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MISSION VIEJO : Cartoonist’s Pulitzer Draws New Attention

It’s called the inverse law of political cartooning: the more hate mail and protests provoked, the better a cartoonist is doing his or her job.

Earlier this month, former South County resident and UC Irvine graduate Michael Ramirez won the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Now, Ramirez’s editor said, a local gay and lesbian group is planning to picket his newspaper office in protest of the conservative cartoonist receiving his profession’s top prize.

This makes Ramirez very happy.

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“You relish the negative letters and phone calls,” said Ramirez, sitting on a terrace at the Ritz-Carlton hotel while on vacation in his home county this week. “People either love you or hate you, but that’s OK, as long as you make them think.”

Take a recent cartoon featuring President Clinton bowing to a sumo wrestler representing Japanese attitudes toward the United States. Wonders Clinton as he stares at the wrestler’s massive backside: “Shouldn’t he be facing us?”

Ed and Fumiko Ramirez raised four doctors “and one black sheep” in Mission Viejo, says Michael Ramirez, now 32, with a smile.

Ramirez attended UC Irvine and joined the campus newspaper as a writer. One day, the editor asked him to draw a cartoon about a student government candidate.

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A few days later, Ramirez found himself apologizing to a group of university officials, thinking all the while: “These people are really hostile. This is great.”

After graduation, he knocked on the doors of major newspapers and cartoon syndicates while working for a series of weekly publications in Orange County. His break came shortly after he was hired by a San Clemente daily newspaper, the Sun Post, which was then owned by Howard Publications but was recently acquired by Freedom Newspapers Inc.

An editor of the Copley newspaper chain, who lived in San Clemente, saw Ramirez’s cartoons and began to syndicate them nationally.

The Pulitzer “came as a real shock,” he said. “I’ve been in a coma the last few weeks. I had pretty much written it off, me being the antithesis of liberal, politically correct cartooning.”

“I always thought I’d get the Pulitzer. You have to have the kind of confidence as a political cartoonist,” he said. “But I always thought I’d get it posthumorously .”

In conversation, Ramirez’s grin and sly asides are constant. Jets pass loudly overhead, preparing for the El Toro Air Show: Ramirez wonders if they’re practicing strafing runs.

In his work, Ramirez is the same, full of observations and dark humor.

“I like to view myself as a cynical optimist,” he said. “We want to fight the injustices, but we want to do it with a sense of humor.”

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In 1990, Tennessee state legislators approved a bill at 2 a.m. giving themselves 43% pay raises at a time when the state was running a deficit.

A Ramirez cartoon depicted Gov. Ned McWhorter as a large, corpulent pig feeding from the public trough. Public outcry soon forced the Legislature to repeal the raise.

“The best ideas just cut right to the core,” Ramirez said. “If people can’t get the point by looking at a cartoon right away, you haven’t done your job.

“Political cartoons are a very powerful tool, and I think politicians know that.”


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