SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - When Rocky Anderson ran for Congress in 1996, the New York Times said he was too liberal to get elected in a Republican bastion like Utah.
It was a good call. The lapsed Mormon and former American Civil Liberties Union attorney was trounced by Merrill Cook, a conservative businessman in good standing with the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Three years later, Anderson got a chance to do the trouncing, beating a self-described conservative Democrat in Salt Lake City's nonpartisan mayoral election.
Salt Lake has long been Utah's lone liberal stronghold, but the election of an aggressive, outspoken progressive is making waves throughout the state.
Anderson's first 18 months in office have been a series of pitched battles with the state's conservative establishment. He's taken on religious discrimination, oppressive liquor laws, urban sprawl and racial and sexual inequality. He cut the sacrosanct anti-drug program DARE from the city's public schools, fired the police chief and then picked a very public fight with the leader of the local police union.
He's also confronted Utah's straitlaced society: In June, he was the Grand Marshal for Utah's Gay Pride Day Parade, and he pens a monthly column for a new local magazine. In his first column, he proved that downtown Salt Lake does indeed have a nightlife; the article featured photos of the single mayor surrounded by beautiful women in nightclubs, bars and other nighttime hot spots.
Anderson has caused an equal uproar in his own office. In his first year alone, three 2002 Olympics coordinators and four communications directors quit or were fired. Rumors swirl around City Hall of the mayor's fierce temper, need to micromanage and workaholic ways.
Now Anderson, the mayor who loves to mix it up, has found the perfect cause. He has personally joined a lawsuit to kill the controversial Legacy Parkway, a highly unusual move that has enchanted supporters and outraged opponents. So far, Anderson is enjoying both the attention and the controversy. He's hoping the debate will force the fourth-fastest growing state to take a hard look at how it manages its surging population.
A legacy of sprawl?
As Salt Lake City's traffic woes worsened in the mid-1990s, Republican Governor Mike Leavitt revived a 40-year-old idea. Leavitt and state highway officials said congestion on Interstate 15 could be eased by an additional 130-mile long highway. The first leg of the highway, called the Legacy Parkway, would stretch from Farmington, Utah, south to Salt Lake's northern edge (HCN, 2/12/01: Legal woes for Legacy Parkway). The 14-mile, four-lane road would cut a slice through 114 acres of wetlands along the Great Salt Lake and take out numerous small farms and ranches.
The highway's supporters, including most of the political leaders along the Wasatch Front, say it is badly needed. And the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency have already signed off on the project, satisfied by the state's proposal for a 2,100-acre nature preserve.
Supporters point out that the highway is only half of the state's plan for handling the Front's ever-increasing traffic. Commuter rail is in the works, but will be built after the highway. The highway must come first, say supporters, because it's cheaper to build and the need is immediate.
Leavitt pledged his commitment to commuter rail when he signed the bill authorizing the funding for the project. "Solving our transportation problems cannot be accomplished through a single solution. We must combine the Legacy Parkway with mass transit options ... and expanding I-15," Leavitt told a small crowd of supporters on March 16 when he signed the legislation.
To Legacy opponents like Anderson, it's that "highways first" attitude that is the problem. Another highway will only exacerbate the Front's sprawl problems, they argue. "People will continue to live farther away from their places of work, from their civic centers and schools. They will end up building more and more remote shopping centers and then you'll have sprawl built upon sprawl," says Anderson.
Anderson and a coalition of environmental, commuter and civic groups called Utahns for Better Transportation sued the state over the highway in mid-January. Anderson and the group argue that the environmental impact statement failed to take into account the Legacy's impacts on Salt Lake City, especially when it comes to traffic congestion and air pollution. Since then, the Sierra Club has filed a second lawsuit citing air quality concerns; a couple whose farm would be wiped out has filed a third suit.
Such actions have brought a flurry of criticism. State legislators vowed to enact revenge on Salt Lake during the recent legislative session. The Salt Lake City Council quickly released a statement distancing itself from the mayor's lawsuit. Gov. Leavitt called Anderson's participation in the lawsuit "a bad decision." Layton City Council member Stuart Adams told the Salt Lake Tribune: "I can't believe he would do this. It's self-centered and self-serving."
Anderson and the highway's detractors argue that commuter rail must come first. They point to Salt Lake County's year-and-a-half-old light rail line - whose ridership has far outpaced even the most optimistic expectations - as proof that Utahns will choose mass transit where they can. They also point to projections that a recent multibillion-dollar expansion of I-15 will be filled to capacity within two years.
"My position is, absolutely, mass transit first. Every opportunity we have," says Anderson.
When Anderson took office in January 2000, a light-rail spur line from downtown to the University of Utah was all but dead. But the mayor, along with help from the Utah Transit Authority, blew new life into the plan. Now, the spur is expected to be completed by November, in time for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Anderson's backing up his crusade with personal action. He recently parked his old gas-guzzling Suburban and purchased a Honda Civic that runs on natural gas.
He is also pushing the city toward "neotraditional" urban planning that will allow people to live closer to where they work and shop. "You can't continue to move 25, 30, 35 miles away from your work and driving back and forth without being part of the problem," he says. "We either need to bring the jobs to where those people live or those people need to move in closer. They are the sprawl."
'A car-driving society'
If Anderson has a polar opposite it would be Gayle Ruzicka. A devout Mormon and mother of 12, Ruzicka also happens to head the most powerful lobbying group in the state: the Utah chapter of the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum.
Officially, the group does not have a stance on the Legacy Parkway. Ruzicka is adamant in her opposition to commuter rail, however.
"I don't have a position on the Legacy Highway, but I always have a position on the radical environmental agenda," she says. Commuter rail, she says, is a complete waste of taxpayer money.
"We're a car-driving society here," she says bluntly.
Asked for her opinion on Anderson, Ruzicka takes a more measured approach. She says she was surprised to find herself in agreement with him over the DARE program, but adds that his support of gay rights is of "great concern."
"He is certainly not my first choice for mayor of Salt Lake City. At the same time, there are things about him that I admire and respect. He works hard and stands up for his beliefs."
An April poll conducted by Deseret News, a Mormon Church-owned daily newspaper, revealed that 54 percent of residents approved of the job he is doing, and 42 percent disapproved. Only 5 percent had no opinion.
Anderson downplays his status as a "maverick mayor." He says the term comes from his willingness to take tough and unpopular stands, something he says is sadly lacking in politics today.
He believes the fight over the Legacy and a brief but fierce battle over a proposed mall on the edge of town early in his term, have heightened public awareness of the problems with sprawl. He is optimistic that awareness will turn Salt Lake, and maybe eventually state lawmakers, away from "the 40- or 50-year trend toward sprawl."
He is also aware that his hard-line liberal stances on issues like the Legacy in what is arguably the most conservative state in the nation could cost him his political future. He says his vision for the city will need at least two terms to be realized, but he quickly adds that he didn't run for mayor to "perpetuate myself in office."
Says Anderson: "I wouldn't ever serve in any position that requires that I refrain from telling the truth as I see it and from acting vigorously to bring about what I see as constructive change."
Tim Westby is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Mayor Rocky Anderson's office, 801/535-7704;
- Gov. Mike Leavitt's office, 801/538-1000;
- Utahns for Better Transportation, utahnsforbettertransportation.org.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tim Westby