Senator Tom Udall Looks at a Political Life Well Lived
During the mid-1990s, while covering the New Mexico Legislature up at the roundhouse, reporters such as I would come across our state’s aspiring young attorney general making charismatic orations to get people to listen to his side of a legislative issue. That young guy back then is the now U.S. Senator Tom Udall.
No Don’t Go!
Sen. Udall was pretty much born to be a statesman. His dad is Stewart Udall, the three-time congressman from Arizona, who went on to be U.S. Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. His uncle is Mo Udall, a U.S. Representative from Arizona, and there are a couple of cousins, from both sides of the political aisle, who have entered the political ring as well.
Sen. Udall served as New Mexico Attorney General through the 1990s until 1998 when he ran to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. When then-
senior U.S. Senator Pete Domenici left office in 2007, Sen. Udall, easily won the seat. Having served on many committees, he has been a tireless champion of environmental and Native American causes.
In March 2019, however, the state’s senior senator announced he was not going to run for a third term in 2020. He is currently looking for new areas and ways, beyond Congress, that he can make a difference.
Talk To Us
Before his term ends in 2021, The Paper. took the opportunity to have a conversation with Sen. Udall, who talked about his family, his future plans, the past four years and what he likes on his huevos.
The Paper.: You are from what has been called a political dynasty family. Your dad, uncle and cousins have all been formidable players, even from different parties, in various Western United States government offices. Is there some family genetics to go into politics or is public service just part of your family’s values?
Tom Udall: Well—public service, and a love for the West and for our great outdoors, is certainly in my blood. These have been a core part of my family’s values for generations. I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family where public service was really considered the highest calling. I was inspired by my family’s public service at an early age, when my father, Stewart Udall, served in Congress and as interior secretary under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. My uncle, Mo Udall, was also known as a conservation champion during his service in Congress. It’s a privilege to have learned from both of them—they both had a rare combination of moral courage and political decency.
Have the last four years been the most challenging times in your political career?
The past four years of the Trump administration have certainly been a challenge for all of us who cherish the values that define our state and our nation. But in the face of this immense challenge, we have also seen the best of New Mexico and the best of the United States. It has been an inspiration to watch communities band together and fight for the principles they hold dear, and I’ve been proud to fight alongside them.
In New Mexico our diversity does not divide us—it defines us. So, when our president has tried to raid funds for our military bases to build an ineffective border wall, we fought back. And I led the Senate to pass a resolution ending his phony state of emergency. And when the president and his administration have rolled back protections for the public lands that we treasure in New Mexico, we’ve fought back.
Even though we have had to fight to defend our democracy, our values and our environment in ways we could not have imagined before, I am proud of what we have achieved for New Mexico. While serving on the Appropriations Committee, I have grown New Mexico’s federal funding during times of budget cuts and economic downturns. I’ve secured funding for early education programs, and just last month I secured an interior funding bill that provides strong resources for our outdoor economy. It has been challenging, but I am proud of what we have accomplished together despite the hurdles.
Some felt it was disrespectful to fill the Supreme Court vacancy so soon after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. What do you think should be done about that, and do you support expanding the court?
My wife Jill and I, along with so many Americans, are still mourning the loss of Justice Ginsburg. She was a trailblazing figure who fought for all of us, and also had a special place in her heart for New Mexico. I think we will be feeling her loss for years to come.
It’s also unconscionable that, amid a pandemic that has killed over 225,000 Americans and over 990 New Mexicans, the president and Senate Republicans jammed through an extreme right-wing confirmation instead of working on pandemic relief. It’s likely that now-Justice Barrett will also vote to overturn the
Affordable Care Act, which protects over 834,000 New Mexicans with pre-existing conditions.
This is the first time in our nation’s history that the Senate has confirmed a Supreme Court justice so close to an election. We held the vote eight days before the election, meaning that the American people had no say during this process that will profoundly affect them. There are many indications that the Supreme Court will swing towards an extreme right view that may overturn Roe v. Wade and threaten our ability to fight climate change.
The question of how to respond is going to be up to the next Congress, but I don’t think the story ends here. Americans will not tolerate a far-right majority on the Supreme Court that tears up decades of precedent to strip health care away from millions, tip the scales of our elections, or block the federal government from acting on climate change. If the Supreme Court goes down those paths, I believe there will be a very strong reaction to correct the course.
With all your experience, cultural and religious education, policy and world views, where do you see America in the coming years?
I describe myself as a troubled optimist. Though we are facing a lot of intersecting crises right now, I am constantly inspired by the New Mexicans and Americans who are helping their neighbors and standing up for justice. I am hopeful that this energy is only going to grow in the future.
I believe that the majority of Americans want to reform our democracy, act on climate change and build a more inclusive and equitable society. I have introduced legislation in the Senate to accomplish so many of those goals, and I expect that the American people will champion this legislation across the finish line.
I have always been proud and humbled to represent New Mexico, because I believe we are a model for the nation. Diverse people from all backgrounds call New Mexico home, and this gives me hope that our state can guide our country to a better path. Young activists and organizers are stepping up to model leadership, and I think that we should follow their example and push for bold action on the crises that we are living through.
I am optimistic about the future because there is no choice except to act boldly, and I believe that we are on the threshold of this bold action.
Even before this pandemic hit, young people were struggling to find their way into a changing world and job market. What can you say to the next generations of New Mexicans about what kind of future and what kind of economy will be ahead?
Times are especially hard right now. I want all young New Mexicans to know that I am fighting hard in the Senate to pass further pandemic relief.
But I also want to highlight the strength and potential I see in New Mexico. Our national labs, our public lands, clean energy, military bases and agricultural communities are all strong foundations for economic opportunity.
I am joining so many advocates and young people across the nation demanding action on climate change, and I believe that a just transition to a clean energy economy will greatly benefit New Mexico’s economy.
I want all the young people and working families who are struggling during this economic crisis to know that I will continue to fight for more coronavirus relief for as long as I am your senator. I also want you to know that the entire New Mexico delegation and Governor Lujan Grisham are all fighting hard as well. We want to pave the way for a recovery that builds a foundation for a more sustainable and equitable economy—so our kids can stay in New Mexico and raise their own families here.
You and your political family have been vanguards of many environmental and Native American issues and causes. You said in past interviews that after leaving office you wanted to focus on public lands and Native American initiatives. What are some of those initiatives you will be working on?
When I announced I wasn’t running for reelection—I said I was by no means retiring. In the Senate, I have introduced the 30 by 30 Resolution to Save Nature, which would commit the United States to a goal of conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030—I plan to continue pushing for that goal long after Jan. 1. Scientists are telling us that we need to act now to save the natural world from collapse and fight climate change. After my term ends in the Senate, I will be focusing on the climate and environmental factors that are causing our state to get hotter and drier.
New Mexico has already made great progress to expand protections for our cherished landscapes. It was an honor to work with local communities to establish Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and Organ Mountains—Desert Peaks National Monument. I hope to build on that work moving forward.
It has also been one of the greatest honors of my service in the Senate to work with New Mexico’s Pueblos and Tribes, and Tribes all across the country. Native Americans are the original stewards of this land, and I have learned so much from fighting alongside Tribal leaders for their priorities. After I leave the Senate, I want to continue working with Tribes to strengthen Tribal self-governance and self-determination and push the federal government to fulfill our trust and treaty responsibilities.
Talk to us about some things we can do on a practical day-to-day basis to help curb the impact we humans have on our planet and its climate change?
There are many things that we can change about our day-to-day life to help curb our human impact on the planet. Many of them are reducing our consumption and the resources that we waste as individuals. But even though I am committed to reducing my personal carbon footprint, I believe that the most effective way that each of us can save our planet is to organize and participate in the political system.
We simply cannot do enough as individuals while big polluters write the rules and when we are losing a football field’s worth of nature every 30 seconds. We need to follow the lead of the young people who are demanding our government enact a just transition to a clean energy economy.
This starts on a local level. Get involved with organizations in your neighborhood, your town or city council and statewide that focus on protecting our land, water and climate. Let your elected representatives at all levels know that your top priority is to leave a livable planet for our children.
The toughest question of all just may be this next one: when you grab a warm tortilla or steamy sopapilla to take a big bite of huevos rancheros what’s your chile fix? Red or green or Christmas?
New Mexico’s chile is a state treasure. It’s a source of intense debate—but I want to lift up the incredible farmers, farmworkers and agricultural scientists at institutions like New Mexico State University that are always pushing the boundaries of flavor and continue to adapt to our state’s unique climate as it changes.
I have to say I answer “Christmas” to this question. You simply can’t enjoy all the delicious food our state has to offer without appreciating the complexity of both red and green chile! [ ]