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Marked man

He spent two decades with Outward Bound after a 'reckless' youth. How does Mark Udall wind up labeled too conservative?


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  • Courtesy Mark Udall campaign

It's 1972 in Arizona. A longhaired Mark Udall, in his early 20s, is driving when he's pulled over by a police officer. Something's askew. The officer searches his car. Udall is arrested for possession of marijuana.

Now a 57-year-old congressman, Udall recounts the episode during a recent interview in his Westminster office.

Shaking her head, his spokeswoman, Heather Fox, says she sensed she should have cut off the interview earlier.

"No, no," says Udall, waving his hand to dismiss Fox, who interjects that she was only kidding. "It's out. It's in the record. ... As George Bush put it, "When I was young and reckless, I was young and reckless.'"

The Boulder County Democrat says that his car was seized, and he spent a year on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.

Those "traumatic" days in the same year he graduated from Williams College in western Massachusetts taught him a lesson, he says. Udall channeled the experience into "something positive" in a career arc that would lead to Colorado Outward Bound, where in the latter half of his two decades there, he served as executive director.

In 1997, Udall was elected to the state Legislature. Just a year later, he rode fortune to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where he has served in the House of Representatives since January 1999.

Now he's campaigning as a frontrunner for U.S. Senate, and his political enemies are probing for fissures. A Republican source had raised questions about Udall's conviction, claiming Udall was even speaking about it on the campaign trail.

Further investigation revealed Udall wasn't. He thought that chapter of his life had been put to rest long ago. Now, it seemed, nefarious conservative sources were dredging up the long-ago conviction by planting negative stories in the ears of reporters.

This Indy interview is the first time the conviction has come up since Udall's first run for Congress in 1998, says Udall campaign manager Mike Melanson. He's doubly wary that the battle to replace retiring Republican Wayne Allard will bring its share of low blows.

"We're going to see attacks like this and games like this coming from the other side," Melanson says.

He adds that he thinks voters are more interested to know Udall's stand on issues, such as his support for renewable energy, how he wants to wean the nation from foreign oil, and his strength on national security.

It appears Walt Klein, a political consultant currently acting as campaign manager for "de facto" Republican nominee Bob Schaffer, agrees that Udall's youthful indiscretion isn't a big deal.

"I don't think that's any kind of an issue," Klein says, "but the stuff on policy is."

Klein says a "very liberal voting record" is Udall's real liability, along with several "U-turns" that seem to reflect attempts to win over coveted moderate voters.

This, even though Udall isn't liberal enough for some progressive liberals in the 2nd Congressional District, who complain they've been ignored, particularly when voicing their views on the war in Iraq.

Udall 101

The Udall family often draws comparisons to the Bush and Clinton clans. Two of Udall's cousins U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican also are seeking election and re-election, respectively, to the U.S. Senate this year.

Think Sam Brownback ever did this? Before diving into - politics, Mark Udall spent two decades in leadership roles - at Colorados Outward Bound school. - COURTESY MARK UDALL CAMPAIGN
  • Courtesy Mark Udall campaign
  • Think Sam Brownback ever did this? Before diving into politics, Mark Udall spent two decades in leadership roles at Colorados Outward Bound school.

The lineage begins with Morris Udall, or "Mo" as everyone knew Mark's father, and Stewart Udall, Tom's father.

Mo played pro basketball for the Denver Nuggets (in the old National Basketball League) in the late 1940s before spending three decades in Congress. Stewart was a congressman who went on to serve as interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Both are seen as champions of the modern environmental movement. Mo died in 1998, but each year scholarships are awarded in his name to help students committed to preserving the environment.

Mark Udall, clad in a green blazer, jeans and cowboy boots, rocks back in a black, faux leather office chair, beaming proudly when asked about his father. He recalls being about 12 years old and listening in on living-room conversations between his father and uncle and such figures as Bobby Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz.

"They were talking civil rights," Mark Udall says. "They were talking environmental movement. They were talking about the war."

He recalls he had a sense that he was witnessing American history as it was being made. There was great optimism, he says, even after Bobby's brother, President John Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963.

In 1968, Udall graduated from Canyon del Oro High School near Tucson, Ariz. That was the same year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were slain, just two months apart.

"That was an exciting, inspiring, but also very dismaying, year," he says. "I was a huge fan of Bobby Kennedy. My heart was broken."

When the Watergate scandal hit, Udall says he was troubled. Yet he never grew disillusioned, and the events of the time led him to consider serving in public office. But he didn't go that way.

"There was this theme," he says. "My dad's great. I love my dad. I respect him. But who am I? And am I just going to go into the family business?"

So Udall decided, "I'm going to do something else. I'm going to figure out who I am."

A big clue came as a college senior, when he studied snowpack for several weeks in Colorado's San Juan Mountains. He fell in love with the outdoors. In 1975, he would be hired by Colorado Outward Bound, a nonprofit that encourages people to find keys to their better selves, and a better world, through facing challenges in nature. He'd serve as course director for 10 years and then executive director for 10 more.

Of course, the Vietnam War was still raging when Udall graduated from Williams in 1972 with an American civilization degree. Udall had a lottery number for the draft, and says he was lucky that it never came up.

"I was a strong opponent of the war, as were many of us," Udall says.

After President Nixon broadened the Vietnam War by bombing Cambodia, Udall even attended a rally at the Capitol.

Thoughts on the war

Today, some of Udall's strongest critics are war protesters. A constant reminder is a memo posted at the entrance of Udall's small office in the Denver suburb of Westminster, inside a quiet medical building overlooking U.S. 36 traffic and the foothills. Among other things, the memo admonishes that demonstrators not block the doorway.

Last year, dozens of progressive activists disrupted business as usual amid the autographed John Fielder nature photos as part of a sustained, three-week effort that failed to convince Udall to change his position on Iraq.

Although in 2002 Udall was among representatives who tried in vain to kill the legislation that gave President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq and Udall says he remains opposed to the war he since has voted in favor of measures to fund it.

Mark (front left), with his siblings, mother Patricia and - father Morris Mo Udall. - KEW PHOTO-CENTER, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA LIBRARY
  • Kew Photo-Center, University of Arizona Library
  • Mark (front left), with his siblings, mother Patricia and father Morris Mo Udall.

Carolyn Bninski, a coordinator for Boulder's Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, was among a handful of activists arrested in Udall's office last year. She says his stand on the war is an "absurd" contradiction.

"He shouldn't support keeping the troops fighting a war he thinks is wrong," Bninski says. "The U.S. is occupying Iraq. Udall has this notion that our presence there will bring peace. That doesn't make sense to me."

Bninski says the peace center even enlisted someone with connections to reach Udall's cousin, Tom generally regarded as the more progressive of the two in an effort to change Udall's mind.

"It came back that Mark Udall makes up his own mind," Bninski says. "There's no convincing him."

Tom Mayer, a Democrat and University of Colorado sociology professor, is also disappointed by Udall's position. Two years ago, in a six-week period, Mayer helped collect roughly 5,000 signatures for petitions calling for a timeline to remove troops from Iraq.

When he brought it to Boulder's City Council, the petition passed, with some revisions.

But when Mayer and his allies approached Udall's office, they were stymied.

"There's a feeling that he's aspiring to a higher office, and that's why he won't respond to our concerns," Mayer says. "But I feel that Udall is representing a district that's rather anti-war."

Udall says he considers the anti-war concerns "legitimate." Then he adds, "This is not a game. I'm not going to play chicken with the president when it comes to funding the troops."

As Colorado's senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, Udall says the war on terror lies in places like Afghanistan. Conflict in Iraq is a distraction and he wants the war to end, but without a "reckless" pullout that risks further destabilizing a nation already mired in "civil war."

"We can't just leave it," he says. "We're going to have a commitment there for a while yet. Somebody said, "We may want to leave Iraq, but Iraq is not going to leave us.'"

Udall supports the 2006 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. The U.S., he says, should "draw down the combat presence" over time while other troops "perhaps continue to train the Iraq security forces." The current military surge in Iraq should be followed up with a "surge of diplomacy," he adds, to get the world to help with reconstruction.

Udall imagines the world responding this way: "OK, the Americans got themselves in a situation in Iraq. We didn't think it was smart. We raised red flags ... but they now want to take a new direction. We're going to help them. This is important to us."

Some $600 billion has been spent since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the financial realities alone seem to be forcing an end to the war, Udall also notes.

"It's going to be much higher," Udall says of the final expense to taxpayers. "We can't afford to continue the prosecution of the war, particularly given that it is not central to the war on terror."

Race to the middle, which sets odds on political races, opines the Senate race is "Udall's seat to lose." The site gives Udall 3-to-1 odds vs. 7-to-1 for Schaffer.

Bob Loevy, a Colorado College professor of political science, says Udall should benefit from a Democratic upswing in 2008. The party has seen gains in Colorado in recent years, and Denver will host the Democratic National Convention, certain to be a glittering spectacle of gushing optimism.

While discontent over the war's direction helped Democrats win control of the U.S. Senate in the last election, Iraq might not figure as prominently in this cycle, Loevy says. Discontent seems to be waning as the White House stances soften a bit, Loevy says.

Bob Schaffer, Udalls competitor. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Bob Schaffer, Udalls competitor.

"My view is that it still looks like a Democratic year, but not as strong as it did in 2006," Loevy says.

A lot, he says, depends on how well Republican presidential hopefuls connect with voters. A strong Republican candidate could create coattails for Schaffer.

But Udall has a "tremendous asset" in his favor that last name.

"It's one of the best-known political families in the West," he says, adding that the family is generally well-regarded.

The criticisms from the anti-war crowd actually could help Udall. Colorado voters view the 2nd District as liberal and would want to know if Udall is in lockstep with progressives.

"Democrats who seek to reach statewide voters usually must project an image of being moderate and pro-business," Loevy says, adding that Democrats who want to win the big races "must get to the middle."

Udall campaign manager Melanson says that though Boulder is often associated with the 2nd District "and yes, Boulder is a liberal place" the district overall doesn't deserve its liberal reputation. He says it has more Republican pockets than the Denver-area 1st District, which has been represented since 1997 by Democrat Diana DeGette.

"The reason the 2nd District is Democratic is because Mark Udall has won over moderates," Melanson says.

Melanson notes that Arvada, Westminster, Thornton and mountain towns on the Western Slope in the 2nd District "aren't exactly liberal bastions."

Yet Udall's moderate positions, including his stance to continue funding the war, have attracted a potential spoiler. Green Party candidate Bob Kinsey, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Denver and has run previously for Congress, sees himself as a grassroots alternative to voters dissatisfied with the commercialized election process.

He says Democrats, including Udall, broke a promise.

"They were elected in 2006 to do something about this mess in Iraq," Kinsey says, "and they haven't."

Udall is also facing potential Democratic Party competition from Mark Benner, who is a little-known art teacher from the small town of Anton. Benner unexpectedly entered the race just weeks ago to campaign on issues such as universal health care. Benner, who has yet to file election paperwork, was recently quoted in newspapers as saying that he doesn't intend to raise money because of its negative influence.

Yet money is critical to winning, say both Melanson and Klein. They're predicting a record-shattering race in which as much as $30 million would be spent on everything from advertisements to staff.

"It could be $50 million," Udall says. Reports in late 2007 indicated Udall already had about $3.5 million at his disposal, compared to about $1.2 million for Schaffer.

Framing Udall as a liberal

So far, Udall has received contributions from individuals like gay-rights crusader and software mogul Tim Gill, and interests such as energy, labor and medical marijuana. He also has had contributions from the influential sugar business, which environmentalists blame for harming Florida's sensitive Everglades.

Melanson defends the contributions, saying they don't influence Udall's votes.

Schaffer's campaign has received cash infusions from GOP insiders and leadership committees rallying for a conservative takeover of the Senate. Among Schaffer's backers is the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which for months now has sought to slap the "Boulder liberal" tag on Udall, even claiming he sought to "increase" taxes a statement Udall's campaign says grossly distorts the facts.

Udall with his kids. Tess now is a high school senior; Jeds a - college freshman. - COURTESY MARK UDALL CAMPAIGN
  • Courtesy Mark Udall campaign
  • Udall with his kids. Tess now is a high school senior; Jeds a college freshman.

Klein says Udall deserves the liberal label.

"He has 10 years of a very liberal voting record," Klein says.

Congressional records show Udall has overwhelmingly supported Democrats over the years. Recently, he voted with Democrats to repeal the restrictions that prevent federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells, an effort that later died in the Senate.

Yet he also crosses the aisle. For instance, Udall last year sided with Republicans and a minority of Dems to pass House Resolution 6095, the Immigration Law Enforcement Act of 2006, giving local police the power to enforce federal immigration laws, including suspected undocumented workers.

Klein, who consistently deflects questions about where Schaffer stands on various issues, preferring to speak about Udall's record, contends Udall tries to hide from votes that "seemed like a good liberal idea at the time, but not so much now that he's running for Senate."

He mentions Udall's decision to quit sponsoring a bill calling for the creation of a U.S. Department of Peace.

"All of a sudden, he was no longer a sponsor," Klein says.

Another "Udall U-turn," Klein says, was Udall's introduction of a bill to let U.S. oil companies drill off Cuba in spite of a trade embargo. Udall, meanwhile, would not support surface drilling on Colorado's Roan Plateau, something for which oil and gas companies are fighting.

"If I'm cynical," Klein says, "he's throwing a bone to the energy industry because he knows drilling off Cuba won't happen."

Both of Klein's examples were featured in attack-dog ads by so-called "527" independent groups. One depicted Cuban dictator Fidel Castro giving Udall a mock "Cuban Hero" award for the oil bill, an ad Udall notes offended some Hispanics.

Melanson dismissed Klein's statements as those of a campaign manager attempting to sell an "ultra-conservative" to voters.

"They're desperately reaching out," Melanson says, "and trying to mischaracterize Mark's voting record. ... Meanwhile, Schaffer is trying to show himself as a moderate when he has an extreme record."

Melanson cites examples of "Schaffer's U-turns." Months ago, Schaffer, in a Web message, blasted "activist Democrat leaders," naming Senate President Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In the new greeting, Schaffer omits the names and opines that voters are "fed up with the partisan political bickering."

"It was more toned-down," Melanson says, "in an effort to help him connect with moderates."

As for the Cuba legislation, Melanson defends it. He says "even" U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a staunch conservative Republican from northern Colorado, supports the idea. He adds that Udall doesn't want foreign companies to get the upper hand in the race for Cuban oil, but that Udall would only allow drilling under federal environmental laws.

As for the Department of Peace legislation, Udall says that when he took a closer look, "it actually had some elements that I didn't like." The Defense and State departments already were providing some of the benefits called for in the bill, he adds.

The 11th commandment

Udall is perhaps most passionate about energy policy and conservation. He speaks of an "11th commandment: Thou Shalt Protect the Environment," and seems to live it. His home is south of Boulder in scenic Eldorado Springs, where he and wife Maggie Fox, a prominent environmental attorney, raised kids Jed, a college freshman, and, Tess, a high school senior. Udall is also a mountain climber who has ascended all of the state's fourteeners. Beyond his father's influence, his mother, Patricia, is noted for her love of the outdoors.


In the House, Udall also sits on the Natural Resources Committee and the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus. Back home in Boulder, he's known for successfully partnering with Allard and community conservationists to craft legislation that turned the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant into a wildlife refuge. He also worked to convince Colorado voters to pass Amendment 37, requiring the state's top utilities to provide more power from wind, solar and other renewable sources in coming years a measure that research shows has lowered energy bills for Coloradans.

Speaking of energy policy generally, Udall fires off terms like "green revolution," "visionary forward-looking energy policy" and "energy self-sufficiency."

"In this era, with all that we've done when it comes to the Clean Water Act, clean air and protecting wilderness areas smart growth principles the frontier is energy policy," Udall says.

Yet in parts of Colorado, the frontier is what it's long been grasslands. And southeast Colorado ranchers, recently enraged by the Army's efforts to nearly triple the size of Fort Carson's Pion Canyon training grounds, say Udall is more sympathetic to the Army than their cause, which is uniquely tied to the environment. They're upset that Udall pushed for an Army study after he voted for a one-year delay in the expansion process.

During a conference call with reporters in November, Udall explained why he pushed for the study: "I think it is a good thing to have the Army make their case, because they haven't yet. My concern has been that the ranchers and the people who live in that part of the state don't get an answer as to what ultimately is going to happen as soon as they would possibly like it."

Lon Robertson, a rancher from the tiny town of Kim and leader of the Pion Canyon opposition, says the answer had already come not to ranchers, but to any politician thinking of supporting an Army that has not ruled out the use of eminent domain. Prior to the House's 383-34 vote, Robertson's Pion Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, an array of ranchers, environmentalists, historians, scientists, entire local governments and regional businesses, convinced Colorado's state Legislature and Gov. Bill Ritter to oppose expansion.

"The study that Udall backed just keeps the expansion alive when it seemed dead," Robertson says.

Robertson says the coalition can't endorse a candidate because of its broad, nonpartisan base that includes conservatives and liberals. Still, he thinks Pion Canyon "will be a huge election issue."

"For some, it will be the main issue," Robertson predicts.

Yet it is unclear whether Schaffer will seek to curry the coalition's favor, as did U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a northern Colorado Republican who co-sponsored the expansion delay in the House with Rep. John Salazar, a southern Colorado Democrat.

Klein says Schaffer has not wanted to make Pion Canyon into a "political football" so far, noting that business interests, particularly in Colorado Springs, have had difficulty making their case for a study of expansion. Yet Schaffer may offer a definite opinion on the subject in coming months, Klein adds.

Presidential aspirations?

In 1976, Mo Udall, an Arizona congressman, saw his defining political moment. He lost to Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in that year's Democratic presidential race. Carter went on to a single term in the White House, and Mo, considered more liberal than Carter, headed back to Congress, where he remained until retiring in 1991 for health reasons.

Mark won't pursue his father's White House dream.

Asked if he'll ever run for president, Udall says "no" twice, scratching his hair, which has gone a definite shade of gray since he first entered public life. He's getting old, he says. His kids see him as a "fossil," a "dinosaur," an "oldie."

Back in the day, Udall was a fan of Cream, The Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers. His favorite album was The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, which incidentally begins with the title track lyric, "Roll up, roll up for the magical mystery tour," debatably a pro-marijuana reference, and winds down with the "I am the Walrus" chant, "Smoke pot, smoke pot ..."

Obviously, that was a different era, professor Loevy says, adding, "It's hard to find many people his age who didn't experiment with drugs at that time."

In 1992, Bill Clinton famously admitted he dallied with marijuana but "didn't inhale." He was elected to the White House anyway.

Now, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic candidate for president, admits to using illicit drugs in his youth. It doesn't seem to have hurt his powerful campaign, Loevy notes.

There is acceptance, these days, Loevy says. Voters have decided that a youthful indiscretion shouldn't alone bar a candidate from holding elected office.

"I don't think the issue will gain any traction in this campaign," Loevy says of Udall's past, although he was stunned to hear about it.

Times change.

Mark Udall: DYK?

He has a MySpace page with just 19 friends (last time we checked).

He and his cousin, Tom Udall, a New Mexico congressman, are both running for the U.S. Senate under the informal slogan, "Vote for the Udall nearest you!"

He's recently been reading a Chris Matthews book. "He has great insights," Udall says.

His favorite album is The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, and he probably still has it in his "bins of records."

His mother, Patricia, whose nickname was "Sam," won a women's trans-continental flying competition called the "Powder Puff Derby" in 1977.

His late father, Morris "Mo" Udall, an Arizona Democratic representative for three decades, is one of fewer than two dozen members of Congress to have received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the nation's highest honors.
Compiled by Michael de Yoanna


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