Three years ago, while attempting to climb Mt. Everest's treacherous north face, Mark Udall started to think about getting into the family business--politics. And after just ninety days of working at the Colorado House of Representatives, the Boulder Democrat has found his new career a bit treacherous, too.
Making the job more difficult is the legend of his father, who climbed the political spire before him. Morris "Mo" Udall was a towering presence in Congress from the early Sixties until he retired in 1991 because of complications from Parkinson's disease. Mo, a well-known raconteur and flaming liberal from Arizona who made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, and his brother Stewart, a secretary of the interior in the Kennedy administration, made a formidable pair in Washington, D.C., especially on environmental issues.
The Udall legacy could be seen as an enormous burden for Mark Udall, but he feels otherwise. After all, he's not some twentysomething trading on a family name, as is the case with some members of the younger generation of Kennedys. Although he's in his first elected post, Mark is 46 years old and has spent the past twenty years working for the Colorado Outward Bound School, the last ten as executive director. That, he says, has helped rid him of self-doubt and any desire to compare himself with his father. "My dad casts a big shadow, particularly in this world," he says from his cubicle at the State Capitol. "But I gave twenty years in another arena and proved I have what it takes to be successful. Because of this, I'm not worried about what my dad accomplished."
Someone who can relate is Stewart Udall's son Tom, the New Mexico attorney general and the first of the twelve offspring of Mo and Stew to enter the political fray. "The others used to kid me, saying that I was the only one who got stuck with a defective gene," says Tom.
Are Mark and Tom building another Udall duo for the Nineties? If so, they've gotten a late start. But Mark has already shown the typical Udall ardor about environmental issues, and he seems to have inherited his dad's charm and thirst for action.
Sitting at his desk, wearing black cowboy boots, Udall buttonholes passing representatives the way veteran politicos do.
"Hey, buddy!" he calls out to a colleague. "We gonna beat that bill today? Who can we swing on this?" Friendly and energetic in the office he shares with three other freshmen, he's already begun to compile a folder of anecdotes and jokes in much the same manner as his father, who was well-known in D.C. for his ability to use entertaining stories and self-deprecating humor to his advantage.
"Growing up in a political family like we did definitely gives you some skills," says Tom Udall. "And the good thing about having a father who's done a lot is that it creates a standard and shows you that positive things can be accomplished. For me, my father and Mo are like stars out there that I can strive for."
But Tom puts a lot of emphasis on Mark's experience at Outward Bound. "Many of the talents Mark is showing now come from the leadership abilities that he honed on his own," he says. One of those talents is raising money: Mark's brother Brad, who acted as his campaign manager, notes that Mark successfully tapped into the network he had established at Outward Bound, where he was not only CEO but chief fundraiser.
It was a good job, Mark says, but he finally had to practice what he preached. "As a leader in Outward Bound, you get used to telling people to change their attitudes and behavior," he says. "But after a while you stop doing it in your own life. As a result, I wanted to try something really different, where I was going to be completely out of my comfort zone."
Well, maybe not entirely out of his comfort zone. Mark still works on outdoorsy issues. Tom thinks that defending Mo Udall's legacy of environmental legislation might have been a key factor in his cousin's decision to run for office. Mark entertained an offer from Patagonia, the outdoor-sportswear company, and considered consulting work. But the lure to politics was too strong.
"Up until 1994," Tom says, "there was a pretty solid bipartisan coalition committed to conservation and environmental issues. This goes back to Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, who all supported important environmental legislation. But a major change occurred with Gingrich and the Contract With America coming into play a few years ago. Their principles were much, much different as they took the industry side. As a result, Mark's involvement doesn't surprise me."
For now, though, Mark's a babe in the woods. Even though his father spent most of his life in politics, Mark says he wasn't exposed to the inner workings of government as a youth. "Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, we all lived in D.C. with Dad--I'd go to the Capitol with him and bop around and go on the floor," he recalls. "But when my parents got divorced in 1964, we went back to Arizona. As a result, I didn't get any of the day-to-day experience of being in Congress. I just heard about the exciting aspects."
Now he's discovered that politics is both exciting and a little scary. But a healthy dose of fear, he says, is just as important on the House floor as it is when you're hanging off the side of a mountain. "If you have no fear," he says, "that's when you're in the most danger. The difference is that when you fall off a mountain, that's most likely the terminal event of your life. If you fail in the legislature, you get to go home alive physically, but emotionally you're dead."
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He should know. So far this year Udall is 0-4 on his bills. He did stay true to his heritage, though. Three of the bills focused on opening up relations between utility companies and consumers to help encourage the use of "green sources." Drafted in hopes that electricity suppliers would start to disclose the environmental characteristics of the power being delivered to their customers, two of these bills would have made consumers more aware of how few alternative energy options are being utilized in Colorado. (According to Udall, coal is still responsible for 98 percent of the electrical power generated in the state.) The third bill proposed a system in which consumers could lower their electric bills by using solar energy. All three bills caught the attention of the utilities, which successfully lobbied for their defeat.
Udall's fourth bill, which proposed higher penalties for hunters caught poaching, made it a bit further but was killed by the Appropriations Committee.
His last surviving measure, still wending its way through the legislature, is intended to increase financial liability for handlers of radioactive waste. The bill would require contractors to post bond so that in case of a mishap, the financial burden of the cleanup would rest on the handlers, not the public.
Despite his early losses, Udall says he's enjoying his new job. "I look at the legislature as just another peak I'm trying to climb," he says. "It's the process which is important, not the summit. There's a great view from the summit, but you've eventually got to come back down. The power of experience is that you can bring it back to this world and make a difference.