Features » March 24, 2008
The Udall Boys lead the Democratic charge for the Senate
Despite being first cousins, Tom and Mark Udall act more like brothers. Their parents were close, so the two spent plenty of time together growing up, sharing dinners with their siblings, cracking jokes and playing under the Arizona sun. As the boys grew older, their friendship matured. Outdoorsmen to the core, they possess a common love of mountain climbing, and together have scaled some of the world’s highest peaks.
“We think a lot alike,” says Tom, “and we enjoy the outdoors together. We enjoy being around each other.”
It’s a quintessential family narrative, but the Udalls aren’t the quintessential family. Based in the interior West, the Udall clan boasts a lineage that spans four generations and has deep roots in both major political parties. They’re the most important political family most Americans have never heard of. But after this election cycle, that could change.
Tom and Mark are progressive U.S. representatives in New Mexico and Colorado, respectively, who have each set their sights on an open, Republican-held Senate seat in their home states. Meanwhile, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.)–the Udalls’ second cousin–is in a tight re-election campaign himself, one that Democrats are targeting heavily. If all goes according to the party’s plan, two new Udalls would be in the Senate, one would be out, and a filibuster-proof majority would be within reach.
Enough with Clintons and Bushes. Meet the Udalls.
It’s a family affair
It’s a common joke out in the Mountain states: the Udalls are “the Kennedys of the West.” Terry Bracy, chairman of the Morris K. Udall Foundation and a longtime family friend, thinks the comparison is misguided. “They never acquired any wealth and never sought any wealth,” he says. “They were interested in the essentials of life. Maybe it came from their heritage.”
The bedrocks of that heritage are humble beginnings and a strong Mormon faith, embodied initially by the family patriarch David King Udall. His story, and that of his descendents, reads like something out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
A year after his birth in 1851, David King’s dirt-farming English parents traveled west from Missouri along the Mormon trail to Utah. After years working on farms and railroads, young David was sent by Mormon pioneer Brigham Young to serve as a Mormon bishop in Northern Arizona.
Soon after moving to Arizona, the federal government targeted him on trumped-up charges of unlawful cohabitation and perjury. The former charge was dropped but the second stuck, and in 1885, he spent time in a Michigan federal penitentiary. Just months into his three-year sentence, however, Democratic President Grover Cleveland issued him an unconditional pardon, affixing the family’s party affiliation for life.
Unlike other partisans, David King–who was a polygamist–could not afford to alienate political opponents. His second wife, Ida Hunt, was a Republican, an identity she would pass on to her heirs.
David King also relied on Morris Goldwater, the Democratic Jewish mayor of Prescott, Ariz., (and uncle of conservative icon Barry Goldwater), who once bailed him out of jail. As religious minorities in Arizona public life, Morris and David King were natural allies and their families forged a bond that endured even after their politics diverged.
Says Mark Udall: “It was that kinship and that friendship and that joint experience on the frontier, where Mother Nature was really the adversary instead of other human beings, that’s really informed our legacy of public service.”
Instead of becoming church leaders, David King’s four sons moved into government life. One served in the Arizona state legislature, another was mayor of Phoenix and two were appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court. The most accomplished was Levi–the only Democrat–who took his role on the bench seriously. “My grandfather [Levi] used to talk about public servants,” says Tom. “He would never say ‘politician.’ And he said if good people don’t step forward and serve the public, then the scoundrels will take it over.”
Among his many accomplishments, Levi wrote the 1948 decision that enfranchised Native Americans in Arizona, a controversial position among both Mormons and the state’s white population at large.
Levi’s two sons, Stewart and Mo, took the Udall brand national. Stewart served four terms as a Democratic congressman in Arizona before joining the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as interior secretary. The younger Mo, an accomplished basketball player who played one year for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, won Stewart’s vacant seat in 1961 and served 30 years, eventually chairing the House Interior Committee.
Together, the Udall brothers solidified what has been called “the Udall Ethic” of conservation, public service and consensus building. Stewart, a WWII veteran, championed the Great Society’s landmark environmental bills, most notably the 1964 Wilderness Act. Mo was also a dedicated environmentalist, spearheading the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, which doubled the size of America’s national parks system. He also spoke out against the Vietnam War and led a movement for institutional reform in Congress, taking on campaign finance issues and the antiquated seniority system.
Like their father, Stewart and Mo understood the importance of safeguarding the rights of people of color in the Southwest. They were active in the fight to integrate Arizona’s schools long before Brown v. Board reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and Mo was a leading advocate for the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gave tribal governments a strong voice in child custody proceedings.
How did the Udalls win votes with political views that were to the left of many of their constituents? People close to the family suggest that all the Udalls share a compassionate sensibility that disarms political opponents. “They have the gift of humor,” says Bracy, “and they have that special way of communicating with people that seems not to offend them.”
The next generation
As if on schedule, a fourth generation of Udalls is emerging from the Rocky Mountain valleys and rising to public office. Tom, son of Stewart, knew he wanted to pursue politics from an early age. “There was this feeling,” he says, “that it’s a very noble calling to serve the public.”
After graduating from the New Mexico School of Law in 1977, Tom clerked for Chief Justice Oliver Seth of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and was eventually appointed assistant U.S. attorney. In 1990, he was elected attorney general of New Mexico, a position he held for two terms. When current Gov. Bill Richardson left his congressional seat in 1998, Tom jumped at the chance to fill it. Five terms later, Tom is still in office, garnering huge majorities in a racially diverse district.
Mark Udall took a different route to D.C. After graduating from Williams College in 1972, he worked for Colorado Outward Bound, a nonprofit that runs youth wilderness programs. In his 20 years with the organization, Mark transformed Outward Bound into a national institution that serves 60,000 people each year. But after holding every position in the organization, it was time for a new challenge.
“Sure enough,” Bracy jokes, “the gene kicked in at some point.”
In 1997, Mark won his first race for the Colorado state legislature, filling a seat that only one other Democrat had held in 30 years. After walking the district for months, he found he had a knack for campaigning.
Just two months into his term, 12-term incumbent Rep. David Scraggs retired from Congress, and Mark decided to again roll the dice. He won. And in an unplanned but fitting twist of fate, Mark entered the House in 1999 alongside his cousin Tom, where the two have served since.
Udalls storm the Senate
The Udalls have carried on the conservationist legacy of their fathers, a cause they wear on their (rolled-up) sleeves.
Mark, who co-chairs the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus and sits on the Natural Resources Committee, thinks that America is on the cusp of a “green revolution.” He crafted legislation to protect many of Colorado’s wilderness areas and helped turn the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant into a wildlife refuge. Tom, as New Mexico attorney general, created the state’s first environmental enforcement division and has led efforts to preserve the Valle Vidal in northern New Mexico for public access.
The environment isn’t the Udalls’ only issue. Both voted against the 2002 legislation that gave President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq (although Colorado antiwar activists have criticized Mark more recently for his votes to continue funding). Both voted against the Patriot Act–two of only 66 representatives to do so. And both are pro-choice in states where that stance can be a political liability.
The two speak at length about consensus building, but when the chips fall, they aren’t afraid to vote their conscience. “They really believe in civility,” says Bracy, “but these are tough customers. They never blink when they make up their minds.”
They will need to show some of that toughness this fall when their Senate campaigns hit full stride. Mark is hoping to replace the retiring Wayne Allard, who is honoring a 1996 pledge to serve no more than two terms. In what will be one of the tightest races nationwide, he will square off against Bob Schaffer, a former U.S. representative who narrowly lost the 2004 Senate primary to beer baron Pete Coors.
Democrats have shined lately in Colorado, but many newly elected legislators, including Sen. Ken Salazar, represent the moderate wing of the party. Schaffer, in an attempt to sway independent voters, is painting Udall as a “Boulder liberal.” But it’s the Republican who may be out of touch with state residents.
While Udall was safeguarding the environment, Schaffer spent time in the House cozying up to Big Oil. A major supporter of the Bush-Cheney energy plan, he accepted more than $75,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry while in office. Schaffer now serves as an executive at Aspect Energy, which, according to the League of Conservation Voters, develops international oil and gas opportunities, including in Iraq, and pursues coal-based investments at the expense of clean energy. He also opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, which he campaigned hard against in 2004. And he is a supporter of the Iraq War.
Election analysts think Colorado’s recent Democratic upswing gives Udall a slight edge, but the polls remain tight. A February Rasmussen poll showed Schaffer ahead 44 percent to 43 percent.
Things look easier in New Mexico, where Tom is vying for the seat long-held by Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, who is retiring after six terms because of a medical condition. The Democrat initially decided against running but changed his mind in November after receiving a flood of grassroots support, exemplified by a netroots-led “Draft Udall” campaign.
He’ll face one of New Mexico’s other two representatives, Republicans Heather Wilson or Steve Pearce. Wilson, the only female veteran ever elected to Congress, is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee over her alleged role in the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. Pearce, a strong supporter of tougher border regulation and tax cuts, is more conservative than many New Mexico Republicans.
Against either candidate, early polling shows the well-funded Udall as a huge favorite. A February survey from New Mexico State University found Udall leading Pearce by 22 percentage points and Wilson by 28 percentage points.
The Republican side of the tree
Gordon Smith, unlike his second cousins Tom and Mark, is already in the Senate–he just has to fight to stay there. A two-term senator in Oregon, Smith traces his lineage back to David King, but he falls on the Republican side of the tree. Smith’s grandfather Jesse Udall succeeded his brother Levi on the Arizona Supreme Court, and Smith’s father Milan Dale Smith was assistant secretary of agriculture during the Eisenhower administration.
Smith has crafted an image as an independent legislator eager for bipartisan solutions. A member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, he has voted to fund stem-cell research, sought to include gays in hate crimes legislation and opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In December 2006, he even turned against the Iraq War, suggesting on the Senate floor that Bush’s war policy “may even be criminal.”
But Oregon Democrats argue Smith is more a Bush than a Rockefeller Republican, a problem for the only Republican holding statewide office in the largely blue state. Smith is pro-life and supported the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, voted against raising the minimum wage and was a crucial advocate for racially insensitive Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) 2006 return to a leadership position in the chamber.
Portland-area activist Steve Novick and Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley are the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, and either would present a difficult and progressive challenge to Smith. The incumbent will enter the campaign with a substantial cash advantage, but the national party should mitigate some of that edge, especially if Merkley, who has the support from the party establishment, were to win the primary on May 20.
The possibility of three Udall family senators is intriguing, but the races gain more significance in light of the Democrats’ electoral prospects this cycle. As blogger Chris Bowers wrote at his strategy website OpenLeft, “It is becoming difficult to believe the number of potential Republican-held Senate seats Democrats have a reasonable chance of capturing in 2008.”
Democratic challengers are polling well against Republican incumbents in Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Virginia. With an enormous cash advantage over the National Republican Senate Committee–a difference of $17 million, at the end of 2007–the Democratic Party could widen its diminutive Senate majority.
For many on the left, that can’t come soon enough. The GOP has brazenly deterred progressive legislation with a tactic best articulated by Minority Whip Lott: “The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail,” he told Roll Call last April, “and so far, it’s working for us. Democrats are the ones taking the blame for not getting anything done.”
Republicans have thwarted majority-backed bills by repeatedly threatening to filibuster, a Senate rule that guarantees 40 senators can refuse to end debate on a proposed bill. Currently, the only way to block a filibuster is if 60 senators invoke cloture, a maneuver that, historically, has been required only sparingly. But according to a study by the progressive strategy center Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), Republicans are on pace to force 134 cloture votes by the end of this Congress, more than double the historical average.
“There had never been a previous congressional minority,” says Bob Borosage, CAF’s co-director, “that had so systematically used the threat of filibuster and had used it on basic bread and butter issues and on fundamental questions like the war.”
But that problem fades away if Democrats can assemble filibuster-proof majorities with the help of more Blue senators.
“If you pick up six seats,” says Borosage, “you can pick up enough Republicans on almost everything over a 60-vote margin.”
Of all the necessary pickups, Democrats are most optimistic about the Udall races because of the party’s recent success in the interior west. In 2000, Republicans held an eight-state gubernatorial monopoly along the Rocky Mountains. Today, Democrats inhabit the governor’s mansion in five of those states. Democrats have also picked up two senate seats (Salazar’s 2004 win in Colorado and Jon Tester’s 2006 win in Montana), five House seats and several state and local offices. It’s no coincidence the Democratic National Convention this summer will be held in Denver.
By taking hard lines on social and economic issues, the GOP has alienated independent-minded Western voters. Its emphasis on wedge “values” issues like abortion and gay marriage hasn’t played well in the West, a region Mark Udall says has a “libertarian live-and-let-live attitude” about citizens’ personal lives.
The interior West also has a rich legacy of labor struggles (the 1914 Ludlow massacre) and blue-collar populism. Albeit timidly, Westerners are reconnecting with that history and revolting against economic policies that have funneled wealth upward without regard for the well-being of working people. The electoral backlash against Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights –which required a popular vote for tax increases– and Jon Tester’s populist 2006 Senate victory typify this development.
But the most significant asset for Democrats has been Westerners’ affinity for clean, open spaces. “In the West, two competing strains of thought have been at war with each other,” says Bracy. “One is exploit and development mineral resources at any cost and the other is conservation.”
Democrats have capitalized on the region’s desire for smart growth by promoting environmental regulation, alternative energy policies and public transit. In doing so, they’ve picked up support from historically conservative constituents, such as hunters and fisherman.
Tom and Mark should benefit immensely from Westerners’ growing dissatisfaction with Republican orthodoxy. But that prompts the question: Who are they rooting for in Oregon?
“In one of these many election campaigns in Arizona in the old days, there was a Goldwater running as a Democrat and an Udall running as a Republican,” Mark says. “And the debate in the Udall family, who were Democrats, was do we support the Goldwater or do we support the family member who is a Republican? The ultimate decision … was to support the Republican Udall–because blood is thicker than Goldwater.”
He laughs before he cautions that he doesn’t want to “telegraph” where his loyalties lie. But it’s clear that family, like public service, is valued among the Udalls.
Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.