“A consistent beacon of leadership and moral clarity in turbulent times,” was the description Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham used to encapsulate Tom Udall’s 30 years of public service.
The “definition of an honorable public servant,” she added, who served with “grace and dignity.”
“(W)hen I think about the word leadership, I think of Tom Udall,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said on the Senate floor Dec. 8 after Udall gave his farewell address. “Leaders are humble,” not hot-headed.
Udall has indeed been a humble leader on Capitol Hill since he was elected to the U.S. House in 1998 to represent the state’s northern congressional district and to the U.S. Senate in 2008. He preferred to form friendships and partnerships and work behind the scenes to get legislation passed, in contrast to many of his colleagues who rarely turn down a TV appearance invitation. “As any good senator will tell you, friendships are what get you over the finish line,” Udall said in his farewell speech.
The U.S. Senate is not known as a body of particularly humble people, instead having become a body of megamillionaires and nationally known public figures seeking even higher offices.
Udall wasn’t one of them.
There’s an old saying on Capitol Hill that every time a U.S. senator gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror, he or she sees a future president. Udall, however, never launched a presidential campaign, while many of his congressional colleagues did. He was instead issue- and results-oriented, sponsoring 23 bills that were signed into law during his congressional career, according to Govtrack.us. While the website scores him in the middle of his party in both political ideology and legislative leadership, Udall has quietly left a lasting imprint on federal law.
Just this month, Udall teamed up with Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas to include the Mothers of Military Service Leave Act as an amendment in an annual defense spending bill. The amendment would ensure that women serving in the U.S. National Guard and Reserve can take maternity leave without losing out on credit for their military service and points toward retirement.
But what about Republicans? How do they feel about Udall’s public service, which began with eight years as New Mexico attorney general? Well, the tributes to New Mexico’s senior senator have come from both sides of the political aisle.
Republican Sen. Tom Barrasso of Wyoming thanked Udall for “his stewardship, for his leadership and for his friendship,” noting Udall’s commitment to environmental conservation. Barrasso said he and Udall worked together on the Indian Affairs Committee, which Barrasso chaired and on which Udall served as its ranking Democrat. Anyone familiar with Udall’s career and his regular press releases knows the deep passion he has for Indian Country and New Mexico’s 23 tribes. While serving in the U.S. House, Udall was co-vice chair of the House Native American Caucus. He called his work as vice chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee “the honor of a lifetime.”
Republican Steve Pearce, who ran unsuccessfully against Udall for U.S. Senate in 2008, said he never saw him dodge an issue. “I saw him try to balance them out the best he could with his value system,” said Pearce, now chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party.
During a recent interview with Journal reporters and editors, Udall said gaining permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and revamping the Toxic Chemicals Control Act, while “getting pilloried from all sides,” were two of his proudest achievements.
Udall said he spent three years crafting the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which added enforcement powers to the Toxic Chemicals Control Act. “It was the biggest environmental reform in a generation,” Udall said. “I was proud to lead that effort to protect our families from toxic chemicals. It was hard work.”
The son of former Congressman and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said getting permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund “fulfilled my father’s legacy.” The fund was created in 1965, when Stewart Udall was heading the Interior Department. But Tom Udall said it was never fully funded and utilized to create and maintain outdoor recreation sites such as national parks and protected forests. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation to designate the U.S. Department of the Interior Building as the Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building.
During his farewell speech, Udall acknowledged he is leaving the Senate at a critical time, saying the campaign finance system is out of control, secret money is flooding campaigns and corrupting the system, and the Senate has become too polarized. But he said he remains a “troubled optimist.”
“Our planet is in crisis – facing mass extinction and climate change. Our people are in crisis – ravaged by a pandemic that has laid bare the inequities of our society. And our democracy is in crisis – as the people’s faith in their government is shaken. We cannot solve one of these crises without solving the others. That’s why I’m troubled.”
While all that may be true, Udall remains a beacon of leadership and moral clarity in troubled times. Fortunately for New Mexico, his work isn’t done, he’s just going to go about it in a different capacity – as citizen Udall.
Udall says after he introduces his successor, Sen.-elect Ben Ray Luján, to his Senate colleagues on Jan. 3, he will return to New Mexico for a horseback ride with family, then continue to work on issues affecting environmental and conservation efforts and Native American communities.
His leadership will be missed, but the grace and dignity with which Tom Udall served will be long remembered.
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.