The night before Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson hosted a crowd of several thousand protesters on the grounds of City Hall, Anderson’s friend and adviser, the sculptor Steven Goldsmith, told me that the mayor was about to become “a folk hero of the American West.”
Goldsmith, a middle-aged balding man with a trim gray beard and a perennial twinkle in his eye, was among Anderson’s inner circle; they had met back in the early 1970s, when Anderson, an up-and-coming young attorney, was working with Planned Parenthood to open up Utah’s conservative antiabortion and anticontraception laws. When Anderson stunned the political establishment by winning election to the mayorship in 1999 as a take-no-prisoners populist, Goldsmith was brought aboard as the city’s planning director, helping to rejuvenate the downtown using money leveraged around the upcoming Winter Olympics: expanding the light railway system, encouraging the creation of vibrant restaurant dining hubs, helping to bring cutting-edge cultural events to town.
Anderson is surrounded by extremely intelligent, idealistic and, it has to be said, adoring people. His administration has a sort of Camelot-in-the-Wasatch Mountains feel to it, a glamorous, energetic sense of possibility. In a city more known as the center of Mormonism than as a focal point for progressive politics, Anderson has instituted some of the most creative, thoughtful and radical urban policies anywhere in America. He has pushed to implement the Kyoto Protocol locally; has re-created the way in which city officials interact with their constituents; has restructured the city’s criminal justice system; has gone out on a limb to defend gay rights; and 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.
I liked Anderson and his team, but their praise of the boss seemed hyperbolic. A folk hero of the American West? Surely that was a bit much.
But having been present at Mayor Anderson’s searing, and devastatingly articulate, critique of President Bush on August 30, I have to say Goldsmith was onto something. Most of the event itself was run-of-the-mill, a few thousand antiwar, anti-Bush protesters, a platform of entirely forgettable, sometimes embarrassingly inept, speakers, many of whom mouthed nothing but platitudes. But Rocky’s speech (everyone calls him just “Rocky”), now that was something else. It was orders of magnitude more powerful than any critique of Bush I’ve seen by an elected political figure, not so much because of his particular denunciations of Bush’s Iraq policies but because he synthesized sentiments about the whole way in which Bush governs and the nature of his relationship with the electorate.