Fifty-five pounds lighter and a year and a half older, former Minneapolis City Council Member Dean Zimmermann returned home Thursday morning. Or at least halfway home.
Zimmermann checked into a Lake Street halfway house, where he will serve at least part of what remains of a 30-month prison sentence he received for accepting “gratuities” in exchange for a promise of votes while he was a member of the council from 2001 to 2005. He was found guilty of three of four federal corruption counts in August 2006 and began his prison sentence in January 2007.
“I’m looking forward to being able to do useful work again,” said Zimmermann, who had prison time cut after completing a drug and alcohol treatment program.
Zimmermann, who is 66 years old, plans to start working soon for a local construction company, which is in keeping with his previous work. Before and after he was a council member, Zimmermann made his living as a handyman.
Zimmermann was picked up at the Minneapolis bus station Thursday morning, after traveling 23 hours by bus from the federal prison in Inglewood, Colo., by his wife, Jenny Heiser. It was a joyful reunion, she said.
Accompanied by Heiser and one of his sons, he almost went straight to the halfway house. There was one stop along the way.
“He really wanted ice cream,” said Heiser.
“Vanilla, of course,” she said.
Vanilla after all that time in prison?
“He is from North Dakota, you know,” she said.
Though both Zimmermann and Heiser said they had changed over the course of the indictment and prison time, in many ways the two seemed no different. They both at least tried to remain activists.
For his part, Zimmermann, a Green Party member, attempted to start an organic garden and set up a recycling program at the prison. But both efforts were blocked by the warden, Heiser said.
“The warden came in and had the garden torn out because he said they were in violation of contracts the prison had [with food vendors],” Heiser said. “The same thing with the recycling. He said that the prison had a contract to produce a certain amount of waste.”
For her part, Heiser organized “The Wives of Inglewood.” They worked to get rates for such things as hotel rooms and car rental while visiting their imprisoned husbands.
Heiser still clearly believes her husband was set up by politically motivated people in Minneapolis and the U.S. attorney’s office. It was just weeks before the 2005 elections – which, because of redistricting, pitted Zimmermann against another incumbent, Bob Lilligren – that the Zimmermann-Heiser home was raided by FBI agents.
Unlike his spouse, Zimmermann has always been more circumspect about the process that led him to prison.
“Others will have to make up their own minds,” he said of his guilt or innocence.
While in prison, Zimmermann said he read a great deal, especially about solar heating. He hopes, after his sentence is fulfilled, to establish a business installing solar heating panels in older homes in poor Minneapolis neighborhoods. He said that when he first started talking about the problems of global warming “years ago, people thought I was weird. Now, everybody’s talking about it.”
He said he was saddened by so much of what he saw in prison, though he seemed untroubled by the fact that his name was misspelled – “Zimmerman” – the whole while he was imprisoned.
“A whole place filled with people wasting their lives,” he said.
On the other hand, he said he had considerable time for reflection and meditation.
“I found happiness in the zen of dishwashing,” he said.
He also found himself on rat-killing detail in the prison kitchen. But any further thoughts he might have on prison life, he said, will be saved for when his sentence is complete.
How’d he drop 55 pounds?
“Pretty simple,” he said. “You eat less and move more.”
Heiser said that after recovering from a period of deep anger over what she still considers an injustice, she worked harder than she’s ever worked to save the couple’s pleasant inner-city home. She started a “green-clean” business, a house and office cleaning business using environmentally safe products.
She said she has found peace, thanks to scores of friends who maintained their faith in her and her husband. Among those who offered friendship was one of the former council members who previously had been found guilty of federal corruption charges. (Prior to Zimmermann’s indictment, City Council members Joe Biernat and Brian Herron had been found guilty in federal court of corruption.)
She also maintained her sense of humor.
As the time came for her husband to move out of the prison and into the halfway house, she gave him a very bright pink gym bag to carry his personal items.
“I didn’t want him to lose the bag,” she said.
He didn’t. Smiling, he lugged it into the halfway house, apologizing to reporters for rushing off.
“I probably shouldn’t be late,” he said.