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Post-Prison, Ex-Councilman Turns Self Into Fictional Character

Strippergate figure Ralph Inzunza has a new novel and no regrets.

Former City Councilman Ralph Inzunza / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego’s disgraced politicians keep seeking redemption at the bully pulpit of 21st-century self-publishing.

First, former Mayor Dick Murphy, who quit his office amid a roaring municipal pension scandal, tried to claw back some respect with a 2011 book with a title as clumsy as his tenure: “San Diego’s Judge Mayor: How Murphy’s Law Blindsided Leadership with 2020 Vision.”

Then, earlier this year, former Mayor Bob Filner, whose mammoth ego and libido killed his career, unearthed his trademark I-screwed-up-but-the-establishment-lynched-me defense in “Trumping Trump: Making Democrats Progressive Again.”

Now, former Councilman Ralph Inzunza, one of the only San Diego leaders to ever be imprisoned, is defending himself through fiction. His new novel, “The Camp,” focuses on life among inmates. But Inzunza, through his doppelgänger main character, also defends himself and points fingers.

Inzunza, from a politically powerful and troubled South Bay family, joined the City Council as a Democrat in 2001. He represented the largely Latino southern stretches of the city.

In 2003, prosecutors indicted Inzunza and two other councilmen on charges of accepting campaign contributions in exchange for supporting proposed strip club regulations.

The notorious “strippergate” scandal threatened to send all three to prison. But one councilman, Charles Lewis, died of natural causes. And while both Inzunza and ally Councilman Michael Zucchet were convicted, Zucchet won on appeal and went on to become leader of the city’s white-collar employee union. Inzunza went to prison and became inmate No. 86047-198 from 2012-2013.

At 48, Inzunza is returning to the public eye, four years after he was released from Atwater Federal Prison Camp, a tiny low-security facility next to a prison in the Central Valley. He’s tangling with local political types on Twitter, adopting a snarky left-leaning persona. And he’s written a barely veiled account of his time behind bars.

In the novel, Inzunza transforms himself into Eddie Angulo, a San Diego politician who says he was wrongly convicted of illegally raising campaign funds from a developer for a fellow councilman. The character hints at political payback: “I had the downtown power brokers in a panic, and I felt the city was mine.”

He’s sent to a prison camp called Sweetwater, where inmates name him El Alcalde (the mayor) because of his background as a deputy mayor.

Among other adventures, El Alcalde learns and teaches in a Mexican-dominated atmosphere that he describes as “politically refreshing.” The “Mayor of Sweetwater” also saves a life, brags about his political accomplishments and gets into debates about the word “Chicano,” “Hispanic” and “Mexican.”

While he doesn’t focus much on his past, the fictional Mayor of Sweetwater claims to have been railroaded. In an interview via email, Inzunza preferred to focus on the present, although it’s clear the past still stings. “I fought the charges for nine years because I felt that I was innocent,” he said. “But when I lost, I surrendered.”

What have you been up to since getting out of prison?

Raising my kids and trying to be a good husband. I write in the mornings, have an interesting lunch and then pick up my kids in the early afternoon. This has been my routine for the last few years. I have no complaints.

Why write this book now?

The book had been swirling in my head since I was in prison. After a year of being out, I figured, it’s now or never, so I went for it.

Why write a novel instead of a memoir? You could have changed the names of the prisoners to protect them.

I wrote a novel because I wanted to embellish a little and write about a few different subjects. Plus everyone close to me knows my story, as my memoir was written by a few newspaper reporters years ago.

Why did you decide to publish the book this way, via the self-publishing outfit CreateSpace and a publisher called Floricanto Press?

The publishing world is tough, but extra tough on the genre they call multi-cultural fiction, and at the bottom of that heap is Chicano fiction.

I did my research and figured there were only about a dozen publishing houses around the country that would consider a first-time Chicano novelist. I began sending out my manuscript, and received two no’s before getting the call from the founder of Floricanto Press. I got lucky!

The book cover art shows a prison and weird distortion in the foreground. What does this mean to you?

I asked the publisher to give me a prison background for the cover with a warped image beneath it, as my experience was a surreal one. Prison might look like a formal institution, but when you scratch the surface it really is in disarray.

How much of the main character in the book is you?

Quite a bit of my personality is in El Mayor, my real nickname in prison. I wanted my readers to feel that they were hearing from an authentic voice, so I went with me in the first person.

There’s some score-settling in the book and, as far as I could tell, the main character has no regret about the actions that led to his prosecution and a prison term.
How does all this reflect your feelings now toward your accusers and your own actions?

I fought the charges for nine years because I felt that I was innocent. But when I lost, I surrendered. With regards to my case in general, I’ve sort of moved on to writing.

You write this about the main character: “I was probably too outspoken for a lot of people in power, so they put me in check in a big way … I had the downtown power brokers in a panic, and I felt the city was mine.”

That reminds me of how Bob Filner claimed the downtown establishment wanted to take him down and managed to do it. Did you see yourself as a politician who scared the crap out of the downtown types?

I do think that I was a politician who knew what he was doing, and one that did scare the crap out of a few people. But how the prosecution came to be, I’ll never know.

Do I think that some of the establishment was happy to see me leave the political arena? Absolutely!

Please remember, my whole case was over $5,000 in legally reported campaign contributions, and we were indicted on our thoughts about changing a law. A vote, or a change in the law, never took place.

Can you describe “The Camp”?

The Camp is a little bit like sixth-grade camp. It’s a big, high school gym-sized building with a bunch of bunk beds. You’re with people from all walks of life, all of them nonviolent offenders, and the majority are there for drugs. You’re free to do as you please as long as you don’t leave the few acres that makes up our perimeter.

What message are you hoping to get across?

The main reason I wrote this book versus a memoir is that I want our country to know that locking up Americans for 10, 15 or 20 years for nonviolent drug sales is nuts.

I’ve always had a pretty good idea of how our government works, but I wasn’t aware of what the mandatory drug sentences are doing to communities of color. This law really is a form of apartheid in that it treats certain groups of people differently, and this in turn impacts everyone in a community.

What’s with your pugnacious debut on Twitter?

I think I had too much time in between books.

What do you think of city leaders now?

The San Diego City Council as a whole gets a C. The lights are on, and every now and then a pothole will get taken care of, but nothing dynamic is happening.

[Mayor Kevin] Faulconer gets an F. The Chargers leaving, Hep A and the lack of housing.

He came in as probably our last GOP mayor. It’ll be hard for the Republicans to win again in a presidential year. The city’s crumbling under his leadership, and the Dems have no worries when it comes to whatever figments of his imagination he might have towards higher office.

Might you return to politics? Is that possible for you? Can you even vote?

I do vote, and the only thing I can’t do is sit on a jury and own a gun, two things I hate.

I have started my second book, “Border Citizen.” This is also a novel. It’s about a 14-year-old boy in 1982 growing up along the border watching his father and uncles struggle through the Chicano civil rights movement.

I plan to pump out a novel every two years about Latino issues. I see it as challenging as politics once was for Mexicans to break through in. Growing up we had no representation in the political arena, and now that we do, it’s time to move on to the literary one.

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