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Rocky loves job, plans to run again

Controversial S.L. mayor sticks to his guns, despite critics

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Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has offended a lot of people . . . yet earns cheers from others who like much of what he says and stands for. After nearly two years in office, he's sticking to his often-controversial stances — and says he plans to run for re-election in 2003, seeking at least another full term as mayor.

He "absolutely" will not run again for Congress, as he did in 1996.

"I wouldn't win state or national office," he says — and polls have shown that his support falls off drastically outside the Salt Lake City limits.

"And frankly, I love being mayor."

Some believe Anderson is trying to change the culture of Utah's capital city; others think the mayor a breath of fresh air.

Among the most hotly debated Anderson initiatives: his calls for fewer liquor laws and more night life in his city.

Of course the mayor can't overturn state restrictions, but he has persuaded the City Council to allow beer, wine and hard liquor to be sold in some city parks during the 2002 Olympics. And now he's working on permanently relaxing the limits on how many bars can open downtown and on allowing dance clubs to stay open all night.

Some say the city is fine the way it is and have even told Anderson to leave if he dislikes the laws and the traditional lifestyle so much.

Anderson knows he has plenty of detractors, people all over Utah who don't like his full-speed-ahead style. He's seen the angry letters to the editor — and pauses before saying, "I understand . . . that people are afraid of change." When he pushes for loosening the rules around drinking, "there's a knee-jerk reaction. People think, 'That person must be against my religion.'

"So many things are wrapped in religion," Anderson says. "I know. I was brought up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." He left the church at age 18, "after several months of examination."

Now, he says, his religious upbringing informs what he's seeking to accomplish in life: "To make the biggest, most positive difference for people who don't have a lot of advantages."

But many Utahns have a different view of Anderson: "Mr. Party Animal," as he puts it. He knows that's a favorite joke among many — but for him, the humor wore off a while ago.

"I know the damage alcohol can do," he says, adding that his father went through treatment for alcohol abuse. "But the few years before that were very difficult for the family." So, "I'm the last person to advocate increased consumption of alcohol," Anderson says.

But he is in favor of concentrating clubs and restaurants into entertainment districts. "The way the city has grown, everything is dispersed," he says. "We're much better off having clusters of places," in which people can walk instead of drinking and driving.

There are times, Anderson adds, when he wants to go out for live music at a couple of spots, and because he has to drive between them, he drinks water all night. Grinning wryly, he says, "Alcohol just makes me tired. When you get older" — Anderson will turn 50 this month — "it's harder to keep up.

"And you're supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day, anyway. . . . "

Still, the mayor may face a hard fight in winning the City Council over to his "more nightclubs, closer together" plan.

"If they (vote) on the basis of public health and safety and promoting a lively downtown, (the relaxed limits) should sail through," he says. "But if there are knee-jerk reactions against change, we'll have a very tough battle."

Anyone who's watched Anderson knows he's always ready to jump into a heated battle.

Right after he was elected, the mayor went into overdrive to overturn the City Council's decision to kill the University of Utah light-rail line. He held a forum at his home, talked furiously with TRAX opponents and celebrated a victory when the council reversed itself.

Then came the passionate fight over the Grand Salt Lake Mall last summer. Anderson won that one, too; the "sprawl mall" was turned away, and the mayor vowed to focus redevelopment efforts on downtown and the west side of the city.

Both districts still struggle, however. New businesses are opening downtown, but it appears that several of Main Street's vacant storefronts won't be filled with permanent tenants by the 2002 Olympics. And city officials aren't finding it any easier to solve the west-side revitalization puzzle.

Anderson continues to hear complaints, loud and frequent, from Salt Lakers who appreciate neither his policies nor his plans. Some resent what they see as a "mayor knows best" attitude. And he says he hasn't changed his mind about much since he took office.

"I study the issues," he says. "I read as much as I can get my hands on. I form an opinion, and I usually stick with it."

But experience has taught him that his opponents, when brought to the table, can open his eyes to other facets of a problem.

"There were some very good reasons for the vote against the (university light-rail) line," and as a result of hearing those reasons, "we have a better mitigation process" for the businesses and residents affected by the construction, he says.

That time, Anderson says, negotiation worked. But in cases such as the Grand Mall or the Legacy Highway, "you have to stand up and fight." The mayor is appealing his case against the Legacy Highway, which he says will foist increased air pollution, sprawl and traffic on Salt Lake City.

He knows his opponents are livid, and jokes that, "There are garages full of my effigies, ready to burn, in Davis County."

But Anderson, a civil litigator for two decades, isn't backing down.

"I know there's an urban legend about me being a workaholic," he says. "That's not true," though his first months as mayor were the most difficult. "Just getting the feel for this job . . . was like turning a big ship around. In the beginning, it took 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week."

The coming year promises to be contentious — fraught with events that could make or break the mayor's political future. He's trying to stop the Union Pacific Railroad from sending freight trains through west-side neighborhoods. He hopes to pull off a Winter Olympics with free-speech areas but no violence.

Oh, and then he'll need to raise the money and broad-based support for his re-election bid.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com