By Joshua Benton
SALT LAKE CITY – When you think of Utahns, you probably think of someone Mormon, conservative and white.
In other words, Orrin Hatch.
But within Utah, the capital Salt Lake City is an exception to the rule. Consider:
Nearly half of the students in Salt Lake City schools are minorities. A majority of city residents are non-Mormon. The city’s mayor is a self-described liberal Democrat and former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, whose unofficial motto for the city is “Strength Through Diversity.”
“More and more, Salt Lake City is becoming an island of progressivity in the middle of a very conservative state,” Mayor Rocky Anderson said.
“There are people who write in to the newspaper screaming, ‘What’s going on in Salt Lake City?’ ” said Paula Wolfe, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Utah. “But they’re usually from Provo or Ogden or somewhere else outside the city.”
There are a variety of reasons for the divergence between the city and state. Salt Lake City’s hemmed-in boundaries have kept the city small, but urban, keeping many conservatives in the suburbs rather than the city.
As a growing high-tech center, Salt Lake City attracts many out-of-staters seeking jobs, and they often bring their less conservative ideals with them. “We’ve got Berkeley liberals in government here,” said Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.
Salt Lake City also is home to the University of Utah. Having a large university often makes a city tilt further left – perhaps more so when the state’s other major school, Brigham Young University, is church-owned and quite conservative.
“Salt Lake certainly is a much more open and liberal community than the rest of Utah,” Wolfe said. “You can feel comfortable being gay or lesbian in Salt Lake City. But the minute you move out, you realize you’re back in Utah.”
Not long after taking office, Anderson issued an executive order banning discrimination over sexual orientation in city hiring.
All of Utah is becoming less white, largely because of an influx of Hispanics and, to a lesser extent, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Utah’s Hispanic population rose 138 percent in the 1990s and now makes up about 9 percent of the state.
But Salt Lake City has attracted the largest number of minorities. About 19 percent of city residents are Hispanic, and the city’s school system – usually an early indicator of demographic change – is now 46 percent minority.
When Ingrid Quiroz moved to Utah 13 years ago and became editor and publisher of the local Hispanic newspaper La Prensa, “it was weird to see a Hispanic in Utah,” she said.
Now, La Prensa is distributed in 180 locations around the city, and circulation has boomed from 3,000 to 16,000.
“It is definitely easier to be a minority here,” she said. “There are still some prejudices and discrimination in small towns. In Salt Lake City, people are more used to minorities.”
Anderson points to the differences between his inauguration ceremony and that of Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt. “The governor had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing, of course,” he said. “I think I saw one brown face in the whole crowd.” At his inauguration, Anderson had a Tongan choir sing, a Hispanic Mormon ward choir, a black minister, and a Native American prayer.
Not surprisingly, the ideological divide has shown up in state politics. “The city is 2-1 Democratic, and the rural areas are 2-1 Republican,” Taylor said.
Salt Lake has only elected Democrats as mayor since the 1970s, at a time when nearly all state-elected officials are Republicans. Four of the state’s five Congressmen are Republicans; the Democrat represents Salt Lake City.
But Wolfe said that while Salt Lake City may be liberal when compared to the rest of the state, liberal is a relative term. “I moved here from Seattle,” she said. “And Salt Lake is certainly far more conservative than that.”
What would happen if Anderson decided to run for a statewide office, like governor or senator? He has no illusions.
“I’d lose overwhelmingly,” he said.