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The Other Rocky | The Nation

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The Other Rocky

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"You do not expect this [these policies] to be coming out of this municipality, out of this state," Gill says. "And therein lies the hope of our political agency. That's what's wonderful about democracy. It is the freedom of dialogue to take hold. The landscape of democracy is always fertile to conversation, and has to be. Anderson's raising issues that need to be talked about. People forget: Democracy requires an ongoing dialogue."

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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In the corner of the mayor's office in a large cage is a green parrot. (The bird's name is Cardoso, and while Anderson has managed to teach him to do a chicken imitation, so far he's had no luck getting the bird to talk.) On the wall opposite Anderson's desk is a four-image montage of John Kennedy, painted by psychedelic art guru Peter Max. In the outer conference room is another Max quartet, this one a series of images of Anderson, whom the artist counts as a friend. Other objects of note in the office: a photo of City Hall with a gay pride flag hanging on the flagpole outside, a replica of the Olympic rings, articles on Anderson's election victories, a snapshot of the mayor with then-President Bill Clinton.

More than thirty years ago, as an undergraduate at the University of Utah, Anderson studied political philosophy, religious philosophy and ethics. He read books by Sartre and other existentialists, and, he remembers, he had a "powerful epiphany. We can't escape responsibility, there's no sitting out moral decisions, and whenever we refuse to stand up against wrongdoing we're actually supporting the status quo."

Three decades on, the angst of the existentialist student has been channeled into a nova burst of political energy and fury. "I really despise what politics has become in this country," he says. "Our elected officials are normally not leaders. They don't inform themselves. They're not driven by any particular passion on these issues."

He's speaking before the Republicans took a beating in the midterm elections, but his criticisms--of soundbite politics, of decisions via focus groups--aren't simply leveled at Karl Rove and his acolytes. "You can point to maybe two or three people in national politics that you can remotely call leaders." His list is somewhat eclectic: Robert Byrd, Russ Feingold, Joe Biden and Mitt Romney. At the top, however, is the Hamlet figure of Mario Cuomo, the quintessential philosopher-politician whose larger-than-life persona hovered in the background over the Democratic Party in the 1980s and early '90s.

"He's elevated the conversation about a range of issues," says Robert Newman, dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah and a friend of the mayor's--they are in a book club together, in which they have read such books as "A Problem From Hell", The Devil in the White City and The Brothers Karamazov. "A lot of people have been very thirsty for that here," says Newman. "His strongest legacy is, we have a not just behind-the-scenes mayor but a mayor who is front and center nationally and internationally. Rocky speaks from the heart. And people respond that way. There's a very visceral reaction to Rocky, whether it's positive or negative."

When Anderson proposed a law stating that the city would favor doing business with companies that paid a living wage to their employees, the conservative state legislature did an end run around this by passing a bill prohibiting municipalities from making contract decisions based on such criteria. He is, according to senior staff, often at loggerheads with councilmen, state legislators and the governor. Some go so far as to say that anything he supports, the legislature will oppose.

For Jeff Hartley, executive director of the Utah Republican Party, Anderson's style, his willingness to critique the Mormon Church, his defense of locally unpopular themes like gay marriage, make him, quite simply, "bombastic. The majority of Utahans take offense at his tone and style. The fact that he'd invite Cindy Sheehan and her brand of anti-Bush campaigning to the state--it seemed quite wrong to a lot of people."

In response to such sentiments, the mayor told the August demonstrators--who had stood through a series of mediocre warm-up speeches while they waited for him to get onstage--"Blind faith in bad leaders is not patriotism. A patriot does not tell people who are intensely concerned about their country to sit down and be quiet in the name of politeness." The Bush Administration, he continued, was "an oppressive, inhumane regime that does not respect the laws and traditions of our country, and that history will rank as the worst President our nation has ever had." Quoting Teddy Roosevelt, he declared that silence in the face of injustice "is morally treasonable to the American public."

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