The Philosopher-Mayor

U grad Rocky Anderson brings a philosophic bent to a public office.

by Bob Donohoe

As Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson BA'73 sits in his office and reflects during an early summer day, he's certain of a lot of things. Foremost among them is his conviction that he's the right man for the job. It's a conviction borne of his intellect, and a thinking process borne of his alma mater, the University of Utah. For Anderson, getting at an issue is a matter of deep thought. And once he's mulled an issue over, he's ready to act, secure in the feeling that he has thoroughly dissected the issue—and if others would only think as rigorously about it, they'd reach the same conclusions.

"At the University of Utah," Anderson says, "I learned to analyze things carefully, to think issues through. I also learned the value of being very rigorous in my analysis and trying to put aside any preconceived ideas."

Anderson's college friends recall him as a dedicated, hard-working student who knew what direction he wanted his life to take. "He was a good student, committed to a number of causes," says Jim Lewis BS'76, a Salt Lake attorney and fellow member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. "To some extent, he was the conscience, the moral barometer of the fraternity house."

"He's always been a kind of thorn to people's moral conscience," agrees Charles Matthews, another fraternity brother and director of the school of business at Florida Gulf Coast University. Matthews remembers that Anderson, whose given name is Ross, earned another nickname in the fraternity. "We called him 'The Sheriff.' He was the house manager, and he was always enforcing house rules, collecting dues from those who were late in paying. He'd even follow us into the shower."

As a collegian, Anderson had a fun side as well. "People have a view of Rocky as an intense guy, but he was a lot of fun to be around," says Lewis.

"He had a sneaky side," Matthews says, laughing. "We all moonlighted to pay for school, and we lived together in a house on Virginia Street. One day, we were all sitting around the living room, watching it snow. There was a foot of snow outside, and nobody was going anywhere. We got a call from Rocky, who was driving a cab. He casually said, 'I was just thinking of coming to see you guys.'

"Well, actually, he had an old lady he had to pick up in the Avenues. He got us all to push his cab up the hill."

"Even back then," says Lewis, "you could tell he was going to make an impact."

"We need to maintain the very best of our communitythe charm, the identitywithout going the way of so many other communities where there's nothing but sprawl and impersonal, look-alike chain stores."

Thus, the boy who was born in Logan and raised in Salt Lake City and Ogden was on his way. He graduated with a degree in philosophy, gave up graduate studies in philosophy, and enrolled a couple of years later at George Washington University Law School. "I wanted to do something that was better suited for me in terms of bringing about social change," Anderson says.

Anderson's moral compass was set during his time at the U, a result of the times as much as anything. "I grew up in the '60s," he notes. "It was a time of a lot of upheaval in this country—the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the environmental movement. A lot of things that were going on at that time led me to commit to a life of action and to work toward change for the betterment of our culture, our society."

After law school he settled in to fight the good fight. He still does. "I fight hard," he concedes. "But I think it's for the right reasons. I fight for people who aren't able to do it for themselves. The law was perfect for me. Practicing law provides tremendous opportunity to help serve...and bring about important changes."

"Both of us picked up a kind of healthy skepticism for authoritarianism," says Matthews, discussing lessons learned at the U. "You had to look at a person's reasons for why he said something was so. Rocky's always been quite good at that."

Anderson is proud of the changes his law practice wrought: the eventual banning of strip searches of women brought to the county jail on minor charges, the elimination of the use of restraint chairs at the state prison, beginning the fight in the state legislature for campaign finance reform and lobby disclosure. But his run-ins with recalcitrant politicians left him with the knowledge that he could be doing more.

"I was always fighting against bad public policy," he says, "trying to persuade elected leaders and policy makers who, frankly, oftentimes didn't really seem to care about doing the right thing or doing what was rational. You run into these public-policy disasters. It always seemed to me that I would be a lot more effective and efficient and that my time and talents and energy would be much better utilized if I were in a position where I was actually helping to formulate and implement public policy."
That thought led to politics, and an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1996. He announced his bid for mayor in January of 1999 and was elected in November.

Still relatively new to his position, Anderson believes he's a good fit for the city, even if the job does take a lot of his time. "I love being mayor," he says. "It's not really a great quality of life, working six or seven days a week, often late at night. But it's the perfect job for me. I have the energy and drive to do it because I really see great things can be done."

He points to the city's restorative justice program, begun weeks after he took office, as an example of the kinds of things to be done. The program brings together offenders and victims, "so the offenders know what the effect of their conduct is." It also requires full restitution be paid by the offender to the victim, and to the city for policing and prosecuting costs. "Accountability is a huge part of it," Anderson says.

The mayor wants to see Salt Lake City develop a strong sense of community. The downtown library square, he says, will be a gathering place where such a sense can be fostered. He says the city should work to provide mobility for everyone, a place "where car ownership can be an option. I think in 20, 25 years, if we do the right things now, we're going to have one of the best transit systems in the country." And he says a safe community is a priority, one that can best be accomplished by keeping children out of the criminal justice system. "The trick to that for younger kids is good after-school and summer programs where they have safe, constructive, interesting places to go, and, for older kids, helping them find places where they can get job training and employment experience."

Salt Lake is a great place to live, Anderson says. "We need to maintain the very best of our community—the charm, the identity—without going the way of so many other communities where there's nothing but sprawl and impersonal, look-alike chain stores."

Not only does the mayor believe in what he's doing, he believes he's doing what voters asked him to do. "I was elected by the people not to just come in here and administer, but because of my positions on issues," he says. "I think I've got a very good sense of what this community wants, and I'm going to fight for it. I'm here to serve all the people of Salt Lake City, and I take that responsibility very, very seriously. I'm not just here to exercise my own tastes, but I think I am here to do what I absolutely, after thorough study, believe is right."

—Bob Donohoe JD'93 has previously written for Continuum about law professor Paul Cassell (Fall 1999)

Copyright 2000 by The University of Utah Alumni Association