The Other Rocky

The Other Rocky

While most politicians win by appealing to the lowest common denominator, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson takes a decidedly higher road.


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.

“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.

Like his city, the grandiose religious and civic architecture of which points to ambitions for greatness lacking in most midsize urban centers, Anderson thinks big. He has pushed to implement the Kyoto Protocols locally, mandating that all city buildings use energy-efficient light bulbs, replacing SUVs in the city fleet with hybrid cars–his personal car is a Honda Civic that runs on compressed natural gas–almost doubling the city’s recycling capacity in one year and starting a program to recapture and use for electricity generation the methane produced at the city’s water treatment plant and landfill. “Global warming,” he avers, “is clearly the most urgent issue facing our planet–we have an enormous moral obligation to change government policy and incorporate changes in our business and our government and our individual lives. Kant’s categorical imperative has never been more applicable.”

Largely because of his policies around global warming and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions locally, in 2005 Anderson was honored with a World Leadership Award in the category of environmental work. In November the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives brought Anderson to a summit at the Sundance Resort, in Utah, to discuss with other mayors ways to reduce urban usage of fossil fuels.

The Salt Lake City mayor has also changed the way city officials interact with their constituents, making his administration one of the most accessible in the country. Once a month, on a Saturday morning, Anderson and his staff, dressed casually, will walk around different neighborhoods, talking with locals and holding open mikes where residents can air their concerns. On Wednesday evenings every few weeks the mayor makes himself available for “one-on-ones” with his constituents. “He has the ability, if there’s a social boundary, to break through it,” says community liaison staffer Gwen Springmeyer, a longtime probation officer who initially felt the mayor was too out of kilter with the mainstream but who has since become a diehard fan. During the 2002 Winter Olympics, despite the concerns of security experts, the mayor opened up the third floor of City Hall for parties, bringing together world-class athletes with some of the poorest of Salt Lake City’s residents. He also rented out the Jewish Community Center for two more parties for locals. In passing, friends mention that he’s been known to invite homeless people to sleep in his house.

Anderson has restructured the city’s criminal justice system and, suspicious of the tenets of the war on drugs, thrown the Just Say No DARE program out of the city’s schools. Instead of pushing for more and more low-end offenders to be sent to jail or prison, he has built one of the country’s most innovative restorative justice programs, for which he was nominated for a second World Leadership Award–in December the judges in London announced that Stuttgart, Germany, had edged Anderson’s city for the prize. Mental health courts now channel mentally ill criminals into mandatory treatment programs rather than dumping them behind bars; a misdemeanor drug court similarly replaces punishment with treatment; and the city now has one of the most active victim-offender reconciliation programs in America. People arrested for driving under the influence or soliciting prostitutes are sent through a comprehensive course of counseling rather than automatically being handed criminal records.

“I had the most unorthodox interview of my life,” Sim Gill, Salt Lake City prosecutor for the past six years, recalls. When Anderson contacted him, Gill, originally from Chandragar, India, was a deputy DA for Salt Lake County and had built a reputation for thinking outside the box when it came to sensible punishments for criminal defendants. “We sat and discussed the meaning of life for the next hour, and ethics, and social responsibility. We connected on a principle of community service; he’s very passionate about wanting to solve community problems. The question isn’t whether we can fill up our jail beds. The question is, are we filling them up with the right kind of people? Jail should be a place we [only] put people who are a risk to our community.”

On other fronts, Anderson has gone out on a limb to defend gay rights and has been an outspoken opponent of wholesale sweeps against illegal immigrants. He has turned the city into one of America’s top relocation centers for refugees from war-torn spots of the world.

And last but not least, he has repeatedly taken on big developers, from “sprawl mall” advocates to those in favor of unregulated suburban growth in the large Salt Lake Valley region surrounding the 182,000-strong city itself.

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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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