Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Born into a family that has produced generations of politicians across the West, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico had a front-row seat to national politics as a child.
There are photos of him helping his father, Stewart Udall, campaign for Congress in the 1950s. And ambassadors and other dignitaries often frequented his family’s Washington, D.C., home when his dad was secretary of the interior in the 1960s.
What made him want to get into politics – Udall said in a recent interview with Journal reporters and editors – was sitting nearby and listening to those adults strategize with his father about how to take an idea and turn it into public policy.
“Just hearing my father and my uncle talk about strategy, when my dad was in the Cabinet and Uncle Mo (Udall) was in the House, how they were going to take an idea and get something done,” Udall said. “As I got older, I became more and more intrigued with the idea that if you have a great idea and you go out and work hard at it, you can change the world in a dramatic way.”
Udall, 72, is leaving the U.S. Senate on Jan. 3 after 30 years serving New Mexico as an elected official, first as attorney general and then more than 20 years in Congress. He didn’t seek reelection this year, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján will fill Udall’s seat.
Udall will be leaving his imprint on the nation’s capital. The Democrat sponsored 23 bills that were signed into law during his career, according to Govtrack.us. The website scores Udall in the middle of his party in both political ideology and legislative leadership.
“It is really hard to get anything through Congress. The fact that a senator and representative from New Mexico was able to pass 23 bills in the U.S. Congress is an incredible legacy, and it really speaks to how respected he is on Capitol Hill,” said Michael Rocca, a University of New Mexico political science professor. “In order to get things through Congress, you need to be able to reach across the aisle.”
What Udall considers his crowning achievements from his time in Washington mirror what piqued his interest in politics in the first place. He’s proud of the work he did behind the scenes to gain support for his ideas, and the times he risked political fallout to get Republicans to support his bills.
He reflected on two specific examples: revamping the Toxic Chemicals Control Act and gaining permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
One effort was completed when President Barack Obama was in office and one under President Donald Trump.
Udall said he spent three years crafting the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which added enforcement powers to the Toxic Chemicals Control Act and was signed into law by Obama.
“I spent three years of my life, you know, getting pilloried from all sides,” Udall said. “I had Republicans telling me, ‘Boy, I’m glad you’re out on the lawn on this one taking all the heat, because it allows us to work with you and get a good bill.'”
The latter effort, which gained permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, was part of the Great American Outdoors Act, which Trump signed into law in August. While the legislation was sponsored by Republican senators from Colorado and Montana, Udall successfully pushed for the act to include permanent funding for the conservation fund, which he said “fulfilled my father’s legacy.”
The fund was created in 1965, when Stewart Udall was heading the Interior Department. One of the fund’s purposes is to create outdoor recreation sites, such as national parks and protected forests.
Udall said he is the son of Mormon pioneers, all of whom share a special connection to the land. His great-grandfather helped settle St. John’s, Arizona, on the state’s border with New Mexico, in the 1880s.
“The Udall family’s legacy in the West is about championing environmental causes, and Tom Udall is right there with his father, Stewart, and others in the Udall family,” Rocca said. “It’s about protecting public lands; it’s about protecting and expanding tribal lands … and championing water rights.”
Efforts to reform
Udall never lost interest in the rules and strategy of D.C. politics. In addition to his environmental advocacy, Udall leaves Washington with a legacy of trying to reform rules and procedures, Rocca said.
Udall tried to change Senate rules surrounding the filibuster, Rocca said, by mandating that senators be present on the floor and actually have to speak to filibuster a bill.
Udall also regularly introduced legislation that aimed to require organizations spending money in elections, including political action committees and certain nonprofit groups, to disclose their donors.
“He’s been at the forefront of the sort of reforms that many political scientists, myself included, really think are important to improve the system,” Rocca said. “He’s not going to get a lot of credit for that in the newspaper. These issues don’t appeal to voters in the way public lands might, but they are so important.”
Explaining why he tried to make those reforms, Udall says his motivation came partly from being raised a “Westerner” who speaks his mind and lets everyone know where he stands.
“If you’re in the public arena or you’re going to put yourself out there into the public arena, you’re in a territory where you have to be willing to say what you stand for,” Udall said. “You also have to be willing to say how much money you put in. And if you’re not willing to do that, then maybe there are other ways that you can help.”
He’s also watched with alarm the way money has come to dominate national politics.
Udall said his father, when he was a U.S. representative for Arizona, would have one fundraiser each year – an event at a hotel for his biggest supporters – that would garner about $5,000, the equivalent of about $50,000 today.
That was enough of a war chest to fund his future campaigns, and the elder Udall could focus the rest of the year on doing the “people’s business,” he said.
In contrast, the younger Udall said he spent long hours raising millions of dollars for his campaigns.
“The dominance of money … hurts the ability of all of us to legislate. It just deteriorates the system overall,” Udall said.
During his farewell address on the Senate floor last week, Udall said those are some of the reasons the Senate is “broken.”
“It’s not working for the American people,” he said.
New Mexico voters first elected Udall in 1990 as state attorney general.
He held the job until he was elected to Congress in 1998 to represent New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers northern New Mexico. He was elected to the seat five times before making a bid in 2008 for the U.S. Senate against Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican who represented the southern part of the state.
“In some campaigns, you get really a deeper respect for your opponent … and in some campaigns, you wind up with less respect for your opponent because they are willing to compromise in front of the cameras and then they become something different off camera,” said Pearce, now the chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party. “And I never felt that way about the senator.”
Pearce said that although he usually disagrees with Udall, he admired Udall for never shying away from expressing his opinion on an issue.
“When you express opinions, you run the risk of losing votes, and I never saw him dodge the issues. I saw him try to balance them out the best he could with his value system,” Pearce said. “At the end of the day, you just have to … respect and appreciate anyone who could serve that long.”
After Luján takes over the Senate seat, Udall said, his first order of business will be a trip back to New Mexico and a long horseback ride with his wife, Jill Cooper, and daughter and son-in-law.
But he is also one of the people reportedly in the running for a Cabinet position in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
If Udall is nominated secretary of the interior, he would have the opportunity to run the same department that his father ran for most of the 1960s. The Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C., is named after Udall’s father.
Udall said he hasn’t spoken with anyone from Biden’s team about the position.
Make no mistake, Udall said; he is not retiring. He said he will continue to work on issues affecting environmental and conservation efforts and Native American communities.
Udall said he would do that work in a low-key, typical Udall fashion.
He said he’s also considering doing conflict resolution work.
“I’ve always believed in mediation and arbitration as a much better solution than us just battling away in court,” he said. “There’s got to be a way to take many of those cases out of court and have those hard-nosed discussion and get some solutions.”