Former Minneapolis City Council Member Dean Zimmermann returned to the city Thursday, leaving a big part of himself behind in prison but with his political beliefs still intact.

The handyman-turned-City Council member-turned-convict pronounced himself, at age 66, in the best shape he has been since his North Dakota high school football days.

"I left 20 percent of myself there," he quipped after completing a 17-month stint in a federal minimum-security prison in Colorado, where he dropped 55 pounds. He spoke to reporters after a 23-hour bus ride back to Minneapolis and before entering a halfway house on Lake Street.

Zimmermann was convicted in August 2006 of accepting an illegal gratuity in exchange for his support of a developer's projects. He entered prison still contending that his downfall was more a product of overzealous prosecutors than his own wrongdoing. He also declared his intention to use his sentence as a kind of sabbatical.

While in prison he umpired softball, proved himself a relentless rat-catcher in the prison kitchen, learned to meditate, went through rehab and started an organic garden -- later uprooted by prison officials who said it violated food supply contracts.

Life on the outside was tougher for his wife, Jenny Heiser, who battled to keep the couple's Whittier cottage from foreclosure, launched a sustainable cleaning business, and organized wives of inmates she met during prison visits to negotiate discounts on rental cars and lodging.

She said counseling, friends and reality checks from other prison spouses have helped her get past her husband's prosecution. "I've let go of the anger," she said.

She is determined that if Zimmermann ever enters the political arena again, she wants to make sure it does not intrude on their household again. For now, Zimmermann said, the best part of leaving prison behind for his supervised release is "being able to do useful work again."

"Being in prison is pretty much a waste," he said, echoing comments he made this year in an open community letter published in "The Alley" community newspaper. He ran a dishwasher in the prison kitchen, then served as an education orderly, serving fellow inmates.

"A lot of them are there for no good reason," he said of his fellow prisoners.

Initially, he will work on a construction crew for a building rehab company.

Once he completes his term in January, he's planning to go into business acting on his long-held environmental views, retrofitting homes with solar technology.

He said that recent spikes in energy prices prove what he argued during his 2005 reelection campaign: that global warming caused by short-sighted energy policies represents the most significant issue for his largely low-income former constituents in south Minneapolis.

As a Green Party-endorsed council member, Zimmermann was familiar to his electorate as he biked between home and City Hall and around his ward. But that wasn't enough to keep the pounds from accumulating until he tackled them in prison.

"It was a pretty simple formula: eat less and exercise more," he said. He lifted weights and hit the track.

Just as a huge network of friends, especially those from her Quaker congregation, supported Heiser through Zimmermann's absence, many kept in touch with him by letter. His list of regular correspondents reached more than 200.

"Dean has collected people since his days in North Dakota," Heiser said.

After spending months in drab green prison clothing, his last name misspelled, Zimmermann checked into the halfway facility run by Volunteers of America toting two bags of fresh civilian clothing. One was a bright pink duffle bag that Heiser bought him.

"I knew he wouldn't lose it," she explained.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438