Anderson practiced law for twenty-one years in Salt Lake City, specializing in civil litigation. He was lead attorney in several civil rights and consumer protection cases, including Bott v. Deland and Bradford v. Moench, and filed an amicus brief in University of Utah Students Against Apartheid v. Peterson. Anderson also helped spearhead reform of Utah’s child custody laws. He worked to institute a program to help those who do not qualify for assistance through Legal Aid or Legal Services, but who are unable to afford to pay a full fee for legal representation. Anderson served as Chair of the Litigation Section of the Utah State Bar Association and as President of Anderson and Karrenberg, a Salt Lake City law firm.
During this time, he was affiliated with the ACLU, and volunteered as a board member of several community-based, non-profit organizations, including Common Cause, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, and Guadalupe Schools. On behalf of Common Cause, Anderson lobbied for stronger legislation pertaining to ethical conduct by elected officials and for campaign finance reform. Anderson also founded and served as President of Citizens for Penal Reform.
He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1996, but received 55% of Salt Lake City's vote in that race. His Republican opponent, Merrill Cook, made Anderson's support of gay marriage the focus of his campaign in that race.
Anderson has gained international renown for his Salt Lake City Green Program, a comprehensive effort to improve the sustainability and reduce the environmental footprint of Salt Lake City’s municipal operations. Elements of the program, which is said to “cover everything from dog waste to nuclear waste,” include initiatives to improve the efficiency of the City’s fleet and use of electricity, measures to make Salt Lake City more bicycle-friendly and pedestrian-friendly, and cogeneration plants at the City’s landfill and wastewater treatment facility that recapture methane to generate electricity.
As part of the Salt Lake City Green program, Anderson committed Salt Lake City to the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. Last year, the City surpassed its Kyoto goals, seven years ahead of schedule. In 2003, Anderson received the Climate Protection Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the Sierra Club acknowledged his environmental work with its Distinguished Service Award. In November 2005, the Salt Lake City Green program garnered Salt Lake City the World Leadership Award, presented by the World Leadership Forum, for the Environment.
Anderson is a proponent of transit-oriented urban housing and walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that do not perpetuate dependence on the automobile or further sprawl development.
Anderson is an ardent opponent of tobacco use and has supported legislative measures limiting smoking. In contrast, he is also one of the most outspoken public critics of Utah's strict liquor laws. (State law permits the sale of liquor only in restaurants, private clubs, and state-run liquor stores. The majority of bars in Utah function as private clubs with membership fees, and the number of bars on a block face is limited by City ordinance.)
Anderson has advocated for the interests of minority communities in Salt Lake City. In December 2001, state and federal officials organized a raid at the Salt Lake City Airport that selectively enforced immigration laws against undocumented employees, who were arrested, imprisoned, and lost their jobs. In response, Anderson created the Family to Family program, which made it possible for Salt Lake City families to provide direct emotional and financial assistance to the airport workers and their families. Additionally, the Mayor spearheaded a challenge to English-only legislation in Utah in 2000, and in 2006 spoke at two large demonstrations for comprehensive immigration reform.
Anderson received the League of United Latin American Citizens’s first-ever “Profile in Courage” award, as well as the National Association of Hispanic Publications’ Presidential Award, in 2006.
Anderson signed an executive order in 2000 implementing a full-fledged affirmative action program in City hiring. This program has led to historic levels of ethnic minority hiring and retention in City government. The City employs 34% more ethnic minorities compared to 1999, with a 90% increase in members of the ethnic minority community holding executive and administrative positions. Members of the minority community comprise more than one-third of his staff and more than one-third of his nominations to City boards and commissions, while comprising only 18% of city population.
Anderson also signed executive orders that extend benefits to domestic partners of City employees, and ban discrimination against City employees on the basis of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. Critics have contrasted these orders with the affirmative action hiring practices of his offices. Anderson co-convened the Alliance for Unity, a non-partisan group of religious and community leaders working to build bridges between people throughout Utah.
Anderson assisted Mitt Romney as he led Salt Lake City through the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Mayor Anderson handed off the Olympic flag at the closing ceremonies. He endorsed Romney's subsequent 2002 gubernatorial bid in Massachusetts. Romney later endorsed his 2003 mayoral re-election campaign. The two remain close friends, though Anderson has criticized Romney's recent changes in position.
Anderson founded the Salt Lake City International Jazz Festival, now in its seventh year. He has also pushed for better security at the nation's airports, overseeing Salt Lake City International Airport's effort to become the first in the nation to screen all checked baggage.
He is a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, a bi-partisan group with a stated goal of "making the public safer by getting illegal guns off the streets." The Coalition is co-chaired by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
On July 28, 2006, Anderson announced he would not pursue a third term as mayor. He said he wishes to organize communities to "make more noise" by advocating and organizing on human rights and climate-change issues. Anderson publicly endorsed City Councilman Keith Christensen in the 2007 mayoral race. In spite of Anderson's popularity, Christensen was soundly defeated in the primary election.
Anderson's approach to public policy strongly exemplifies the American liberal tradition, notable in the state that in the 2004 presidential election gave George W. Bush his greatest percentage of the vote of any state in the Union.
Anderson makes occasional posts at Daily Kos.
Critics charged Anderson with being insufficiently opposed to teen drug use and with failing to propose any alternatives. In fact, Anderson introduced the ATLAS Program to the Salt Lake City School Board, which voted to implement the program. Anderson also created the Mayor’s Coalition on Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs, and has advocated for the implementation of proven drug prevention, treatment, and harm-reduction programs. In 2005, the Drug Policy Alliance presented him with its Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award.
In August 2005, Anderson violated Salt Lake City policy when he used $633.74 in public funds to purchase meals and alcoholic beverages on two occasions for musicians who performed at the Salt Lake City International Jazz Festival and for visiting mayors from throughout the country. A local newspaper published four consecutive front-page articles to the story, and portrayed the purchases as "bar tabs."
When interviewed in September 2005 by the Deseret Morning News, Anderson stated that he disagreed with the policy, that providing hospitality to out-of-town visitors is an important mayoral function, and that exceptions to the policy had been made previously. The policy was subsequently changed to allow appropriate purchases of food and alcohol when entertaining out-of-town guests. Mayor Anderson reimbursed the City with his private funds for expenditures incurred while entertaining visiting mayors.
The Deseret Morning News soon created more controversy with its coverage of an interview Anderson gave to The Guardian newspaper in London. Leading with the headline, “LDS Church Not Taliban, Rocky says,” the paper implied that Anderson had compared life in Utah to life under the Taliban. Anderson emphasized that the comment, intended to be light-hearted, was not directed toward the state or its residents, nor toward The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rather, he said, the comment was directed toward local media, particularly the Deseret Morning News, who had originally characterized his alcohol and food purchases at a local restaurant as "bar tabs," and which had run articles about the fact that a Salt Lake City Reads Together book selection contained profanity. Jeremiads soon appeared on the editorial pages of the Deseret Morning News and other Utah newspapers. Anderson singled out the Deseret Morning News and other media outlets for deceptive, biased reporting in a statement about the publication and in a speech on media ethics to an annual banquet of the Daily Utah Chronicle.
In October 2005, local politicians accused Anderson of improper spending of public money. This time the issue was travel to Italy related to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. Anderson responded that the trip to Turin was to continue the longstanding Olympic tradition of delivering the Olympic message and did not cost Utah taxpayers any money. The Salt Lake City District Attorney cleared Anderson of any wrongdoing in the case.
On June 12, 2007, following a meeting in a City Council workroom, Anderson was involved in a physical and verbal confrontation with downtown real-estate developer Dell Loy Hansen. After challenging Anderson to speak to him, Hansen reportedly knocked Anderson off-balance. Anderson responded by threatening to "kick [Hansen's] ass. On June 18, a spokesman for Anderson indicated that the possibility of legal action against Hansen was being explored. It has since been determined that no charges will be filed.
Anderson attracted praise and scorn in August 2005 when, after accepting an invitation from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to participate in a visit by President Bush, he sent an e-mail to local advocacy leaders calling for "the biggest demonstration [Utah] has ever seen" to protest Bush's appearance at Veterans of Foreign Wars' National Convention at the Salt Palace. Speaking to a rally at Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City, Anderson justified his protest against Bush, asserting that the "nation was lied into a war".
Amidst this and other criticism, Anderson spoke at a protest against the Bush administration and Congress on August 30, 2006. His speech was animated, characterizing the war in Iraq as "illegal and immoral".
Approximately 4,000 people attended the protest, including numerous veterans. Throughout his speech Anderson stated that a true patriot can question government actions while still supporting America's troops, asserting, "Blind faith in bad leaders is not patriotism." After the anti-war rally where Anderson gave his speech, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff led a pro-war rally and responded to Anderson, accusing him of being "disrespectful" and "stupid" for speaking out on a war when a soldier from his city was being buried the same day. Meanwhile, publications and pundits have called his speech "outstanding", "refreshing", and "orders of magnitude more powerful than any critique of Bush I've seen by an elected political figure.
On March 19, 2007, during an anti-war rally for the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq, and afterwards on CNN, Anderson stated that he believes that George Bush should be impeached, saying: "This president, by engaging in such incredible abuses of power, breaches of trust with both the Congress and the American people, and misleading us into this tragic and unbelievable war, the violation of treaties, other international law, our constitution, our own domestic laws, and then his role in heinous human rights abuses; I think all of that together calls for impeachment".
On March 20, 2007 Rocky Anderson appeared on the O'Reilly Factor with host Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly asked Anderson about his public speech on the impeachment of President Bush. O'Reilly called the call for impeachment "kooky" and the two debated the legitimacies of one another when it came to knowledge of constitutional issues and impeachment requirements. Anderson ended the interview by saying O'Reilly was "really something."
Recently, at another anti-war rally on April 25, 2008, Anderson and other prominent anti-war figures, including the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, furthered their calls for impeachment of the President. Their statements came a day after Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney.
On July 25, 2008, Anderson was a witness testifying before the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing entitled "Executive Power and its Limitations," chaired by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. This hearing was convened in response to Rep. Kucinich's resolution calling for the impeachment of the president.