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The Other Rocky | The Nation

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The Other Rocky

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When I ask Hartley whether he thinks that it's Anderson's actions instead that border on the treasonous, there's a long pause. Finally he says, "It's one thing to be antiwar, but to do it in a way that undermines respect for the President emboldens the enemy--it makes them think, Why shouldn't they fight against what we're trying to accomplish overseas? Anderson's language is incredibly inflammatory."

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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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Countering Hartley, sculptor and architect Steven Goldsmith--who first met Anderson in the 1970s--believes the mayor's combination of intellectual rigor and straight talking has made him something of "a folk hero of the American West."

When Anderson was elected mayor in 1999, Goldsmith was brought aboard as the city's planning director, with the goal of rejuvenating the downtown--in part by using money leveraged around the upcoming winter Olympics--by expanding the light-rail system, encouraging the creation of vibrant restaurant dining hubs, creating from scratch a premier jazz festival and helping to bring cutting-edge cultural events and speakers to town. The city even instituted a citywide book club. "Once Rocky emerged," the architect recalled, "you couldn't help but listen to this thinker. People attached themselves to Rocky's voice."

Seventy-three-year-old Robert Archuleta, the mayor's now-retired adviser on minority affairs and a longtime organizer among lower-income and minority Utahans, once gave Anderson a statue of Cervantes's Don Quixote, as well as a poem he'd written titled "Don Quijote, el Alcalde?" (Don Quixote, the mayor?). "He kinda reminds me of him. He's fearless," says Archuleta, a short man sitting in his small Westside home on the poor side of town, wearing a white vest, suspenders and gray trousers, his white hair a mass of curls. "When he sees something that is wrong and needs to be fixed, he's just fearless." Another senior employee quotes a Jack London poem, using its description of man as a meteor as a metaphor for the mayor.

"It's a great lesson in social discourse," says Goldsmith of his friend's tenure. "It's a great lesson to the kids of the city to stand up and do what's right. He addresses the social conscience of this community, and there's nobody else here to fill it."

The mayor's combination of pragmatic quality-of-life policies as well as ambitious, even utopian, programs around environmental issues has won him many enthusiastic fans. And his ability to improve Salt Lake City's infrastructure and make local government far more responsive has won him support even among people who do not necessarily sympathize with his outspoken prognostications on national and international politics. That's the formula that has allowed him to win two mayoral races, despite vocal opposition from most of Utah's political leadership.

With only a year left in office for Rocky Anderson, where does he go from here? In a more rational system, Anderson, having more than demonstrated his leadership during eight years in the mayor's office, would be a strong candidate for national office--a viable presidential contender, perhaps, and certainly Cabinet-level material. He would, for example, make a strong Secretary of the Interior. But despite the success of a new breed of Democratic populists in the November midterms, generally America's political system still gives a tremendous edge to machine-backed candidates. Given that he lacks the backing of state and regional party groups--or, to rephrase it, has the misfortune of being a strong liberal in a state and region with conservative party machines--could a man like Anderson, who plans to work on environmental and human rights issues once he leaves City Hall, ever make his way to Washington today?

As we move beyond the midterm elections, gratifying though they were for progressives, and into the next presidential election cycle, that's a crucial question. Clearly, there are leaders of tremendous moral and intellectual caliber out there--Anderson's example shows this, as does the rise of many strong liberals in the incoming Congress. But can the same system that catapulted Bush into the White House raise those people to national prominence at an executive level? Is today's system flexible enough to allow the emergence of national leaders and Cabinet secretaries who are thinkers as well as politicians, men and women of principle as well as ambition? Perhaps, but Anderson and others like him face an uphill path. After all, we have grown used to seeing candidates who appeal to the lowest common denominators in our politics win.

Rocky Anderson will likely never attain national office; but perhaps his most important legacy will be showing the country that voters, in some places, do make lofty choices when presented with truly inspiring candidates.

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