Nearly 30 years have passed since the now-70-year-old was first voted in as New Mexico’s attorney general. He went on to win a seat in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District in 1998, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014 and is currently the most senior member of the state’s Congressional delegation.
Udall’s announcement last week he will leave the Senate in 2020 at the end of his current term puts a period on government service for the “Kennedys of the West” – Udall is the son of an Interior secretary, nephew of a congressman and cousin of a senator. Within hours of his announcement there was a flurry of speculation about who might make a run at his seat.
What’s for sure is the New Mexico delegation – whose next most senior member is 47-year-old Sen. Martin Heinrich – will sorely miss Udall’s institutional knowledge, measured responses and upstanding reputation. (And also his powerful perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee.)
What he has accomplished in the past 29 years are the fruits of head-down, no-fuss toil – using pragmatism and even temperament while avoiding the scandal and posturing now seemingly trademarks of public office.
Among the highlights:
- Winning a lawsuit as attorney general against the Department of Energy that helped set limits on radioactive waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
- Championing conservation causes in the House and Senate, including pushing back against the Trump administration’s efforts to downsize national monuments, including Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte.
- Taking a lead to right environmental wrongs, demanding the EPA address its Gold King Mine spill and the Air Force its water contamination at bases in New Mexico and “ensure the safe water every single family, rancher and farmer deserves.”
- Powering through the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act this month, preserving more than 275,000 acres as wilderness areas in New Mexico.
- Preaching caution and restraint in U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.
- Calling for the audit that helped reveal atrocious mismanagement at the Albuquerque Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which forced vets to wait months for medical care, as well as the cover-up that had allowed administrators to avoid consequences.
- Creating a national registry for service members and veterans exposed to toxic chemicals and fumes from open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Lending a voice to efforts to recognize veterans – including New Mexicans – who survived the infamous Battle of Bataan in World War II.
- Joining other New Mexico political leaders in calling for the end of the pointless, expensive and inhumane practice of biomedical testing on chimpanzees. Udall was vindicated when the National Institutes of Health began to phase out invasive testing on chimps in 2013, ultimately retiring the last group of test subjects in 2015.
- Advocating for an end to performance-enhancing drugs used on race horses.
- Playing a key role in the successful three-year effort to rewrite the nation’s 40-year-old chemical regulation laws. His work with Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter epitomizes bipartisan cooperation for the good of the nation. Vitter said Udall “brought a doggedness and a commitment to getting it done. He was great to work with.”
- Backing bipartisan immigration reform that respected our nation’s laws and border security but dealt realistically with immigrants here illegally, as well as the country’s labor needs.
- Supporting smart and necessary reforms to President George W. Bush’s important but problematic signature education bill, No Child Left Behind.
- Advocating for our national labs’ military missions, including extending the life of the B61 bomb, while at the same time urging them to diversify to protect against any future Base Realignment and Closure process and do a better job at tech transfer, bringing technology into the private marketplace to create jobs.
- Supporting expedited oil and gas drilling permits in an environmentally responsible manner.
- Seeking assistance for New Mexicans affected by closures, including miners in Questa when Chevron closed operations.
- Recommending a “do it all, do it right” approach to U.S. energy independence.
- Pushing for more disclosure in campaign financing as well as giving Congress more authority to regulate contributions and spending by independent groups in federal elections (a response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling).
- Demanding then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt comply with an investigation into spending on office furnishings. He wrote the secretary that “the American people deserve an open and transparent budget process.”
With around two years left at his Senate post, New Mexico and the nation need Udall to use every ounce of political savvy he has picked up during his decades of public service to broker compromise between two deeply divided parties. Two issues in particular come to mind:
- As a tireless champion of environmental causes, Udall can help firebrands in his own party find middle ground with oil-and-gas devotees over how the U.S. can and should take decisive action against climate change without scuttling the economy.
- As a senator representing a border state, Udall should press his colleagues in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform that includes permanent solutions for Dreamers, expands work permit programs for those seeking better jobs, speeds up the process for asylum-seekers and maintains a clear-eyed recognition of security needs.
Udall has been following his conscience in the public eye for nearly three decades. He has signaled that retirement isn’t necessarily his next step, but we still get his extensive experience, knowledge and gentlemanly demeanor for 21 more months.
So the hard work’s not over yet.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.