Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ross 'Rocky' Anderson

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Rocky Anderson
Former Salt Lake City Mayor
By Sasha Abramsky*

14 January 2007: 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.

November 2007 election: Democrat Ralph Becker elected new mayor of Salt Lake City

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 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.

In the mid-1990s Rocky Anderson, a successful local attorney and a long-time community activist who sat on the boards of several leading non-profit 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 anti-contraception 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 channelled 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."

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.

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.

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.

*A longer version of this article appeared in The Nation as ‘The Other Rocky’, 1 January 2007 issue. Reproduced with kind permission.

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