Since he was a kid, Tom Udall has gravitated toward big ideas.
It’s what he took from his role models, why he got into politics — and why he stayed.
“The thing that inspired me the most when I was very young,” he said recently, “was the idea that if you had a good idea of reforming something, and you really stuck to it, you could literally change the world.”
That notion has remained with Udall through his long career in public office, with each of his posts higher in stature and longer in duration than the last — eight years as New Mexico’s attorney general, 10 as a U.S. congressman and 12 as a U.S. senator.
Udall’s wife, Jill, likens her husband’s determination to swimming out into an ocean and trying to get past the break.
“The idea always was to get past the waves — the things that come up — and get to where it’s flat, where you could really do something,” she said.
Udall has clearly recorded accomplishments during his time in Washington, notching victories on issues ranging from environmental protection to Indian affairs. And if the Udalls before him didn’t already make his family name synonymous with defending the beauty of the American West, he certainly did, with a long list of legislation he said will make a difference for generations to come.
Yet as Udall’s time in the Senate winds down, the difficulty of passing more sweeping reforms in today’s political landscape might ultimately be why he chose not to run for another term. The crashing waves, particularly in a highly partisan if not toxic political environment, make it harder and harder to find calmer waters where big stuff can get done.
“He’s done the best you can with his big ideas, but it’s a majority institution and he doesn’t have the votes,” Jill Udall said, noting Republicans’ recent hold on the Senate. “It might be one of the reasons Tom chose to leave the Senate and try to work on these issues from another perspective.”
“Another perspective” could take place from a variety of angles — even Washington, D.C., where the outgoing senator is considered a front-runner to become secretary of the interior in the Biden administration. But while Udall doesn’t hide his interest in the Interior Department — his father, Stewart Udall, once headed the agency — he seems more eager to sum up his time in electoral politics, where he’s been a mainstay in New Mexico since the 1990s.
In a wide-ranging interview spanning different aspects of his congressional career, Udall, 72, said he believed he had been “effective” in Washington and said he has no regrets as he leaves office.
He sped through a list of achievements, such as sponsoring a reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act that put stronger regulations on chemicals used in a host of products, from clothing to detergents to cars. He also cited the wilderness areas he helped establish, including protecting Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Northern New Mexico and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in the south.
“On issues of environment, there’s nobody in the Senate who’s more respected than he is,” said former New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, whose time in the chamber overlapped with Udall’s for four years.
Other efforts Udall points to include pushing to provide permanent financing for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was achieved as part of the Great American Outdoors Act that allocates nearly $10 billion over five years to address a maintenance backlog at national parks.
He also noted that during his time as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, funding for the Interior Department has grown by 25 percent — including increases for the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
But as he looked back on his career, Udall returned several times to the difficulty of passing major reform in today’s political environment.
“I have things I think we should have done that I just couldn’t get done because of the way the system works,” he said. “Are we tackling the things we really need to be accomplishing right now?”
By way of explanation, Udall brought up his sponsorship of the For the People Act, which would strengthen ethics rules, expand voting rights and, as the senator put it, “end the dominance of big money in politics.” A similar electoral reform bill passed the Democratic-led House last year, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring the initiative to his chamber’s floor.
Udall said it will now be up to future administrations and congressional bodies to deal with such key issues, including strengthening campaign finance laws and government ethics rules, limiting corporate spending in elections and rooting out voter-suppression efforts.
“It’s not because people wouldn’t want to support [large reform initiatives],” said Jill Udall, who has been with Tom since 1978. “It’s because we’ve fallen into this partisan abyss where it’s all about beating the other side.
“You can imagine the frustration with the system,” she added.
Tom Udall didn’t sound optimistic about turning around the dwindling supply of propriety and bipartisanship in American politics.
“We work much better at achieving national goals and international goals if we’re doing it cooperatively, collaboratively, in a bipartisan way,” he said. “We’re not seeing that much of that.”
Udall said he was particularly worried about President Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his loss to Joe Biden in the presidential election.
“We may not even have the graciousness and peaceful turning over of power, which is one of the central parts of our democracy,” he said.
Of course, it’s no secret Washington is a partisan mess, and it’s easy for politicians to blame the rancor for the lack of progress. But in Udall’s case, he has long been known for his civility and efforts to reach across the aisle.
Bingaman called him “very respected and very well liked” by people in both parties, noting Udall’s close relationship with the late Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican whom Udall called a “mentor” and a “real leader.”
“Tom is extremely respected by everybody in the Congress as far as I know,” Bingaman said. “Nobody questions his integrity and commitment to what he’s trying to do.”
Udall’s affable way extends to Santa Fe, where he has long been a fixture around town, with locals often running into him at the grocery store or the tennis club — where, said friend and former Attorney General Paul Bardacke, he’s a force.
“For years, I dominated him,” Bardacke said. “But now I got to hang in there. He practices and he’s a heck of a tennis player.”
Jill Udall said she can’t go into a grocery store, even in a mask, without running into someone who wants to talk about her husband — how he helped a mother or a daughter or a friend.
“I mean, he was there for his constituents all along,” she said.
Early in Udall’s political career, he was often referred to in the same breath as his father and other members of the long line of Udall politicians.
That made sense, given their stature. His father ran the Interior Department under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His uncle Morris “Mo” Udall was a 30-year congressman from Arizona and onetime presidential candidate who focused on environmental protection.
More recently, cousin Mark Udall was a senator and congressman from Colorado who prioritized natural resources and renewable energy efforts.
Both Stewart and Mo Udall had a big impact on Tom when he was young and would sit listening to them talk strategy on the weekends.
They were big conversations — centered on wilderness issues, land and water conservation, Native American rights and the art of negotiation in Washington.
“My dad would be talking about what kind of deals should we do, how do we get it through the [Interior] committee,” Udall recalled. “I’d sit there and listen, ask an occasional question. Most of it, they were really trying to work things out.”
Udall, who was born in Tucson, Ariz., might have been mostly a fly on the wall back then, but he took a lot of it in.
“The thing about both Stuart and Mo is that they both had, I think, a rare combination of moral courage and political decency,” Udall said. “They were visionaries, but they were also doers.”
As the years went on, the newspapers ceased to couch his identity as “son of Stewart.”
Suddenly, it flipped and Stewart would be referred to as the “father of Tom,” Jill said.
“And that,” she said, “was when it flipped and he was his own man.”