Management & Labor

Boldness Without Bluster

The mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, is talking about an experiment he launched earlier this year. Once a week, his department heads and senior managers are required to appear at an open meeting and answer questions from ordinary voters. "I learned that from the Sandinistas," he says.
by | December 2000

The mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, is talking about an experiment he launched earlier this year. Once a week, his department heads and senior managers are required to appear at an open meeting and answer questions from ordinary voters. "I learned that from the Sandinistas," he says.

I look at him with a touch of surprise, and point out that not many American mayors would admit to picking up governing tips from Daniel Ortega. Anderson is not bothered in the least. He doesn't want it off the record, and he doesn't try to backtrack. He just adds a few words of explanation: "I'll take good ideas from anybody," he says.

Rocky Anderson is no Sandinista, but at the moment, he may be America's most unusual big-city mayor. To report that he says whatever he thinks is to understate the case. Anderson isn't just willing to do and say the unconventional; he seems to revel in it.

In his first year as mayor, Anderson has blocked construction of a huge mall the city council favored; imposed a gay-rights policy on which the council had deadlocked; unilaterally killed the city's popular drug education program; endorsed the legalization of marijuana; and challenged the Mormon Church by insisting that beer be made available at the 2002 Olympics.

There are those who consider Rocky Anderson the most honest, most refreshing public official to hit Utah in years. "It's part of his personality to say difficult things if they need to be said," argues Deeda Seed, who left her council seat and became Anderson's chief of staff. "It takes a tremendous amount of courage."

And there are those who say it is only a matter of time before he says or does something that will ruin him politically. "It's not smart," one city council member warns, "to treat us with such disdain." Another one puts it a little differently. "When I go to state municipal meetings," he says, "the other mayors think Anderson is nuts."

Salt Lake City's mayor doesn't look like someone who would enjoy pursuing controversy. There's nothing flamboyant about his style at all--with his neatly combed graying hair, old-fashioned glasses, white shirts and dark suits, he could pass for one of the conservative Mormon mayors of the 1950s whose portraits hang on the walls outside his office. He isn't a rabble-rouser; his speaking style is restrained and matter of fact, and he rarely raises his voice much above conversational level.

But he is an agitator nevertheless, a 48-year-old trial lawyer who has never been comfortable with his city's corporate legal establishment, or with the moderate approach of Utah's Democratic Party, to which he belongs. He spent a term as head of the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, leading to portrayals of him as a one-dimensional libertarian that he doesn't particularly like. "I'm called an ACLU lawyer all the time," he says. "I'm much more than an ACLU lawyer."

But he certainly is a lawyer--in fact, you can tell almost at once that he's a litigator, schooled and tested in an adversarial system in which the object of the game is to defeat one's opponents. Anderson plays that idea down, suggesting that his private legal work actually involved as much conciliation as litigation, but it is hard to watch him operate without getting the idea that he has imported a litigator's single-minded bluntness into a political realm that was not quite prepared for it.

The fact that someone like Rocky Anderson is mayor of a large American city is interesting in itself. The fact that he is mayor of Salt Lake City calls for some detailed explanation.

Contrary to what the rest of the country might assume, Salt Lake City doesn't reflect the attitude of Utah as a whole. It once did; the Republicans who governed it up through the 1970s were the sorts of people who could be elected governor or U.S. senator, and several of them were. But in recent years, Salt Lake City has evolved in a different way from the rest of the state--less conservative, less Republican, less Mormon. Two decades ago it was hard to buy a beer in downtown Salt Lake, and sometimes challenging to find a cup of coffee. Now, the center of the city is dotted with coffee houses and brewpubs.

Like Denver, Boise and other cities of the Mountain West, Salt Lake has attracted newcomers lured by scenery and jobs in high-tech industry. Few of them are Mormons, and many have a libertarian streak, at least on social issues. Local politicians sometimes talk half- seriously about a "Mormon-Dixon" line--an enclave of urban Salt Lake inside which traditional Mormon candidates cannot easily win election. The line used to enclose a few square miles on the south side of town surrounding the University of Utah, but now there are those who place virtually the entire city in this liberal-leaning category. Some go even further. "I think you'll find Salt Lake up there as one of the most liberal cities in America," says councilman Carlton Christiansen. "It's kind of a Mecca in the desert for liberals."

All that being said, it's still unlikely that a confirmed maverick such as Rocky Anderson could succeed in a one-on-one contest against a formidable opponent. But under the city's electoral procedures, he didn't have to. With two-term Mayor Dee Corradini retiring at the end of 1999, there were 11 candidates on the non-partisan primary ballot to replace her. Several were moderate Democrats of the kind that local voters often have preferred in recent years; they essentially cancelled each other out, leaving Anderson (who got 23 percent of the total primary vote) in a runoff against Mormon conservative Stuart Reid, who ran TV ads linking Anderson to the ACLU and accusing him of supporting the release of sex offenders from prison. Given what seemed a clear choice between left and right, Salt Lake City went left, electing Anderson with a 60 percent majority.

No one can plausibly claim that Anderson misled them. His campaign for mayor laid out his policies in unequivocal terms. He favored downtown revitalization and opposed suburban sprawl; he supported a gay-rights ordinance; he considered the "war on drugs" to be a miserable failure. All that was clear to everyone, or should have been. But allies and critics alike were taken aback by the speed and stubbornness with which he set about implementing his agenda once he took office in January.

A majority of the city council members supported legislation to permit construction of a huge new outlet mall on the western edge of the city. Within weeks of his inauguration, Anderson announced he would veto it. He found the two votes he would need to sustain the veto, declared the project dead despite the continuing majority in its favor, and gave a victory speech. "This is a great thing for our community," the mayor said. "We need to avoid sprawl development."

Then he went to work on gay rights. The city council had wavered back and forth on this issue, first passing and then repealing an ordinance adding the words "sexual orientation" to the city's anti- discrimination policy toward its employees. Anderson saw no point in fooling around any further. He added the words by executive order. The mayor's critics were outraged, and threatened a legal challenge. "If he can sit in his office and issue edicts that violate city and state law," said councilman Dave Buhler, "then we've got a dictator."

But Anderson's most controversial move may have been his unilateral cancellation of D.A.R.E., the popular program in which police visit schools to warn children about the dangers of drug abuse. Anderson had been on the warpath against D.A.R.E. for years, giving speeches against it and citing studies that showed it to be ineffective. Still, the program had a sizable constituency, both among school officials and in the police department. Irrelevant, Anderson said. He zeroed out D.A.R.E. without consulting the rest of the city's elected leadership, and began moving toward implementation of an alternative program called ATLAS, which he said was more promising. "You don't ask the council," he later told a visiting mayor. "You just do it."

The flap over this decision had just begun to die down when Anderson told a caucus at the Democratic convention last summer in Los Angeles that "decriminalization of marijuana might be more workable [than the present policy]. To throw people in jail for smoking a joint is really destructive to everyone." Those who had opposed Anderson on D.A.R.E didn't find his views on marijuana particularly reassuring.

How long can he keep this up? Possibly quite a while, if the polls are any indication. One survey this summer gave Anderson a 69 percent approval rating for the first few months of his administration, and showed little public concern about what might be perceived as autocratic tendencies: "I don't think he particularly cares who he pisses off or what he says," argues one local business leader. "The more he tweaks the establishment, the more popular he becomes."

Anderson believes voters are responding not so much to his specific policies or to his acts of confrontation but to his determination to tell what he considers to be the truth. "If people know you're honest," he insists, "they appreciate the candor even if they disagree with you."

And he rejects any notion that his style will make it difficult for him to enact future items on his agenda. "People reading the paper will say there's this huge tension between the mayor and council," the mayor says. "The fact is, we're batting nearly a thousand. On every issue but one, we have prevailed."

Anderson's critics don't really dispute that assessment. They just have a hard time imagining three more years along the lines of the last one. "I don't think he could survive four years at this pace," says Christiansen, "and still have a successful administration."

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