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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Rocky's Road to Progress

Salt Lake City's mayor seems to embody all things Utah is perceived not to be. As one friend puts it, 'He's not in step with his own culture.'

February 23, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The youngest child in a Mormon family in Ogden, Anderson slept through church services for years. By his late teens, his "fade out" was complete. "I don't consider it a falling out. I consider it an evolution."

As a philosophy major at the University of Utah, Anderson was dazzled by the great political thinkers, by David Hume--"for the richness of writing and intellectual aspects," the mayor said last week. "The man was a genius. Did you know he was 23 when he wrote his 'Treatise of Human Nature'?" Anderson sipped at his coffee, screwed up his face and interrupted himself.

"This coffee is really, really bad," he said, loud enough for his aide to hear from the next room. "I mean," he said, leaping to his feet, striding from the office, "it's really bad."

Critics say the tireless mayor makes for a difficult boss. Anderson has had four communications directors and three chiefs of staff. At least 15 employees have been fired or quit. These days, the turnover rate is something of a joke.

"I don't think anybody's quit in the last few weeks," the ACLU's Gnade said, squinting across a table at Smart. It was lunchtime, and the two bent over bowls of soup in a Salt Lake City cafeteria.

"You'd need a scorecard," the newsman replied with a shrug.

Anderson is unapologetic. "I've gotten a lot of heat for terminating people, but I think the public deserves the very best. I'm easy to work for when people are really committed."

A Good Degree of Drifting

It took Anderson some years of drifting to find the work he loved. After college, he began graduate studies in philosophy, then dropped out.

Anderson built fences in Idaho, drove a lumber truck and worked in a methadone clinic before crossing the Atlantic to wander Europe.

The return from those "magical" months to a post-Nixon America was a hard letdown: The United States seemed lackluster and undignified. Anderson waited tables, then hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he was inspired by an Amnesty International speech about the fall of Salvador Allende in Chile. Bent on taking up international law, he headed off to George Washington University law school.

Degree in hand, Anderson came home, found a house in the mountains and began two decades of trial law. He argued malpractice for plaintiffs, moved from firm to firm and took on pro bono prison rights cases.

In 1996, he made an unsuccessful run for Congress. Three years later, he ran for mayor. With 11 candidates vying in the open primary, the Mormon vote was split between two hopefuls, University of Utah political scientist Dan Jones said.

Anderson managed to piece together enough of the non-Mormon vote to get into a runoff with another Democrat. He defeated Stewart Reid, the city administrator, 60% to 40%, and moved into the mayor's office.

"People feel like they're getting their money's worth with him," Jones said. "People outside of Salt Lake City have a difficult time with him because he's willing to take on issues that are unpopular."

"I don't think many of the mainstream Democrats expected to ever see this in their lifetime," Councilwoman Saxton said.

Last week, when a trio of city officials from the Swiss capital, Bern, filed into City Hall to hear about Olympic pitfalls, Anderson was their unorthodox host. He spoke briefly about security, demonstrators and budgets. Then, with a slight wince, he slid a key to the city across the table.

"If you can find the lock, you let me know," the mayor said sheepishly. "But, uh, it's a nice symbol, anyway."

Formalities dispensed, Anderson led the men into a back room to view his prized possession: a splashy, four-frame portrait of John F. Kennedy by Max.

"I visited his studio," the mayor told another visitor. "He'll have, like, Led Zeppelin on and just be cranking."

Outside, in a somber corridor lined with onyx panels and oil portraits of mayors past, Anderson's staff snapped open crates of scotch, vermouth and vodka. The mayor was throwing another party.

Before they marched back out into the frigid Rocky Mountain dusk, one of the men from Switzerland turned to the mayor.

"We know you are trying to change things here," he said. Anderson grinned behind his Armani eyeglasses. Later, he'd repeat the remark to his staff. "Did you hear that?"

It's exactly how he'd like to be known.

*

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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