The Coyote Caucus Takes the West to Washington
Their fathers were Western conservation giants. Can the younger Udalls bridge today's social and political divides and leave their own legacy?
A few years ago, Brad Udall rafted the Colorado River though the Grand Canyon with his Uncle Stewart and a bunch of his cousins. It was like old times, when the Udalls would pack up the station wagons and head into the remote heart of the West. In the evenings, Uncle "Slu" presided over the campfire.
The last night on the river, at mile 220, the former secretary of the Interior recalled the challenges he faced turning swaths of canyon country into national parks, and he reflected on how peaceful it always felt to be in the Grand Canyon. "In my mind, he was very pensive about the canyon. He spoke of its enduring beauty and of just how small we humans are," says Brad. "Stewart talked about how this was his last trip in the canyon, and we all in unison yelled, ‘NO!’ "
It wasn’t his last visit: The elder Udall went back to the canyon last spring, at age 84. He hiked 10 hours up the Bright Angel Trail, and rewarded himself with a martini at the top. It’s pretty much the way he’s always operated: with doggedness, a sense of fun and a degree of audacity. It’s a style shared by many Udalls, branching over two generations.
Stewart and his brother Mo (officially Morris) shepherded the region’s conservation movement beginning in the 1950s. They also fathered a posse of civic-minded Udalls — 12 children between them — who have influential roles today. A liberal dynasty, the family has been called the Kennedys of the West, minus the money.
Most remarkably, Stewart’s son, Tom, and Mo’s son, Mark, are congressmen, representing the districts surrounding Santa Fe, N.M., and Boulder, Colo., respectively. Both are very active in supporting John Kerry’s bid for the White House. Both are also fighting for the preservation of public lands and a balanced, enlightened economic future in the West.
In jest, they call themselves the "Udall Caucus" or the "Coyote Caucus." But the act Tom and Mark are trying to follow is dizzying: Stewart served three terms as an Arizona congressman, followed by eight years as Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mo was elected again and again to represent Arizona for 30 years in the House, the last half of which he chaired the powerful Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. Together, Stewart and Mo helped push through Congress the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and the National Seashore Act. They created at least four national parks, six national monuments, 56 wildlife refuges and 20 historic sites. Their crowning achievement was the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected 100 million acres of mountains, coasts and forests. At one fell swoop, it doubled the size of the national park system and tripled the size of the wilderness system. As testament to the brothers’ all-encompassing vision, the easternmost and westernmost points in the United States bear the name Udall Point.
Tom and Mark occupy spots on the same congressional committee on which their fathers served. Now called simply the House Resources Committee, it oversees critical decisions about the West’s land and resources. In the event of a future Democratic presidential victory, it’s possible a Udall could once again wield tremendous power as secretary of the Interior.
But in the span of just one generation, the Udalls have become a metaphor for the plight of Democrats and environmentalists in the West. Their fathers had roots in the rural, traditional West, while Mark and Tom are confined to the more liberal ghettos: they represent New West districts dominated by high-tech firms, art galleries, lifestyle seekers and rock-climber wanna-bes.
Observers can’t help comparing the younger Udalls to their fathers, and for Mark and Tom, the expectations are alternately inspiring and frustrating. They’ve inherited a changed world, one in which Congress is no longer friendly to sweeping environmental ambitions. Between a regional Western delegation that leans heavily to starboard and an administration whose idea of economic development resides underground in oil and gas deposits, it would seem that the dreams of Stewart and Mo lie mostly dormant.
But there are also seeds of hope in a family long driven by headstrong optimism and a sense of adventure.
It’s impossible to tell the story of the Udall clan without tracking the political history of the region. When Stewart first joined Congress in 1954, Democrats were the norm: The party controlled the House of Representatives for the next 40 years, and the Senate for 34 of those years. But by the time Tom and Mark were elected in 1998, Democrats were a barely visible minority in the Western delegation.
What happened in the intervening years was a complex, seismic shift of political ground, with the gradual demise of extractive industries, which was often blamed on environmentalists; the fading of the labor bloc that voted Democratic; and the rise of divisive cultural issues like civil rights, guns and gays. The geography of population growth was also a factor, as once-populist farmers and ranchers gave way to new and often conservative suburban immigrants.
The Udalls’ blend of charisma, principle and political astuteness was born on the frontier. In 1851, David Udall, a teetotaling immigrant, came from England to join the Mormons; he ended up in Nephi, Utah. In 1871, the church sent his son, David King Udall, to settle the remote piñon scrubland around tiny St. Johns, Ariz. David King Udall became a farmer and a bishop, and was a polygamist who had three wives and 15 children. One child, Levi Udall, earned a law degree by correspondence course and eventually became a chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. He fathered Stewart in 1920 and Morris in 1922.
The two tall, rangy brothers grew up facing tough challenges in those small-town days: suspicious locals, who were mostly Hispanic Catholics, and an arid climate hostile to farming. Levi made his sons run the farm when they were still teenagers. But he gave them a lot of leeway when it came to questioning Mormon doctrine and formulating their own beliefs. Both sons internalized their father’s work ethic and his drive toward leadership. They were also influenced by their mother, Louise, a schoolteacher and writer who later advocated Native American causes.
Despite having lost his right eye in a childhood accident, Mo became a basketball star in high school and at the University of Arizona. Stewart also played university basketball, and completed a two-year Mormon mission in New York and Pennsylvania. Both served in the military, learned to fly, and traveled the world. Stewart saw combat as a gunner during World War II. Mo commanded a black unit, an experience that led to his further rejection of church doctrine, which at the time said blacks couldn’t be priests, and to his strong support of civil rights. Both Udalls returned to law school in Tucson, and then practiced law together, until Stewart won his congressional seat. When Stewart was appointed John F. Kennedy’s Interior secretary in 1961, Mo ran for the vacant seat and won.
Although neither Stewart nor Mo was an active member of the Mormon church, some of its teachings influenced them, according to Mo’s son Randy. "They had a sense of the land as a foundation ... its beauty and its limits, and a belief in stewardship. There’s a strain, too, of the Mormon belief that, no, it’s not every man and woman for themselves. Somebody had to go back and relieve the snowbound handcart brigades (of Mormon immigrants). You don’t just hang people out to dry or freeze."
The elder Udalls’ political style was ambitious yet practical. As a congressman, Stewart backed the construction of the interstate highway system, which encouraged sprawl but improved trade and defense. Mo knew he had to represent his constituents on issues like water development, which they were for, and organized labor, which they opposed — the latter a position that hurt him in his bid for the presidency in 1976. But he was also an advocate of civil rights, which didn’t help him at home, and an early opponent of the Vietnam War, a stand that angered Stewart’s new boss, Lyndon Johnson.
Stewart and Mo Udall reached across the aisle to work with powerful Republicans like Sen. Barry Goldwater, who helped them push for Arizona wilderness protection. They tackled thorny Native American issues, and succeeded in creating religious and burial site protections, improving child welfare, and crafting water-rights settlements. Egged on by Wallace Stegner, a special assistant in the Interior Department, Stewart wrote an influential book, The Quiet Crisis, in 1963, about the need for conservation.
With the elder Udalls, "the West popped its buttons with pride. Partly because they had the courage to lead," says former nine-term Democratic Rep. Pat Williams of Montana. "They had the vision and foresight to see that the West’s economy was in transition, that these hills were the brows of America’s final hills. That wasn’t obvious 30 or 40 years ago, that most of the land was used up.
"The Udalls came from the last era of Westerners who talked ‘Western’ to Congress," adds Williams. "Now, Westerners just talk right-wing."
Silver-belt-buckled Mo, in particular, was charming, funny and well-liked. He used to memorize the Congressional Directory and greet every member with an anecdote or question about some personal interest. He compiled four notebooks of jokes that he studied and used repeatedly. He’d heard Williams liked to play golf.
"What’s your handicap?" asked Williams.
"Well," responded Udall, "I’m a one-eyed Mormon liberal from Arizona. How’s that for a handicap?"
One of the few national leaders currently from the West, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, attributes some of his success to Mo Udall. Mo pioneered issues that McCain later took up; Mo enacted the first campaign finance reforms since the Truman era, and changed the entrenched seniority system in Congress. McCain supported Mo’s Arizona wilderness bills, and today he’s pushing to curb greenhouse gases. But more than that, McCain admired Udall’s ability to deflate partisan hostilities through humor, courtesy and common sense. In his memoir, Worth the Fighting For, McCain writes, "I loved Mo Udall ... the most widely respected man in Congress."
Mo Udall came down with Parkinson’s disease, resigned from Congress in 1991 and died in 1998. Stewart shifted his public-service focus to challenging the government’s exploitation of Navajo uranium miners. These days, he offers his son the congressman advice on designating wilderness.
With the loss of Mo and other prominent Western Democrats, including Idaho Sen. Frank Church and Montana’s Mike Mansfield (the Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977), the region’s political clout diminished. Williams compares it to the decline of Southern leadership following the civil rights movement. The Southern pols stayed in office, but dug in their heels against change, and therefore lost respect and power. Today, Williams says, most members of the Western delegation are digging in against the tide of conservation and restoration, instead favoring short-term gain for special interests.
"Western elected officials are missing it," says Williams, now a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana in Missoula. "I know for a fact that they are being downgraded in the eyes of their peers as provincial and petty."
Congressman Mark Udall’s bustling suburban office shows how the arc of the generations has spanned fundamental changes in the region. In the mall and cul-de-sac sprawl halfway between Denver and Boulder, he shares a nondescript building with a yellow fever vaccination center, a small-business accountant and a structural engineer. In the neighborhood are a Korean barbecue, a maker of wood drums, and something called a "liquid spa." Milling about the reception area are a film crew and a delegation of Sudanese refugees.
"My district is the New West," Mark Udall says unabashedly.
The lanky, bushy-eyebrowed 54-year-old bears a marked resemblance to his father. In his office are testaments to Mo’s successes and to his own, including a 1976 Udall-for-President poster (Mo came in second to Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination), photos of Mark and Mo scouting a rapid on the Yampa River, and Mark on a 40-day ski across Alaska’s Brooks Range.
Mark and his cousin, Tom, both grew up in a far larger world than their fathers did, living partly in the Washington, D.C., area and partly in Tucson. As kids, they traveled to cut ribbons, lay wreaths, dedicate monuments and check out future parks. Their parents encouraged them to forge their own identities, but the family’s creation tale was never far from the minds of the younger Udalls.
Mark earned a degree in American civilization studies from Williams College in Massachusetts, but fell in love with Colorado’s high country during an Outward Bound course. A branch of the family had roots in the state: His mother, Pat, who divorced Mo in 1966, had been raised in Estes Park and eventually settled in Boulder. Mark is a climber, hiker and kayaker, and made the outdoors his career, working 20 years at the Colorado Outward Bound School, first as an instructor and ultimately as director. He married Maggie Fox, an attorney for the Sierra Club.
"My dad was very nonjudgmental," recalls Mark, "but he basically said to me, ‘Bring what you’re learning out there in the wilderness and be of use to society.’ "
Mark began his political career by winning a seat in the 1997 Colorado Legislature. Then the 2nd Congressional District seat came open with the retirement of Democratic Rep. David Skaggs. The district, which extends from Boulder and suburban Denver into the mountain resorts along Interstate 70, had also been a stonghold of former Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth, back when he was a representative. Still, Mark faced an extremely close race in 1998, barely beating Boulder’s moderate Republican mayor, Bob Greenlee. In the two elections since, helped by his incumbency, he has won easily.
Tom Udall, now 56, earned his undergraduate degree at Arizona’s unconventional Prescott College, then studied law in Cambridge, England, and at the University of New Mexico. He married a fellow lawyer, Jill Cooper, and stayed in New Mexico, where the family has more roots: His grandmother was born in Luna. He lost two congressional races, in 1982 and 1988, then lowered his sights and won an election as the state’s attorney general. Finally, in 1998, he won the 3rd District congressional seat, a solidly Democratic district that was Bill Richardson’s springboard into becoming Energy secretary under President Clinton and today, New Mexico’s governor.
Representing their left-leaning districts, Mark and Tom have earned 100 percent and 95 percent ratings from the League of Conservation Voters, respectively. They are some of the strongest supporters of wilderness in Congress, and they offer articulate opposition to many Bush administration proposals, such as drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Caring about the environment is part of the moral compass they inherited, and it steers their vision of a balanced, healthy West. "Mark and I would like to try to build back to where we were with our fathers’ generation," says Tom.
Still, the accomplishments of the Coyote Caucus are relatively modest so far, in part due to the fact that Democrats are the minority in Congress. Tom has helped add land to New Mexico’s wilderness areas, boost preventive health care for Native Americans, grease the federal acquisition of New Mexico’s 95,000-acre Baca Ranch, and is helping to create the Long Walk National Historic Trail, commemorating the 1863 forced relocation of Navajos and Apaches to New Mexico’s Fort Sumner.
Mark has helped create the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge on the site of the old nuclear weapons plant, protect 40,000 acres around James Peak as wilderness, and pay claims to sick uranium miners. Other bills he’s sponsored haven’t gone anywhere, including attempts to clean up abandoned hardrock mines, treat wastewater from coalbed methane production, and resolve contentious road right-of-way issues on public land.
Both cousins oppose opening sensitive public lands to oil and gas development, and both are fighting to hold onto the heart of the Endangered Species Act. They have watched Congress repeatedly de-fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act their fathers helped enact.
The younger Udalls point to a poisonous atmosphere in Congress that makes it difficult to achieve the bipartisan successes of their fathers’ day. They lament not just the loss of Democratic power, but the loss of civility overall. "Congress is a different place than I learned about," says Tom. "This administration has abandoned bipartisanship on environmental issues across the board, and has catered to large corporate interests across the board."
So what’s a frustrated Udall to do? Two choices: work within Congress the best way he can, with those genetic gifts of height, affability and humor, or hightail it for other political offices.
So far, Mark and Tom Udall are taking the former course, and seeking re-election this November. Both are expected to win easily.
Mark says mountaineering has taught him useful skills for Congress, like how to keep focused on a goal, how to put your head down and persevere, how to delay gratification, and how to flatten your own ego to work with a team.
Like his Dad, he studies humor and uses it effectively. He keeps a pair of his father’s size 15 basketball sneakers in his office to amuse visitors and to remind himself of the big shoes he’s expected to fill. When a reporter asked him why he wanted to be a congressman, he replied that he had lost so many brain cells at high altitude that he might as well run for office. He keeps a copy of his dad’s joke notebooks, and likes to call upon his favorites.
Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who has put in 28 years in Congress, once asked Mark if attempting to climb Mount Everest was the hardest thing he’d ever done. "Running for Congress was the hardest thing I ever did," Mark replied.
Mark and Tom also work hard to build strategic relationships across the political spectrum — the old Udall style — but with a new and necessary layer of collaboration-speak. "In my Dad’s day, there was a feeling that you voted for a person, not a party. Now the parties have more sway," Mark says. "Sometimes I think I’m a throwback to another era, when you fought hard during the day and socialized together at night.
"We’ve got to work together," Mark says. "You can’t demonize a constituency. We’re all grabbed by something here (in the West). Some of it’s myth, some is reality — the light, the land, the shape of the sky, the enormous sense of possibility. I’m trying to ... integrate the New West and the Old West. We need to maintain big open landscapes and give traditional rural communities a fair shake. Our basic challenges are water, making a living, and respecting Mother Nature."
"The great thing about the Udalls," says Pam Eaton, program director and former regional director of The Wilderness Society, "is they both know that, to help us realize this vision (of a West thriving on conservation), they need to work with everyone, and be open to new ideas and to new ways of bringing people together in a nonthreatening way."
She points to Tom Udall’s proposed 11,000-acre Ojito Wilderness bill (HCN, 1/19/04). It had to face Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chair of the House Resources Committee, a property-rights crusader who earned a 5 percent rating last year from the League of Conservation Voters. Last May, Pombo wrote a letter to committee members who hoped to move wilderness bills, in what appeared to be a direct and ominous reference to the Mo Udall-Alaska lands era: "The days of designating wilderness in a Member’s District against his or her wishes are a black mark on the record of this Committee, and on my watch, they are over."
The Ojito bill made it out of Pombo’s committee on Sept. 22 — the first wilderness bill to do so since Pombo became chairman in 2002. To pull this off, Tom Udall enlisted the co-sponsorship of his fellow New Mexico representative, Republican Heather Wilson, and made sure the Senate version also had bipartisan support from New Mexico’s Sen. Pete Domenici, R, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D. The proposal itself is relatively small, on land that is uncontested by industry. If it passes the full House and the Senate, though, it will be the state’s first new wilderness in 17 years.
Mo Udall earned his power by staying put, election after election, and eventually chaired his committee for 14 years. Mark and Tom hold very safe seats, ones they could likely have "for life," as one pundit put it. But the frustrations of Congress are many, and the lure of a more powerful office is strong.
Can they extend their loyal base beyond their liberal districts in a run for governor or senator? Unlike the elder Udalls, Mark and Tom cannot point to a small-town pedigree to help them straddle conservative and liberal interests. What they can point to, of course, is the Udall name. It helps.
Tom Udall’s district incudes not only upscale Sante Fe, but also conservative farming towns like Farmington and Clovis. Half his constituents are Native American or Hispanic. He still lists his religious affiliation as Mormon. Tom "is a natural for (statewide) office," says New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff.
But Gilbert St. Clair, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, wonders if Tom has connected well enough with his conservative and rural constituents. "He has been responsive to the concerns of the environmentalists. But that is not something that plays well with his Hispanic constituents. They want to be able to cut timber; they want to be able to graze cattle on public lands."
Mark Udall says he will be considering two statewide races: the governorship of Colorado in 2006, and Wayne Allard’s Senate seat, expected to open in 2008. He briefly jumped into the race this year for the seat of retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, but pulled back after his friend and senior Democrat, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, announced his candidacy. His withdrawal was interpreted by some observers as a sign of party leaders’ doubts that he could win a statewide race. Still, he’s considered a rising star by others, and landed a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention.
"I believe, with his outdoor roots and his long-standing Western family ties, that he has appeal beyond just the progressive communities in Colorado," Eaton says. "He has ... a kind of credibility with his peers and the public ... (He’s) still open-minded. He has an ability to connect genuinely with people on a personal level that is remarkable." Plus, he appears in television ads wearing climbing gear and shorts, a look many Coloradans aspire to.
That’s not enough for Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone, whose territory includes the resort town of Vail. He says that Mark Udall "listens to his constituents in Boulder and not in Eagle County." He recently clashed with Udall over a Bush administration bill that would limit legal appeals for logging beetle-killed timber.
But while both cousins have their detractors, there are many who — partly out of nostalgia — think either would make a strong Interior secretary if a Democrat is elected president. And while Washington, D.C., has changed in recent years, there may yet be a place for a grand Western conservation vision — witness Bruce Babbitt, another Arizonan Interior secretary, who helped persuade President Clinton to protect millions of acres in new national monuments.
Ever the optimist, Mark Udall sees a growing constituency for conservation across political divides. "Economic interests will make clear their support for clean water and muscle-powered recreation," he predicts. He points to regional collaboratives working on alternative energy and transportation issues and to the land-trust movement, and says, "It may be Congress is following more than leading right now."
Florence Williams writes from Helena, Montana.
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