Two disability advocates will be missed at state capitol

Two disability advocates will be missed at state capitol

Special elections ahead

When the 2020 Minnesota Legislature gavels into session in February, two longtime champions of disability issues won’t be there. Fifteen-year Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL- Minneapolis) lost her battle with cancer in November. Four-term Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) announced in November that he was resigning effecting December 6. Zerwas is stepping down for health and family reasons.

Gov. Tim Walz announced special elections for the two seats, so that new legislators can step in when the session starts February 11. The special election for Loeffler’s District 60A seat is February 4. A special primary election will be held January 21 if multiple candidates seek party nominations. The primary date was picked to accommodate college students in the district, who will return to University of Minnesota January 21 for spring semester.

The election for Zerwas’ District 30A seat is also February 4. The primary election, if one is needed, is penciled in for January 14.

Both lawmakers were regular speakers at disability rallies and advocates’ gatherings. Both had also been honored by multiple disability organizations over the years.

Loeffler, 66, had served since 2004, representing northeast Minneapolis. She is remembered as a tireless advocate for people with disabilities, with a focus on those battling mental illness and developmental disabilities. She also was known for her work for immigrants and working people.

Loeffler was very dedicated to her Minneapolis constituents and her longtime Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood.

She had worked as a state education policy analyst and on finance and tax issues for the city of Minneapolis, and recently as a health policy analyst and planner for Hennepin County. Her focus at the county was on services for seniors and people with disabilities.

A personal experience shaped Loeffler’s work for people with disabilities. On her website, Loeffler described her Aunt Lil, who lived with Down syndrome. Her family didn’t send her to live at a state institution, which was standard practice at that time. Instead, Aunt Lil lived with her family, was able to go to school at age 35 and found work through a government-supported day training program. That sparked Loeffler’s interest in social services, disability, education and health care issues.

Her website stated, “Lil’s life taught Diane the power of government policies to open doors of opportunity and ignited her passion to use public policy as a way of improving people’s lives.”

Tributes poured in after Loeffler’s death. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., tweeted that Loeffler was “a model legislator — respected, liked and dedicated to the people she served.”

Services have been held. Survivors include her husband, Michael Vennewitz, whom she met after bidding on his home improvement services at a charity auction. She is also survived by siblings, nieces and nephews and many friends.

For Zerwas, his resignation is meant to address health issues, allow him to spend more time with family and return to a career outside of government. “For the last 13 years it has been the honor of my lifetime to serve my neighbors in Elk River on the city council and the state legislature. My recent heart surgery brought into focus the need to spend as much time as I can with my wife and three-year-old son and spend my prime working years providing the best possible life for my family. It is not easy leaving a job that I absolutely love, but I’m able to depart on my own terms with no regrets and with optimism for what lies ahead. I want to thank my parents, my brothers, my wife Bette and my son for being unbelievably supportive of my service in the legislature,” he said.

Zerwas, who was first elected in 2012, has been a consistent voice for people with disabilities. He has also been active in the fight to allow people with terminal illnesses to use experimental drugs and treatments.

Most recently he was among those calling for reform in the Minnesota Department of Human Services. He attended his final hearing on DHS issues earlier this month.

Zerwas was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect as a child. He wasn’t expected to live past the age of 7. The 38-year-old has had numerous heart surgeries, including two during his years in the Legislature. He underwent routine heart surgery in October to replace his pacemaker.

He is known at the capitol for his sense of humor and a well-stocked candy supply in his desk on the House floor. Zerwas has described the candy as his way of breaking the ice and reaching across the aisle to members of both parties in the House. Zerwas has worked in forensics in the past, including a stint in the crime lab in Anoka County. He previously served on the Elk River City Council.