Rocky Anderson, Folk Hero?

By Sasha Abramsky

September 1, 2006

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."

This article is part of a longer piece to appear in the magazine. Read the full text of Mayor Rocky Anderson's speech here.

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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.

Anderson spent more than thirty hours endlessly writing and rewriting the speech that he planned to deliver as a counter to the presence of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and President Bush at the American Legion convention at the Salt Lake Palace.

"Blind faith in bad leaders is not patriotism," he told the excited crowd, a slender, gray-haired man in a black suit, standing alone and entirely unprotected at a microphone on a podium on the steps of City Hall. In a booming bass, denouncing the hundreds of angry callers who had phoned his office to urge him not to embarrass the city by protesting the presence of the nation's leader, he continued. "A patriot does not tell people who are intensely concerned about their country to sit down and be quiet in the name of politeness."

And then he really got into his stride. For the next half hour, he detailed all the ways in which he believed the Bush Administration was being dishonest with the American public--from its justifications for the Iraq War to its cavalier approach to the separations of power mandated by the Constitution--and all the moral failings of a populace content to sit back passively and lap up the dishonesty. In an era in which most politicians try to say nothing too controversial, Rocky Anderson went for the jugular. The Administration, he said, 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."

He built to a call-and-response crescendo detailing all the Administration policies, domestic and foreign, he took umbrage with. "No more dependence on foreign oil," he called out; and the crowd roared back "No more!" "No more phony, inhumane and ineffective so-called War on Drugs." "No more!"... "No more silence by the American people." "No more!" "We will continue to resist the lies, the outrages, the deception of this Bush Administration. We must pursue peace as vigorously as the Bush Administration has pursued war." And then the onetime philosophy student and reader of existential tracts issued his sucker punch. "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

Rocky Anderson raised his right fist in the air, a slightly relieved smile on his face, and stood in front of the crowd. Just stood there. Welcome to Salt Lake, Mr. President. Welcome to my city.

About Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow for democracy at Demos, a New York City think tank and author of Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House (The New Press), Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation (Thomas Dunne) and, most recently, American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment (Beacon). more...
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