New legislator brings his Elk River roots to St. Paul

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Displayed prominently in Rep. Nick Zerwas’ new office in St. Paul is a shadow box containing mementoes of his dad’s law enforcement career, including his badge and an Elk River Police Department patch.

It was a gift to Zerwas when his dad, Tom, retired as Elk River’s police chief in 2003.

“That’s obviously very special to me,” Nick Zerwas said.

Nick Zerwas
Nick Zerwas

On another wall is another Elk River memento — a painting of elk in a field by a river. It was a gift Zerwas was given when he moved back to his hometown of Elk River after graduating from college and working elsewhere.

His roots in Elk River run deep, and when he took the oath of office as a newly minted state representative Tuesday, Jan. 8, he became one of a select few from Elk River to serve in the Minnesota Legislature.

The last state legislator the city produced was Stephanie Klinzing, who served one term as a DFLer in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1993–94. She later was elected mayor of Elk River.

Zerwas, a Republican, believes it’s been about 100 years since a Republican from Elk River served in the Minnesota House.

“Hopefully one of the things that we can accomplish … is to make sure that these communities like Big Lake and Elk River and Otsego have a strong voice in St. Paul,” said Zerwas, who served on the Elk River City Council before being elected to the House.

Elk River Mayor John Dietz is optimistic that having Zerwas in St. Paul will be beneficial. He said he has done a tremendous job as a council member and always did his homework — researching projects and talking with the public.

“It makes me extremely happy that we will have somebody from Elk River in the State Legislature,” Dietz said when Zerwas was recognized at his last council meeting this week. “… In the recent past here we have had a lot of trouble dealing with our state representatives. They don’t really seem to have time for Elk River other than when it’s time for an election.”

Now Dietz feels if Elk River occasionally has an issue dealing with state government, he can call Zerwas. “I know that he will listen,” the mayor said.

‘It’s very humbling’

Zerwas’ new job is not without its moments of awe.

He recalled recently walking into the House chambers — the large, ornate space where state representatives convene inside the State Capitol in St. Paul —  and feeling the enormity of it all.

“Honestly it’s very humbling,” he said.

He described it as an unbelievable honor and privilege to serve and said he intends to give it his all.

He’s settling into his new office on the third floor of the State Office Building, which is located next door to the Capitol. He has received his committee assignments and is pleased with them.

He will serve on the  Health and Human Services Finance Committee, Health and Human Services Policy Committee and the Housing Finance and Policy Committee.

“During the campaign, I committed to bringing my Minnesota values of fiscal discipline and job creation to the Capitol and I intend to keep that pledge,” he said.

He also will soon introduce his first bill, which would require doctors to screen newborn babies for congenital heart defects.

“I think I have a compelling story to tell about the importance of doing that. It’s quick, it’s simple, it’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s about saving children’s lives,” said Zerwas, who was born with a congenital heart defect.

The screening is performed utilizing a pulse oximetry test that measures the oxygen saturation in the blood. A low oxygen saturation level can indicate a previously undiagnosed heart defect, which can cause serious complications only a few days into the new baby’s life, Zerwas said.

Council election: A proud moment

Zerwas served six years on the Elk River City Council before resigning after being elected to the Legislature. His last meeting as a council member was Monday, Jan. 7, and he was recognized by the council then.

Zerwas thanked the mayor, council members and the city staff and described his six years on the council as “a huge learning opportunity.”

His successor will be appointed later by the City Council.

Zerwas told the Star News that one of the proudest moments of his life was when he was elected to the City Council. He said he will miss his fellow council members and the city’s “amazing” employees.

“Life is about relationships. It’s about people,” Zerwas said. “I’ve just met so many wonderful people in my time on the Elk River Council.”

Asked about his accomplishments in the last six years, Zerwas is proud of the city’s budget and the effort to keep it in check. Despite financial challenges such as the loss of state aid and a drop in permit revenue due to the downturn in home building, Zerwas said the city has levied the smallest amount of property taxes since 2007.

“We’ve budgeted responsibly. We’ve cut back where we’ve needed to but most residents haven’t experienced a drastic cut in service,” he said.

He also is pleased the way the downtown park and the city’s branding process turned out.

Neither was very popular with residents at first, Zerwas said. Now, however, he said people often comment that they are impressed with the new Powered by Nature brand and glad that the city went ahead with the River’s Edge Commons Park, which draws crowds of people to downtown as home to a summer concert series.

Elk River legislators, past and present

The Minnesota Legislative Reference Library website lists nine people from Elk River who have served in the Minnesota Legislature over the years, although the library cautions that the list may not be complete. Here is the list:

William Sturgis: Territorial Council, 1849–51; Territorial House, 1856; Democratic Constitutional Convention, 1857. He was a farmer.

H.J.G. Croswell: House, 1863. He was a merchant.

A.R. Hayden: House, 1866. He was a farmer.

William H. “W.H.” Houlton: Senate, 1878; Senate, 1883–86. His occupation was listed as lumberman-miller.

Arthur Newman “A.N.” Dare: House, 1895–1900. Dare was owner and publisher of the Star News.

Andrew Davis: House, 1907–14. Davis was a merchant.

Frank Thurston White: House, 1907–10. He was an attorney.

Stephanie Klinzing: House, 1993–94. Her listed occupation at the time she was elected was journalist. She also had served on the Sherburne County Board of Commissioners and, after being a legislator, as Elk River mayor.

Nick Zerwas: House, 2013–present. He has worked in forensics and does training for corporations and nonprofits on living each day to the fullest.