By Raymond R. Beltran
“Finishing like a rock star” is how National City Mayor Nick Inzunza likes to perceive his last days in office. Some think maybe a one hit wonder who overdosed on popularity and arrogance the way young talent does when they’re prematurely exalted. Sadly, it could be said that when he leaves this Tuesday, Dec 5, he leaves with no more than a tainted reputation.
‘Sanctuary city’ and ‘slumlord’ are labels, among others, that have surrounded Nick’s office most recently. But despite the cloud of negativity lingering from these issues, shame nor a bad reputation aren’t the reasons why, he says, he decided not to run for a second term last month.
Sitting in a room of empty packing boxes and wearing a pair of three hundred dollar boots instead of the trademark tennis shoes he wore to reflect his ‘on the go’ attitude, he says he plans to take more active role as a father to his three young children.
“Being mayor was never the end of the road. I never aspired to be a mayor,” he said last week. “It’s just like this is something I wanted to do and this is how I’m going to do it. I’m not going to make friends. I’m not going to try to be popular. I’m going to get in and get out.”
The former city councilman climbed the local government ranks quickly and just last year a handful of political analysts had the thirty six year old Nick Inzunza pegged for succeeding Juan Vargas’s seat in Assembly District 79. He was a bona fide candidate until a press-frenzy darkened his image for owning a neglected bunch of uninhabitable slums throughout Logan Heights.
He calls the incident a “speed bump” that nobody will remember compared to his political endeavors and calls the assembly seat aspirations that were not his own. But ‘getting out’ doesn’t look like a card in the deck either for the former mayor, who continues to insinuate there may be a congressional seat in his future and who hadn’t even finished his first city councilman term before being elected to mayor in 2002.
“I think every politician has to have that arrogance in order to do their job,” he says. But his arrogance can’t arise from a mission accomplished but probably more from a family name that has been prematurely politicized as a ‘dynasty’ with no valid pretense.
Nick Inzunza doesn’t come from a long line of politicians. He’s merely the first of his family to hold a mayoral office, in a small town no less. What he and his band of brothers do have is a concrete political foundation that began with his father, Ralph Inzunza Sr.
It was only two generations ago, his grandparents, Ricardo and Marina Inzunza, migrated to the South Bay from the coal mines of the Imperial Valley in the 1940s to raise a houseful of children by working in local tuna canneries.
Their children grew up in a time, late 60s early 70s, when the South Bay was reflecting the rest of the nation in that Mexican Americans were becoming ‘Chicanos’. Organizations like the Committee on Chicano Rights were germinating. Political third parties like La Raza Unida were formed, and among all the grassroots activism, Ralph Sr. was one of the few politically active Chicanos who was formally educated from two universities with time served in the Peace Corps.
His footwork in grassroots organizing and a career as an educator in National City’s Sweetwater High School earned him all due respect among the South Bay Chicano community, which ultimately led to his being elected onto the San Ysidro School Board in 1974 and eventually his election onto the National City City Council ten years later.
“My father raised us in that movement,” remembers Nick. “We were raised going to marches and all the protests.” Ralph Sr. groomed his three sons for a future in political activism.
“At nineteen, I was already a veteran,” he says. “I knew exactly how to organize people, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to say it, how we’re going to make it peaceful. It was a part of everyday life.”
When referencing the In-zunza’s organizing track record, Nick mentions he and his brother Ralph’s involvement in campaigns like Congressman Jose Serrano, Jim Bates, Denise Moreno Ducheny, Juan Vargas and the current successor to Ralph Jr.’s former District Eight city council seat, Benjamin Hueso.
But what could have turned out to be the opening of floodgates for Chicanos to take part in the political arena (in order to practice el movimiento’s ideal of self-determination) turned out to be a councilman indicted and a local mayor run out of town.
Ralph Jr. succeeded Juan Vargas in San Diego City Council, District 8, in 2001 when Vargas was elected as an assemblyman. He was re-elected in 2002, but like his brother rose quickly and committed political suicide before his term expired when he was indicted and charged with wire fraud and extortion alongside council members Michael Zucchet and the late Charles Lewis.
Nick had a defensive four year tenure as National City mayor: an unresolved JC Penny Incident where police and border patrol cooperation led to the deportation of an innocent Latino family, a sham citizen’s police review board, the police shooting of Armando Lazos, but most recently Nick’s private dealings that have only added insult to the injury.
Last year he sat as chair on the city’s Community Development Commission and awarded development contracts to chiropractors turned developers (CYMA, LLC), who were not only less qualified than others bidding for a three acre piece of land, but to those who contributed an approximate $3,700 to his campaign for an assembly seat he was pursuing at the time. San Diego’s Ethics Panel fined Nick $2,000 this April for campaign violations, and the San Diego Union Tribune discovered and publicized once unknown tenants living in squalid rentals he owned throughout Logan Heights.
The incidents played out in the media like watchdog journalism turned tabloid, and for a mayor who’s more apt to interview via email, Nick’s face and family became the topic of evening television and newspapers to the point that he red flagged certain Union Tribune reporters, he says, due to harassment.
“When I decided to be a fulltime councilman, I overlooked my responsibilities. I saw them on television and I didn’t even know I owned those,” he says in somewhat passive defense, adding that he’s poured almost half a million dollars into rentals along Dewey and South 30th St.
But trading in a first class ticket to a promising career in politics in order to be a stay home dad seems to be too tall of a tale, especially for a family that dubbed themselves the ‘Kennedys of the South Bay.’
“Any great family will have to go through some sort of scandal, some sort of turbulence,” he says. “But all that tells the rest of San Diegans is that whether you agree or disagree, you know the family.
“Ask people next year and they won’t remember that stuff, but ask them about sanctuary for immigrants and they’ll say, ‘oh yeah.’ Issues like that are bumps in the road. We’ll always encounter those, but the key is how do we persistently stand to gain and not hold vendettas and not be angry about it.”
This September, he declared National City a sanctuary for immigrants, basically, reiterating immigration laws already in place (the acceptance of matri-cula consular ID cards). It drew hundreds of activists on opposite ends of the issue, two hundred of which were from the anti-immigrant group The Minutemen. For him, the issue aligned him with humanitarian groups like the Border Angels.
For some, forgiveness was in order.
“We have to show support for people like Nick Inzunza. He supported our cause for a sanctuary city and now let’s support him,” said Border Angels activist Enrique Morones during the September rallies. “Has he made mistakes? Absolutely. Do I support some of the things he’s done with his tenants? Of course I don’t support that, of course. But you know if he kept on going in that direction, that’s one story, but we’ve all made mistakes.”
For others, his actions were only an attempt to polish up a tarnished reputation and labeled it “political grandstanding.”
A city that had been told they were suffering a $7 million deficit, also a part of his legacy and which led to a one percent sales tax increase this year, had to foot a $70,000 bill for extra police two weekends in a row.
“Whether you like Nick Inzunza or you don’t like Nick Inzunza, he’s turned this city around,” says National City Councilman Frank Parra. He believes that Nick’s biggest contribution to the city has been the energy and charisma he’s brought to a once quiet community.
“I think he’s renewed the focus in the city by taking on the [Port Commission] for our city’s fair share,” says Parra. “Clearly we weren’t getting the press we were before Nick Inzunza.”
Though the majority of Mexican families who make up 65 percent of National City continue to live below the median income, Inzunza is leaving office content that while he was in office the city witnessed the construction of the National City Library, Southwestern College’s Higher Education Center, a sales tax increase (that turned off local businesses), and recent meetings with the San Diego Chargers to plan for a stadium.
“People were laughing at me four years ago, now there laughing with me,” says Inzunza.
For Ron Morrison, a twelve year city councilman and vice mayor who’s to be sworn into the mayor’s seat this Tuesday, Dec 5, Nick’s accomplishments have not been much more than credit misdirected.
“If you’re in office, you get to take credit for things that had nothing to do with you. It’s all about timing,” says Morrison. “The library, the Education Village, these things were already in the making ten years ago … but it’s all smoke and mirrors. What happened to Highland Avenue and the Filipino Village?”
He says the influx of Latinos, like City Manager Chris Zapata and Police Chief Adolfo Rod-riguez, holding positions in the city’s government had little to do with the mayor and more to do with a larger pool of qualified Latinos in recent years and more retiring officials who’d been in office far too long.
Nonetheless, Nick says he “attributes the Latinos who are currently in government today to a movement of Latinos who got [him] elected into office four years ago and six years ago, and who got [his] father elected eighteen years ago.”
“I’ve never said I’m getting out of politics,” he declares. “My intention is to stay very involved. I think that for those people that love to hate me or those that hate to love me, I’m going to be around for fifty years. It’s a good time for all of us to keep working this thing out.”
The future of his family, he says, lies in its resilience to endure, especially with another generation of Inzunzas being born today, that and having enough money to not have to “beg for a job to survive.”
“I don’t depend on a job. I depend on Nick Inzunza. I don’t have a problem with finances. I don’t have to find work,” says the former mayor, who declines to state where his money comes from. Reports say he has $9.4 million in real estate.
“But I do know I would’ve gotten re-elected,” he says confidently. “If I would have declared my candidacy, it would have been hard to find someone to run against me.”
He currently has a home on East 13th Street and hasn’t decided if he’s going to stay in town. He also says that other than being a more active father, he plans to open an arts gallery along National City Boulevard, possibly where the former Chicano Perk Café used to be. He also says he’ll continue working with pro-immigration groups.
Politically, other Latinos have already jumped the Inzunza ship though. Councilman Hueso has disassociated himself from the name. Vargas has publicly asked why he’s continuously aligned with the family. But even though Nick says he’d rather stand alone, “not feeling the need for back up,” he divulges his family’s support for those same politicians.
And for this story, a handful of less forgiving grassroots activists were asked to comment on Nick’s four year tenure and how it’s impacted Latino politics, or the community for which it was supposed to serve for that matter. But it was discovered that some would rather quietly wait for what they consider the inevitable: for his term and its controversy to quickly fade into an abysmal memory and to stand as a history lesson learned, for Latinos, of what not to do when they’ve reached “the political line of scrimmage.”
Declining to be interviewed for this story Norma Cazares did state: “As unfair as it is, a whole community becomes tainted and judged by the wrongdoings of an elected official of color, particularly Latino due to anti-Hispanic (and) immigrant sentiments, and it takes much more time to recover from it.”
But Cazares, a Southwestern College counselor and activist with The South Bay Forum, is not alone. Other activists declined to comment to avoid what they view as beating a dead horse. A tell tale sign of the distance between Nick Inzunza and the Chicano community he’s leaving office without anyone asking him to stay.
“Unfortunately, when you get down to it, regardless of any good they may have done in the past their more recent and very public indiscretions reveal true agendas and reflects negatively on Latino politics and the community,” Cazares concluded in her email.