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Nick Zerwas
Nick Zerwas

Bar Buzz: Leading GOP public safety voice’s new role: ‘breadwinner’

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, a leading Republican voice on public safety and prison reform, will leave the Legislature next month to seek new work, he said Tuesday.

Zerwas, who turns 39 next month, recently endured his 11th surgery on a congenital heart defect that doctors once predicted would kill him by age 7.

While he has no new job lined up—he’s not even submitting resumes until his retirement is effective on Dec. 6, he says—it would appear that by leaning toward “public policy” work, Zerwas is headed toward a lobbying career. But he would not confirm that.

“I’m being very purposeful about finishing out my term on Dec. 6 and then pursuing stuff after that,” he said.

Zerwas, who has always candidly stated that his heart condition could cut his life short, said his most recent procedure went well and he is feeling fine.

But it also made him decide to become a more stable breadwinner for his young family, he said. Lawmakers earn $45,000 a year, plus reimbursements for living and travel expenses.

“I’m healthy enough to work full time now,” Zerwas said. “So it’s time to transition to working full-time in public policy work and making sure that my family’s taken care of while I’m up to that type of schedule.”

Alternately good-humored and brutally erudite, Zerwas has been one of the Legislature’s leading conservative voices for public safety.

He counts his prison-reform advocacy as a key achievement. His segregation reform bill, which included language requiring inmates in solitary confinement to get mental health treatment, was part of the 2019 public safety/judiciary omnibus signed into law on May 30.

Zerwas said he also is proud of his successful legislation to make first responders’ PTSD diagnoses a presumptive workplace condition for purposes of medical insurance coverage.

His controversial bill to increase criminal penalties on political protesters who jam up freeways, airports and train stations was not successful. But he expects that issue will outlast his House tenure, particularly as protests on private energy facilities ramp up.

“As we look at the Line 3 replacement—where protests are already occurring—I think we’re going to see what the impact of protesters is on private property rights and significant public utility infrastructure,” he said.

David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor, said that with Zerwas’ exit, the Republican House caucus loses one of its most effective voices.

“Even though he lost, for example, on the highway demonstrators, I think he’s been able to make his case exceedingly persuasively,” Schultz said. “So that’s the big hit that I think that the Republicans lose—somebody who’s got the profile and who’s very articulate in making these public safety arguments.”

Sherburne County Sheriff’s Sgt. Paul Novotny has declared his candidacy for Zerwas’ exurban District 30A House seat. It is regarded as a safe GOP hold.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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