Deseret Morning News, Saturday, August 20, 2005

Rocky calls for Bush protest

Mayor angers some Republicans, war vets

By Bob Bernick Jr. and Lisa Riley Roche
Deseret Morning News

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has angered a few Republicans, and perhaps a few foreign war veterans, by calling for Utahns who oppose President Bush's environmental stands, the Iraq war and other Bush policies to protest when the president visits Utah's capital city next week.

Bush is scheduled to address the 15,000-member Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in the Salt Palace on Monday.

Anderson, a Democrat who serves in an officially nonpartisan office, sent an e-mail Friday to selected environmentalists, Democrats and a few of his top administrative staff. It said of Bush's visit: "Don't let him come to Utah and not see huge opposition, even in the reddest (most Republican) state. This would send such an important message. A tepid response will just send a message of apathy and resignation."

Anderson went on to write: "Let the Bush administration and the world hear from Salt Lake City!!!

The advocacy community should be organizing the biggest demonstration this state has ever seen!"

Anderson's office provided a copy of the e-mail to the Deseret Morning News after it was leaked to the news media.

Anderson said in an interview that he welcomes the VFW to Salt Lake City. In fact, he will deliver a welcoming address to the convention at 8:45 a.m. Monday, just hours before Bush flies in for a keynote address.

Anderson said any number of Utahns, including Republicans, should be demonstrating against administration policies that are "harming our cities."

To name just one program, Section 8, Anderson said the cutbacks in housing program for the poor means, "In Salt Lake City, 120 fewer families will be able to find affordable housing in our city because of this president's housing policies."

Anderson said he wants to make it very clear he does not advocate protests against the VFW but against the president's policies only. "I'm extremely supportive of the VFW convention; I'm thrilled to have it in our city."

However, when he heard of the mayor's call for a protest, Jerry Newberry, communications director for the organization, based in Kansas City, Mo., said: "That's unfortunate." Anderson "is supposed to attend our opening ceremony. . . . Matter of fact, he accepted," he said.

"There he goes again," said city councilman Dave Buhler, a former state GOP senator, after hearing of Anderson's e-mail. "Never a dull moment with Rocky."

Seriously, Buhler said, it is unfortunate that the mayor "would encourage a demonstration of a major convention that potentially could disrupt that convention. I mean, do we want these big conventions in Salt Lake or not? It's not very hospitable of the mayor. We should welcome any president, no matter who he is.

"This convention is not a partisan convention. It's veterans who served our country. It is not appropriate for an elected official trying to stir up protests; it's counterproductive. The convention business is very important to us," Buhler said.

The VFW, whose 15,000 delegates will gather today through Thursday in Salt Lake City, has 1.8 million members who served in the military overseas in some kind of U.S. conflict. The group is known for its patriotism and has roundly cheered former U.S. presidents when they addressed their conventions.

Protests at VFW conventions are nothing new, especially when the president speaks, Newberry said.

"The president has appeared at our convention before, and we've always had people protest for one reason or another. That's what happens when the president appears anywhere."

Usually, Newberry said, the protests do not involve officials from the host cities. Has that happened before?

"Not to my knowledge," he said. Still, the Salt Lake mayor's effort is not going to put a damper on the convention, he added.

"We're here to conduct business. We're here to welcome our commander-in-chief, and that's what we're going to do," Newberry said. "If they want to protest, that's their right as Americans."

It's the VFW's third convention in Salt Lake City in 10 years.

Anderson said no Republican should connect a call to protest Bush's administration with the city's efforts in seeking local conventions.

"For any Republican to complain about any impact on conventions they should examine how disastrous their polices are, including hostility toward gays and lesbians, in terms of the economic impact of lost conventions in state of Utah," Anderson said.

Bush, who is taking a five-week working vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, is breaking from that schedule to give the keynote speech. It will be the president's first visit to Utah since he officially opened the Winter Olympics in February 2002 in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"I guess it was OK for the president to come then," Buhler said.

Anderson "sat in the box" in the stadium with the president on that occasion, Buhler said.

While his job approval ratings are suffering nationwide, Bush remains popular in Utah, which gave him his largest margin of victory of any state in 2000. A June 2 poll conducted for the Morning News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates found that 74 percent of Utahns like the job Bush is doing as president. Only 15 percent disapproved of Bush's job performance.

A spokesman for the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, Mark Bennett, said the protest call could actually help the city's image at least with those people who believe the state is politically like-minded.

"If you're supportive of the president, you might be annoyed that this mayor is taking a stand," Bennett said. "But if you're not, it probably increases awareness that in Utah, known as the reddest of the red states, there actually is a healthy political debate led by Salt Lake's mayor."

Besides, Bennett said, the mayor is asking for protesters to challenge the president and his policies, not the convention itself. "Rocky certainly understands the importance of the convention business, but then the distinction is, he is not afraid of being political."

State GOP Chairman Joe Cannon said "it is a little embarrassing" for Salt Lakers, for the VFW and for the president himself to have the mayor of the convention's host city call for a protest against the president, even if some may have differences with Bush.

On the political front, Cannon said Anderson's comments "are wonderful news for the Utah Republican Party." And "it's a great way for the Democrats to begin rebuilding themselves in Utah," added Cannon, a bit sarcastically.

Anderson's comments "just remind the overwhelming number of voters here why they vote Republican, not Democratic, in this state," said Cannon.

Utah's lone Democratic congressman, Rep. Jim Matheson, will not protest in front of the Salt Palace. He'll ride in Bush's motorcade after meeting him at the airport, Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said.

While declining to criticize Anderson's remarks, Heyrend said the VFW convention "is about supporting our current men and women in uniform and those who have served. Congressman Matheson has always done that, he continues to do that, he fights for veteran benefits and is in tune with their needs."

As of Friday night, various protests were planned, including an anti-war protest at noon Monday in Pioneer Park. Another group is meeting at the Gallivan TRAX station at 9 a.m. and riding over to the Salt Palace to protest.

Some of those contacted also criticized Anderson for using city e-mail to send the protest call. State law states "a municipal officer or employee may not use municipal equipment while engaged in political activity."

Last year Anderson asked County Attorney David Yocom to investigate him after it was revealed that the mayor had used his city e-mail to work on his 2003 re-election campaign. Yocom declined to press charges after his office determined the state law contained no criminal penalty.

Anderson's Friday e-mail was also sent to several city employees, including chief of staff Sam Guevara; senior adviser D.J. Baxter and Youth Programs director Janet Wolf.

For Anderson, who has crossed swords with legislative Republicans and GOP officials at regular intervals, this is not the first time that he's spoken out in ways that GOP leaders believe harm Utah.

During last summer's National Conference of State Legislatures convention, held in the Salt Palace when then-Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens was the president of NCSL, Anderson publicly criticized the GOP-controlled Legislature, which hosted of the convention.