Published on Thursday, March 22, 2007 by the New York Times
In Utah, an Opponent of the ‘Culture of Obedience’
by Kirk Johnson
SALT LAKE CITY — Rocky Anderson may not be the most liberal mayor in America. But here in the most conservative state, he might as well be.
Just being himself is enough to galvanize, divide or enrage people who have followed his career as Salt Lake City’s mayor, and who are now watching him become, in the twilight of his final term, a national spokesman for the excoriation and impeachment of President Bush.
[“President Bush is a war criminal,” Mr. Anderson, a Democrat, said at a rally here on Monday marking the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq. “Let impeachment be the first step toward national reconciliation — and toward penance for the outrages committed in our nation’s name.”]
Mr. Anderson, a 55-year-old lapsed Mormon and former civil litigator with a rich baritone and a mane of patrician-silver hair, is no stranger to strong talk and political stances that leave his audiences breathless with exasperation, admiration or sometimes a mixture of both.
He has presented his densely footnoted constitutional argument against Mr. Bush’s presidency in speeches from the Washington Legislature to peace rallies in Washington, D.C., making him a favorite punching bag of conservative talk show hosts and bloggers well beyond his home state. [He went on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News on Tuesday, for example, and Mr. O’Reilly promptly called him “a kook.”]
Mr. Anderson cheerfully conceded in an interview in his office that he had no hope whatsoever of a statewide political future in Utah because people outside Salt Lake City — who are far more likely to be conservative, Republican and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — are likely to hate him. But in what has been a trademark of his seven years in office, he can seem equally disdainful of those who disdain him.
“There’s a real resistance to change and an almost pathological devotion to leaders simply because they’re leaders,” he said, in describing fellow Utahans who do not share his views and who in large numbers support the president (and gave him 72 percent of their vote in 2004). “There’s a dangerous culture of obedience throughout much of this country that’s worse in Utah than anywhere.”
Critics and supporters alike agree that Mr. Anderson — whose given name is Ross but who is known by almost everyone here as Rocky, with no last name necessary — is genuinely passionate and devoted to the causes he has brought to the mayor’s office, including global warming, genocide in Darfur, gay and lesbian rights and the war in Iraq.
But those efforts, many people say, have sometimes made him seem like more of a mayor to the world than a fix-the-potholes, sweep-the-sidewalks business-booster for this city of 180,000 people.
And in pursuing those political interests with the same confrontational style that he has brought to the fight for impeachment in recent months, Mr. Anderson has left burned bridges behind him the way other people leave fingerprints.
“What he’s doing lets people know that free speech is alive and well in Salt Lake City,” said K. Eric Jergensen, a member of the City Council, which, like the mayor’s office, is formally nonpartisan, though Mr. Jergensen described himself as a Republican.
“But it seems we’ve lost our ability to sit down amicably and discuss things,” Mr. Jergensen added. “When we step to the rhetorical sidelines and all we do is spit venom and fire, it isn’t effective.”
Mr. Anderson, who described himself as an exacting boss — others say workaholic micromanager — has gone through City Hall employees with blazing regularity, including at least five chiefs of staff.
In 2001, he alienated the Republican-controlled Legislature by joining with environmentalists and mass-transit advocates in a lawsuit to block a major north-south highway project that Mr. Anderson said would harm air quality and wetlands near the Great Salt Lake.
He rarely went to the Capitol after that to lobby on the city’s behalf, City Council members and former staff members said, because everybody knew it would be counterproductive.
Even some fellow Democrats say the city probably suffered from the anti-Rocky backlash.
“He is one of those politicians who people love to hate, and sometimes he gave the Legislature a great excuse not to do their jobs where Salt Lake City was concerned,” said Nancy Saxton, a Democrat and City Council member who is running for mayor in the November election.
Mr. Anderson announced last July that he would not seek a third term, saying he wanted to devote the rest of his life to grass-roots organizing involving human rights and global warming. He said in the interview that he had not made specific plans.
One of the mayor’s former chiefs of staff, Deeda Seed, who was fired in 2005, described her former boss this way: “I used to be good friends with him. He’s incredibly intelligent. He is delightful to talk to. He can be a really, really good friend. He could just benefit from a little therapy.”
(Ms. Seed said Mr. Anderson fired her after they disagreed on policy issues, including how to handle the news media. He said she was “almost a complete disaster as an employee and I had no choice but to fire her.”)
Supporters say Mr. Anderson has made Utah more interesting, at the very least, by highlighting the political diversity that exists at the state’s heart, in the state’s capital and largest city. He first won office in 1999, and re-election in 2003, essentially by winning the votes of non-Mormons, who constitute about 55 percent of the city’s population. (Statewide, Mormons constitute about two-thirds of the population.) In his last election, he got 54 percent of the vote, even though about 80 percent of Mormons voted against him, he said.
Those election patterns — non-Mormons mostly for Mr. Anderson, Mormons mostly against — set the rhythm for a mayoral administration that many people say has isolated Salt Lake City even more by emphasizing that the city’s political and cultural distinctiveness is also about religion and that being non-Mormon is synonymous with being liberal and urban and different.
“It’s embarrassing for the rest of us; Mayor Anderson is so over the top, nobody wants to be associated with him,” said Matthew R. Godfrey, mayor of the nearby city of Ogden. Mr. Godfrey said Mr. Anderson had not worked well with other mayors across the state and that he was out of step with fellow Utahans.
Mr. Anderson, who has been married and divorced twice, with a son now in college, said he believed that divisiveness could be a virtue. For too long, he said, Democrats have run toward the center, away from confrontation. And in a conservative place like Utah, he said, he just has to push harder.
“If you take a principled point of view and people fall down on one side or the other, you can either be characterized as being principled or being tough,” he said. “Or you can be dismissed as being divisive, and I think if that’s the definition of divisive, we need more people in politics who are divisive.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company