislation on March 1, 2022.
Sen. Karin Housley embraced Sen. David Tomassoni after a news conference on ALS legislation on March 1, 2022.

AARON LAVINSKY, Star Tribune file

In 2020, Tomassoni and Bakk left the DFL caucus, citing growing political polarization and an opportunity to chair committees and better serve their districts. Tomassoni, who retained his label as a DFLer, took the gavel in the Senate's Higher Education Committee, passing a bipartisan budget bill in 2021 that spent $3.51 billion and pumped hundreds of millions in direct funding into university and college campuses across the state.

His popularity with members on both sides of the aisle was apparent when Republicans briefly shifted Tomassoni into the Senate president's job in 2020. The move was meant to temporarily protect a Republican seat in case Gov. Tim Walz appointed his lieutenant governor to the U.S. Senate. That never happened, but Tomassoni still enjoyed nearly unanimous support from the chamber.

"I'm told that this job doesn't come with a wig and a robe, but I think if it did I would definitely wear the wig," Tomassoni quipped at the time about his balding head.

He used his brief moment in the spotlight to urge bipartisanship in increasingly polarized times. "We need to be working together rather than form battle lines," Tomassoni told the chamber to applause.

"David was everyone's friend," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. "He emulates the ability of the folks in this chamber to really throw the elbows, debate and be passionate about the issues we represent and go back into the retiring room and have a good time and laugh and joke."

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Tina Smith already knew of Tomassoni's legendary status among Iron Range legislators when she came to the state Capitol as then-Gov. Mark Dayton's chief of staff. When she was running as Dayton's lieutenant governor, Smith said, Tomassoni took her to do the early morning shift change at a taconite processing plant. Afterward, he complimented her for "only getting a handful of 'F you's' thrown my way."

"To David, if no one ever flipped you off, it probably meant you weren't trying hard enough," Smith said. "David was a one-and-only; we miss him already."

Tomassoni was diagnosed with ALS, also known as "Lou Gehrig's disease," last year on June 2, which he had noted was the same date on which the New York Yankees legend died in 1941.

He was one of several state legislators who have been stricken with the disease, including DFL Sen. Gary Kubly of Granite Falls, who died in 2012, and former Rep. Richard Jefferson, DFL-Minneapolis, who died in 2021. Roughly 450 Minnesotans have ALS, with an average of two new diagnoses and two deaths each week. The disease is fatal and has no known cure.

Tomassoni had already announced plans to retire at the end of his term. No special session is required because a new senator will be elected in November to represent the district.

As his disease progressed, it became harder for Tomassoni to speak and move about the Capitol. His two sons helped him into his seat on the Senate floor on the first day of the 2022 legislative session, after which the chamber stood for a standing ovation.

He was there when Walz signed legislation increasing funding for ALS research, including a one-time $20 million infusion to award research grants and a separate $5 million program to support caregivers.

This spring, the Iron Range Delegation chose to shelve plans for the annual Ranger Party and instead host a benefit to raise money to fight ALS, at Tomassoni's insistence.

"One word sums him up: love," Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said Friday. "Heaven just got a lot more fun."

Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.