Mayor Navigates Local Airline Security Turbulence

Call me a traitor. Call me a bum. Call me a bleeding heart, pot-smoking, never done-an-honest-day’s work-in-his-life, long haired, no good liberal.

I like Rocky Anderson.

When the Salt Lake City mayor first won election in 1999, my moderate democrat’s heart sank. Rocky’s antics, I thought, would surely spell disaster for the Utah Democratic Party. His high-profile left-wing idealism would alienate centrist voters and leave political moderation in ruins.

But now, I’m a believer.

The mayor’s sincerity and willingness to speak his mind have transformed me from Rocky foe to friend.

This mighty change of heart resulted from what many consider the mayor’s worst public-relations disaster yet: his flip-flop over the Dec. 11 firing of several hundred employees from Salt Lake City International Airport.

When federal and state law enforcement officials announced the firing or arrest of some 271 employees at the airport, Anderson appeared on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune standing in line with them. He called Salt Lake City’s airport “the safest?in the country.” He praised the move as a critical step toward ensuring the safety of Olympic travelers.

But the very next day, Anderson was on the front page again, hissing and spitting at the very same officials he had praised just a few hours before. Anderson argued the termination of undocumented immigrants was unfair and inconsistent with the lax regulation imposed on most businesses in the United States hiring similar workers. He also condemned law enforcement officials for detaining many of those immigrants in jails without letting them contact their families or even explaining why they were being held.

To many, Anderson’s seemingly sudden reversal was classic Rocky: act on an impulse in favor of some ridiculous, high-minded crusade instead of doing the politically sensible thing. In reality, however, the mayor’s decision to change his earlier position and support the fired workers was a remarkable act of honesty and strength.

Regardless of the importance or necessity of the airport crackdown, Anderson’s willingness to speak out in favor of its unfortunate victims deserves respect. When the mayor first appeared at the post crackdown news conference, he was under immense pressure to support the action. How could the mayor of a city that will become a major target for terrorism in just a few short months argue against increased security?

Furthermore, with federal money pouring into Salt Lake almost by the trainload, what grounds did the mayor have for slamming the U.S. Attorney General’s Office?

The sudden and unannounced nature of the crackdown also gave Anderson little time to think about the consequences and plan a reasonable response. Unlike the governor, who was notified by Utah Public Safety Commissioner Robert Flowers more than a week before the crackdown, the mayor didn’t find out until the day before. Like nearly every politician in a similar situation would have done, Anderson did the easy thing and supported the crackdown.

When the ugly consequences of the bust became apparent less than a day later, however, Anderson did the unthinkable: He threw politics to the wind and went with his conscience.

Dramatically repudiating his statement from less than 24 hours before, the mayor appeared on CNN blasting U.S. Attorney Paul Warner and others for not giving economic migrants a chance to change jobs or leave before getting busted.

In a Dec. 29 Deseret News article, Anderson argued that, though the firings were necessary to improve security, they “could have been handled more humanely?we could have solved this problem seven weeks earlier, with the savings of a lot of taxpayer dollars and of immense human suffering.”

Law enforcement officials could have solved the problem, Anderson said, by simply advising illegal immigrants to “get out of the secure areas.”

The mayor’s action displayed a truly impressive amount of political courage.

How many politicians would have done the same? What other elected officials, realizing they had made a mistake, would publicly own up to it?

Imagine Orrin Hatch, the consummate smooth talker and emperor of Utah politics, in a similar situation.

He would have either told the immigrants to bug off or issued a 300-word statement which, translated into English, said absolutely nothing.

Many state politicians, including the governor, did just that.

Leavitt had no official comment on the issue, letting his administrative goons duke it out in newspaper battles with the mayor.

Unfortunately for Anderson, the airport firings created a devil of a political predicament. The security crackdown was necessary and unavoidable, but its consequences were extremely unpleasant.

The mayor’s deep commitment to the plight of the economically and socially disadvantaged meant there had to be some way of expressing empathy and concern. The mayor’s public condemnation of the brutal and unannounced character of the crackdown was the only way to reach out to the victims.

Salt Lake City has a mayor with remarkable spunk, courage and honesty.

Anderson could easily have glided through his term, doing whatever needed to be done, focusing on administrative details and avoiding high profile and politically dangerous situations.

But his willingness to court disaster by sticking to his guns is truly admirable.

At the same time Utahns complain about the dishonest and equivocating weakness of politicians, though, many of them complain about the mayor’s willingness to rise above such behavior.

But even conservative Salt Lakers should respect the mayor and his stance on airport security.

You don’t have to be a peace-loving, hippie liberal to respect the mayor. You don’t even have to be a democrat. You just have to recognize that Rocky Anderson is a good guy?an honest politician committed to his job.

John welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].