Rocky's Third Act | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

July 14, 2021 News » Cover Story

Rocky's Third Act 

Rocky Anderson's revival of the Justice Party offers independents weary of partisan bickering a path forward.

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  • Cover art by James Bible II

His body fat has shrunk from 29% to 8%, a testament to good coaching and stress reduction. He's spending more time with the people he cares about. He's closed his law office and works—when he wants to—from home.

But Rocky Anderson—former mayor, former presidential candidate and perennial activist—hasn't really changed at all. That stress reduction? It depends on your definition of stress.

Anderson, 69, closed his law office earlier this year because law takes a lot of time—time away from who he is, a freedom fighter and firebrand whom the public either loves or hates. He does not exist in the gray areas of debate.

Teddy—his third presidentially eponymous golden retriever after Abe and Winston—follows him from room to room in his East Central Salt Lake home. Built in 1897, the house had been expanded by the time he purchased it in 1993. It now serves as home, two offices for the revitalized Justice Party, nooks, crannies and reading rooms. Anderson's 30-year-old parrot Cardozo wanders the halls of his habitat.

Anderson started the Justice Party ( in November 2011, proclaiming progressivism against corporate influence. The party worked to get Anderson on the ballot in 15 states, six of which named him as the candidate for other parties such as the Independent, Natural Law and Progressive parties. He secured official write-in status in 25 additional states.

It was a monumental task for the fledgling third party, which powered itself to the fifth-largest third party in the United States. You may remember Barack Obama's "hope and change" message that pushed him to victory over Mitt Romney. Obama got 65,915,795 votes for a 51.06 percent win vs. Romney's 60,933,504 or 47.20 percent, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

Anderson's diminutive 43,018 votes earned him 0.03 percent of the vote, while Ballot Access News said that more than 28% of voters saw his name on ballots. But think about it—a former Salt Lake City mayor and failed congressional candidate with inverted national name recognition became an electoral thing his first year out. Just inches above Anderson in the official count was Roseanne Barr, with exponentially higher name recognition but not nearly the intellectual cachet.

Practicing What They Preach
In fact, intellect might be at the core of the Justice Party.

"I think it has a promising future," says Elizabeth Gamarra, who, at 24, is the face of the future voter and one of the youngest members of the Justice Party. "It continues to become a unique platform of inclusion and issues that haven't been brought up. It's not just a party—it's a movement."

Gamarra—who has two master's degrees—is working on her doctorate in Japan. Without being too abstruse, she is studying how certain issues are framed and how they become security threats. She has been involved with Amnesty International, refugee integration, the Gandhi nonviolence movements and more. It's typical of someone who identifies with the Justice Party.

"I like that they practice what they preach," says Gamarra, who has since joined the Justice Party board. "Justice connects economics, environment and social justice." Her parents immigrated from Peru when she was very young. As a woman of color, she is focused on the leadership gap—actually on just about any gap between people. "The Justice Party is about thinking beyond your 'self,'" she says. "The way to tackle our differences is to see people as part of us, but we function differently. And still, you're a part of me as a whole. You're different, I'm different, and it's just an illusion."

It's hard to put this kind of metaphysical thinking in a simple slogan, especially for a party that may be a party or may be something bigger. Whatever that may be, it's not "America First."

Soul Talk
Luis J. Rodriguez broke that mold when Anderson chose him as his 2012 running mate. Described as a poet, politician and author, Rodriguez was also a street fighter—literally. Rodriguez ran with a gang in East Los Angeles in the '60s and '70s and went to prison at 18. He's worked in prisons ever since and calls himself an abolitionist.

"I can give these guys and women tools they need to get back in the community and do some good," he says. "It's an easy proposition, but it's hard to do."

Some of those tools were poetry. Rodriguez was Los Angeles Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2016 and uses "soul talk, a prophetic act, a powerful means to enlarge one's presence in the world," his website says.

Among his poems is "The News You Don't Get at Home":

The news you don't get at home
is in the withered eye sockets
of emaciated faces, seeking food,
seeking redress, seeking emancipation—

Rodriguez, like Anderson, has had a hard time with the two-party system. In 2014, he registered with the Green Party to run for California governor "when the Justice Party was going down," he said. Now he's back, although the labels of party don't matter anymore.

Rocky Anderson speaking at the 2012 third-party presidential debate - JASON TURUC
  • Jason Turuc
  • Rocky Anderson speaking at the 2012 third-party presidential debate

A Matter of Debate
To be a real democracy, Anderson says, you have to allow all parties to participate, not just what he calls "the corrupt duopoly."

"They are both feeding out of the same trough of corrupting money that leads them away from the public interest," says Anderson. The two parties worked out a deal to "monopolize" debates.

He keeps a copy of a memorandum of understanding between the Republicans and Democrats that set out rules and strictures for the 1996 debates between the Dole-Kemp and Clinton-Gore campaigns. It was those kinds of "rules" that persuaded the League of Women Voters (of which, by way of disclosure, the author is an active member) to give up running debates in 1988.

"It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions," the League president said then. "The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

In 1980, Jimmy Carter refused to debate if the League allowed Independent John Anderson to participate. The League held firm—for just about the last time—and John Anderson debated only Ronald Reagan, who won the election.

The League objected most to the control that the two parties—starting with the 1988 Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush campaigns—would have over the proceedings. Since then, the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates has sponsored all the presidential debates.

To stick it to the two-party system, Rocky Anderson joined the other 2012 third-party candidates in a debate sponsored by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation. At four hours long, it was taped to use the same questions as the commission, but included Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode and the Justice Party's Rocky Anderson.

It's no wonder that the two major parties and network TV balked at the debate. Four hours is a long time to concentrate, and maybe not as entertaining as something short and quippy. For instance, what do you remember from the most recent vice presidential debate? It's probably the fly on Mike Pence's hair.

Climate = A Human Right
In early 2018, the Independent Media Network released Citizen Rocky, a decades-long project that followed Anderson during his final year as mayor through his 2012 presidential bid. While Amazon shows only seven viewer reviews, the documentary is a kind of memoir of a man possessed by a destiny unfulfilled, by a determination to change a political foundation which he sees benefitting an elite few.

Long a believer in revolutionary change, Anderson decided not to run for a third term as mayor, instead founding the nonprofit High Road for Human Rights in 2008. His hope was that grassroots activism could help solve major issues of torture, genocide, slavery, the death penalty and even global climate change. It didn't.

"After 31/2 years working on it, I was spending too much time trying to finance it," he says. "We had good seed money ... but I'm not being paid anything, and I'm writing our checks from my retirement savings."

As he watched the rise of the Tea Party, the ouster of not-conservative-enough Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and the gerrymandering of Utah's congressional districts, "I realized people get excited about party politics," he said.

It seemed like a good opportunity to get at issues that the two major parties weren't addressing. "Climate change is the biggest human rights issue we're facing," he says.

The two parties were in collusion, he said, and nothing was being done. Anderson saw the stars aligning; the tsunami of social media would allow him to push important issues into the public forum.

"With the millions of dollars of unpaid taxes, we could provide health care—if we would just fix the tax system," he says. "I've got to do what I can do to bring about change."

"I Love SLC"
Anderson had been a Democrat, albeit a controversial and forthright one. "I have some history with that chicken-shit party," he said in the documentary. "They're selling our nation to the highest bidders."

In 2011, he left the party, labeling it gutless. Certainly in Utah, it is less than effective.

He famously held an "impeachment rally" where he called on Congress to stop President George W. Bush after his invasion of Iraq, calling it an "outrageous, tragic war of aggression."

While mayor, Anderson angered Davis County and, of course, the Legislature when he blamed Salt Lake City's bad air quality on commuters' vehicle emissions from the north, specifically from the then-proposed Legacy Highway. Layton state Sen. (now Senate President) Stuart Adams thought a boycott of Salt Lake City would be awesome, and in response, Anderson designed an "I Love SLC" bumper sticker. No word on whether he sent one to Adams.

The west side of the city wasn't happy with him, either, after he vetoed what came to be called "the sprawl mall" because of its traffic and pollution potential. He took flak for trying to round up errant shopping carts, too. And he was accused of bowing to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after it had purchased the Main Street easement. That deal had been done before he was mayor, but it remained hugely controversial. Ultimately, the city exchanged the easement for church-owned land near the Sorenson Center with a pledge by the Alliance for Unity to raise $5 million to construct a community center nearby.

His two terms as mayor were symbolic of the city's deep desire to be free of the Legislature's conservative yoke. While some cringed, others delighted in the mayor's outspoken defense of liberal policies, not the least of which were about liquor.

Before the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling, Anderson came out in support of domestic partnerships. The late, ever-reliable right-wing darling Sen. Chris Buttars castigated Anderson for attracting "the entire gay community to come and live in Salt Lake County."

Anderson's politics were part of his body and soul. In college, he actively opposed the Vietnam War. And in law school, he participated in protests against the Shah of Iran when he met with President Carter. "I was surrounded by agents with lead pipes ... hitting lead pipes in their palms," he said of the Washington protest. "It was very threatening."

He also took part in a miles-long protest after it was reported that anti-Castro Cubans had been hired by the Chilean government to assassinate a former Chilean ambassador.

"I've always been really interested in human rights issues. That's why I went to law school," he says.

At 32, it was Nicaragua and the Sandinistas that moved him to action. He'd read about the United States' involvement in trying to overthrow the Sandinistas. That was not long after the Sandinistas had overthrown the brutal autocratic Somoza family dictatorship, which was closely allied with the U.S.

Anderson took several trips to Nicaragua, participating in neighborhood meetings with President Daniel Ortega. While the Utah media followed him, Anderson felt that the national media was simply parroting what was written by the U.S. Embassy.

"A UPI story said it was a one-party Soviet-style sham election from Nicaragua," he said. But he himself had witnessed seven political parties given free and equal time on the radio.

"There were so many democratic components," he said. "This country could learn from them."

Shopping for Alternatives
Whether he realized it or not, the Nicaragua experience may have set the stage for his third-party passion. Just as Anderson has often fought for the underdog in his law practice, he also champions a third (fourth or fifth) party system in the country.

It's not an easy road, as minor parties have never won a presidential election. A former president—Teddy Roosevelt, along with his "Bull Moose Party"—probably came closest in 1912 with 27.4% of the popular vote. H. Ross Perot ran two presidential campaigns, the first as a Reform candidate who won 18.9% of the popular vote in 1992. Then in 1996, he ultimately endorsed George W. Bush.

"Two major barriers have prevented third parties from electing many candidates," writes the Khan Academy. "First, most U.S. elections operate by the winner-take-all system, which awards seats only to the candidate or party that wins the most votes in an election; independent or third-party candidates who have neither the name recognition nor the organizational support provided by the major parties rarely win the majority of votes.

"Second, the two major parties frequently incorporate the platforms of third parties into their own platforms; voters who identified with a third-party issue will often vote for a major party candidate who has adopted that issue because major parties are more likely to succeed."

The Deseret News recently ran an article about the massive electoral anomie in the country. "At a time of increasing dissatisfaction with the major parties, voters appear to be shopping for alternatives, both nationally and on the state level," the paper wrote.

In Utah, the United Utah Party kicked up some dust after Evan McMullin ran for president in 2016, becoming a refuge for disaffected Republicans. But it was just dust.

The knock on minor parties is that they become spoilers in an election. The Green Party's Jill Stein was generally thought of that way. Many voters thought she cost Hillary Clinton dearly. Others, including some Fivethirtyeight reporters, felt she might have been a scapegoat. They called her "the Ralph Nader of 2016." Nader made four U.S. presidential bids—for the Green Party in 1996 and 2000, the Reform Party in 2004, and as an independent in 2008.

“This is not just about electoral politics; we’re about movement— organizing and sustaining movements.” - —Rocky Anderson
  • “This is not just about electoral politics; we’re about movement— organizing and sustaining movements.”—Rocky Anderson

We're About a Movement
The numbers to spoil an election, though, have never really held up. Anderson says he has never intended the Justice Party to become a spoiler, and in fact, he endorsed Bernie Sanders when it was evident the Justice Party wouldn't win.

"With almost no resources, we pulled off a minor miracle and had to face four lawsuits where we were denied ballot access," Anderson says.

This grassroots effort is now geared to go global, Anderson says. It starts with setting up local teams. Far from spoiling elections, the party's goal, he says, is to get rid of or vastly reduce the influence of "corrupting money."

"This is not just about electoral politics; we're about movement, organizing and sustaining movements," he says.

The antislavery movement, women's suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights—they all overcame the power of money with passion, organization and endurance. "You can't just leave it to people who are elected," he says. "You have to make it politically impossible for those in power."

Yes, he's focusing on the Justice Party, but the stresses of everyday life percolate. In 2018, he was dogged by accusations of workplace discrimination by two female employees at his law practice but received hundreds of supportive comments after The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story that he calls a "hatchet job."

And he has taken on the cause of Rob Miller, a former Democratic Party official who, in 2017, was running for state party chairman. He dropped out of the race after seven women signed a letter claiming to have experienced sexual misconduct by Miller. While the party recently apologized for its handling of the case, it has yet to complete a formal investigation of the allegations. Anderson says he wants to see Miller vindicated.

Anderson will tell you he believes women, but accusations in the #MeToo era have taken things too far. And it's a distraction from the justice movement.

"It affects me. I'm outraged by it. I will die outraged," he says. "But I'll probably die outraged by a lot of injustices."

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Katharine Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses column. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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