Games a chance to jazz up Salt Lake's image
By DOUG SAUNDERS
Friday, February 08, 2002
SALT LAKE CITY - As millions of visitors flock to this mountain city for the opening ceremonies of the 19th Olympic Winter Games tonight, they will witness some distinctly un-Utah-like scenes: Beggars and bag ladies roam freely; people demonstrating for animal rights or against condoms have relatively free rein; and beer and liquor are easy to obtain.
Ken, a 63-year-old bearded man begging for money a block away from Medal Square, knows exactly whom to blame -- or credit. "Everybody will tell you that this is Mayor Rocky's work."
Salt Lake City just hasn't been its old self since the arrival last year of Ross C. Anderson, known even in official circles as Rocky.
In a one-man crusade, the 50-year-old Democratic mayor is using the city's role as host of the Games as a chance to change the world's image of this very conservative city.
As Salt Lake prepared this week for the onslaught of 6,000 athletes, 15,000 security officials and two- million visitors, Mr. Anderson could be found in the bars and nightclubs in the shadow of the Mormon temple at the heart of the city, showing visitors how easy it is to get drunk, dance and do all manner of things formerly banned in Utah.
One night, he led a group of reporters into the city's largest gay disco, got on stage, and introduced them to a drag queen.
It was a move that epitomized his new slogan for the picturesque city: "Salt Lake City: Saltier Than You Think."
Though he could pass for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints with his short-cropped silver hair and grey suits -- he was raised a Mormon, but gave up the faith years ago to become a civil-rights lawyer -- Mr. Anderson has set himself up as the polar opposite of the church's powerful conservative influence.
He is a liberal, secular Democrat, a former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, representing a city with a 60-per- cent Democrat majority in a state with an overwhelmingly Republican, conservative, religious majority.
In an interview at the ornate city hall, he almost didn't need to speak about his politics, which are on clear display: A few minutes into the session, he had a visit from Peter Max, the artist famous for electric-tinted posters, whose works Mr. Anderson collects and whom he has commissioned to provide some suitably psychedelic Olympic art.
The mayor has also made sure that his city's homeless are allowed to remain on downtown streets, even building them a 140-bed shelter -- a stark contrast with almost all other Olympic cities, which have staged mass arrests of the homeless, busing them far away or keeping them in jail during the sporting events.
"We've been very determined not to be out there doing police roundups or busing them out of town or arresting them . . . we don't want to hide the fact that there are homeless, or that there are people who want to express dissenting ideas," Mr. Anderson said.
"Instead we're embracing it, and allowing the world to see all of our community, and that includes its negative aspects."
He has also pursued the rights of protesters with unusual personal zeal, especially given the security concerns at the Games, ensuring there are protest zones in the midst of the Olympic facilities.
"I have a reputation from my entire public career of fighting for the rights of people to express themselves," he said, "and I want to make sure that my personal convictions are expressed in my politics here in the mayor's office."
Mayor Rocky's public politics extend into his personal life. He boasts that he has ripped "every blade of grass" out of his lawn, so as to not waste water on gardening, and his car is a natural-gas-powered Honda. He is a staunch environmentalist; earlier this week, he cajoled his council into adopting the principles of the Kyoto Accord on greenhouse gas emissions. (When a conservative columnist suggested that this was flaky, the mayor wrote an opinion piece arguing that the columnist "has some weird religious conviction . . . that God gave us this Earth to use up before the Second Coming, which is just around the corner.")
Not surprisingly, Mr. Anderson's policies have not endeared him to the 40 per cent of the city's population who are devout Mormons. The city is subject to what the Salt Lake Tribune, its non-Mormon daily, describes as "the unspoken divide." A recent poll by the paper found that seven out of 10 residents believe there is an unbridgable gap between Mormons and non-Mormons.
"I would say that he's a divider rather than a uniter -- it's sad to say, he talks so much about bringing the community together, but his policies are so liberal and so extreme that they're just not going to appeal to the religious minority here," said Diane Urbani, the city hall reporter with the Deseret News, the state's church-owned daily.
When asked whether his policies are likely to bridge the gap, the mayor was equally blunt: "You're just not going to satisfy everybody, and that's what leadership is all about. My policies are not going to sit well with a lot of people. But I think most people see the benefit in these issues, and sometimes it takes a combative issue to raise the public consciousness."
At a time when the United States wrestles with the relationship between church and state, visitors to the Games, which run through Feb. 24, will find themselves in a place where the two are undeniably separate but equal powers. Both symbolically dominate Medal Square, with the granite Mormon temple to the north, the sandstone state building to the south.
When the estimated 3.5-billion people tune in tonight to the Games' opening ceremonies at the University of Utah football stadium, they will see the parade of Olympic hopefuls and performers like Sting, the Dixie Chicks and Canadian-born Robbie Robertson -- along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.