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The Other Rocky | The Nation

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The Other Rocky

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Standing at the top of the imposing stone staircase leading up to the entrance to City Hall on a blustery late August day, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson finishes his speech denouncing George W. Bush, a man he calls "the most dangerous President the country's ever had," a leader he believes has precipitated an "incredible moral crisis" for America. Then, with no police escort, no men with guns protecting him, he bounds down the steps and descends into the five- or six-thousand-strong crowd. He's instantly mobbed. Hundreds of people, gathered to protest the presence of Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice at the American Legion convention in the nearby Salt Lake Palace, push toward him. Many appear desperate simply to catch a glimpse of the thin, medium-height, silver-haired man in the black suit, pressed white shirt and black-and-white-striped tie. They strain forward to shake his hand, to pat his back, to hug him, to talk with him or simply to throw words at him.

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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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"You've got enormous balls!" a woman cries out. Without batting an eye, Anderson, in his deep bass voice, retorts, "Word's got out."

With his chief of staff, Sam Guevara, running ahead and turning back to snap digital photos, Anderson--who claimed to have spent more than thirty hours hunched in front of his computer honing his speech--joins the back end of the demonstration as the crowd proceeds up State Street to the federal building. He detours briefly to argue with some middle-aged women heckling him with bullhorns (at the urgings of state Republican Party leaders, thousands of the state's residents have been calling City Hall in recent days to protest Anderson's planned participation in the demonstration) and then continues walking. At the federal building, protest leaders deliver a petition to the offices of Utah's senators, urging them to begin impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush.

"You should run for President," people keep telling him, as they mill around in front of the heavily guarded federal building. Mindful that this is his last year in office, Anderson doesn't pooh-pooh the sentiment or issue exaggerated disclaimers. Instead he answers, carefully, that you need money to run, that you need a state machine backing you--which, in a place as virulently conservative as Utah, known until fairly recently as "the Mississippi of the West," is not going to happen for Anderson--that you need to know when to shut up and not speak your mind. Successful national politicians listen to handlers and spin doctors, and that's something he won't do.

Clearly, the 55-year-old mayor, a lapsed Mormon with more than a hint of the charismatic preacher about him, has given serious thought to the possibility of trying to become President Ross "Rocky" Anderson. But he's realized that despite the current unpopularity of Republican machine politicians, given the contours of the contemporary electoral system and primary process, a man such as himself can't win. "I'd be torn to pieces," he replies to one of his supporters. "If I thought I could win, I would. This country certainly needs leadership."

In the mid-1990s Rocky Anderson, a successful local attorney and a longtime community activist who sat on the boards of several leading nonprofit organizations in Salt Lake City, ran for an open Congressional seat. To the dismay of Utah's conservative Democratic Party machine, Anderson, who first made ripples in local politics back in the 1970s, when he worked as an attorney with Planned Parenthood to open up Utah's restrictive antiabortion and anticontraception laws, won the primary. In the general election, however, he lost. Shortly afterward, he decided to run for mayor of Salt Lake City, and in 1999 he achieved an upset victory as a doggedly populist, anti-machine candidate.

Over the past seven years, Anderson has transformed the city. While outsiders who know little of the nuances of Utah politics might assume this nerve center for the Church of Latter Day Saints to be a bastion of conservatism, among those who track urban policy trends the city has become synonymous with some of the most creative urban government thinking in the country. In 2005 Anderson became a founding member of the New Cities Project, a group linking progressive mayors from around the country, and one that holds meetings twice a year on the fringes of the US Conference of Mayors.

There is a sort of Camelot-in-the-Wasatch feel to Salt Lake City these days. Many of the mayor's younger staffers, plucked out of activism and into administration by the activist city government, call to mind the Clean-for-Gene college kids who campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in 1968: Dressed smartly, coiffed to a conservative T, many are having their first experience inside the halls of power.

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