Few might have expected that an Italian kid from Detroit, who once considered becoming a Catholic priest, would end up running Utah's capital city.
Then again, five years ago few thought a then-obscure Salt Lake City public works director named Palmer DePaulis would become the Utah Democratic Party's darling and possible candidate for governor in 1992.Such is the Cinderella life of DePaulis, Salt Lake City's popular, yet unassuming, mayor. He is an anomaly in a state where public officeholders are usually Republican, LDS, or both.
DePaulis, who grew a mustache to age his boyish looks after he was mistaken for a newspaper carrier when he was campaigning door to door in 1987, is seeking an identity for Salt Lake City and Utah that goes against traditional stereotypes.
The city suffers nationally from an image of provincialism or no image at all, he says.
He illustrates Salt Lake City's image problem by recalling what other U.S. mayors told him when the city hosted the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1988.
"Everyone who came here, who hadn't been here before, said `Gosh, we didn't know Salt Lake City.' They were surprised we were a very diverse city with a lot of cultural opportunities," DePaulis said.
With its performing arts groups, Salt Lake City rivals cultural experiences in regional cities far larger, such as Denver or San Francisco, DePaulis says.
Using his own rise to power through the ranks of volunteer community organizations to the top office in City Hall, he also tries to dispel notions that members of the dominant faith control everything. Borrowing a religious term, he said he is a "testimony" to the fact that given good, competent leadership, Utahns may minimize the importance of religious or political persuasions.
DePaulis wants to make his a Renaissance town, spawned by hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics. He is seeking an identity as a regional center for the arts, education and sports as well as recognition as an international city.
"The issue I have tried to raise for this city is that it has got so much potential, but it doesn't have a sense of what it wants to be when it grows up," he said.
In particular, DePaulis has become a cheerleader in the Olympics bid because of the expectation that the city will become a permanent winter sports training center for the Western United States.
"We want to be a sports capital. That begins to define who you are and puts you on the map. People begin to form an impression of Utah that isn't the typical, long-standing `monoculture Mormon' designation," the 45-year-old mayor said.
DePaulis, a former English teacher at Judge Memorial High School and member of the City Council, was appointed to the mayoral post in July 1985 when his boss, Democrat Ted Wilson, resigned. Unknown then, he's been a rising political star in the Beehive State ever since. This year he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic State Convention.
After five years as mayor, DePaulis' job performance can be compared to the classic 1967 Mustang that recently survived a midlife decision to keep it or fix it up - dependable with a little flair. He agrees with the Mustang metaphor but also credits his success to something that can be traced back to his religious training at Detroit's Sacred Heart Seminary College - "ecumenism" or consensus-building in more secular terms.
He credits some of his biggest successes to an ability to bring divergent groups together for a common cause. Such decisions are always played out in his low-key style.
"I don't try to create an attraction over how it's being done or around me. I tend to move in a very dependable way, to bring people together and to solve something without a lot of fanfare," DePaulis said
At the same time, the man who gave up plans for the priesthood for family life, says issues are explored by both his mind and his heart.
"My sense of my own values is that it is far more important to deal with the human dimension, whether it is politics or in a power structure. I throw people off sometimes because of that, because they don't expect that," he said.
It's that kind of heartfelt leadership that was behind the homeless project. Under DePaulis' leadership, Salt Lake City's homeless services were transformed from a vacant warehouse to a new $3.3 million shelter. Along with separate areas for homeless men, women and families in the city's west downtown, there is a school for homeless children, legal assistance, child care, job placement services and health care.
"We brought all of the churches together, the business community together, individual people, government, educational system and service providers to focus on this issue," he said.
City Councilwoman Roselyn Kirk, who was appointed to the council the same time DePaulis became mayor, says that he has won the hearts of residents through genuine concern.
"He has sold himself to this community. He is really sincere and that really comes across to people whether or not they agree with his political philosophy," she said.
Such sincerity and consensus-building has almost made the mayor immune to disapproval. In 1987 he won over his opponent by a 4-to-1 margin. The Salt Lake County Republican Party couldn't find anyone to oppose him in the officially non-partisan race.
"He's the Teflon mayor," Kirk said.
DePaulis recently proposed and got a $2.1 million tax increase to hire 46 new police officers. He came away from the tax increase relatively unscathed.
Kirk, who was one of two council members who voted against the increase, said, "He really made it difficult to vote against the budget. He said he needed it for the police and got away with it."
About his political future? DePaulis said he hasn't decided whether to stage a run to recapture the governorship for his party. Six years ago, the Democrats lost Utah's governorship after 20 years of control.
While the demographics of Salt Lake residents, who are decidedly more liberal than the rest of the state, have helped the mayor weather political storms, seeking statewide office may not be as simple.
In a state where the Legislature is controlled by Republicans and both U.S. Senators and two of the three representatives are Republicans, running a statewide campaign has ended the political career for more than one Democrat.
But DePaulis has built his career on beating the odds.