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Q&A with Mark Udall

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For Mark Udall, 2008 must seem like the perfect political storm. After seeing what could have been his one shot at the U.S. Senate pass by in 2004, when Ken Salazar’s victory was one of the few bright spots for national Democrats who lost seats in Congress and saw a George Bush re-election, what a difference four years makes.

Now the state’s leadership is fully blue, TIME magazine’s “Invisible Man” -- Wayne Allard -- is retiring (does anyone on Capitol Hill know it yet?), and the most recent Rasmussen polls have Udall up nine points on GOP rival Bob Schaffer. Add to that cosmic alignment the retirement of another Republican senatorial stalwart, Pete Domenici, in New Mexico and the robust fortunes of Udall's cousin Tom, who is currently 28 points up on his competition, Representative Steve Pearce, according to June 24 Rasmussen data.

Even for a family whose powerful western roots branch from judgeships to mayoral offices to state and national legislatures, not since 1961 has the Washington Beltway ball bounced so kindly for the Udalls, who in the early days of the Kennedy administration saw Stewart Udall named Secretary of the Interior and his brother (and former Denver Nugget) Morris “Mo” Udall take over his Arizona congressional seat for the next thirty years.

But Mark makes it clear that his family is no Camelot, and despite the major national implications of his race to a Democratic Senate that’s hoping to pick up enough seats to move within striking distance of the 60 members it needs to shut the door on Republican filibustering, he’s focused on the issues that matter to voters in Colorado. From there, he talks about Colorado’s role in renewable energy; lists the major Democratic players in the West; discusses what he considers to be western values; assesses the significance of the balloon farms on the state’s eastern plains; notes the differences between Cape Cod and Colorado Democrats; explains how he hopes to capitalize on having the Democratic convention in Denver; and illustrates how Mother Nature makes reaching across the partisan aisle an historically western virtue.

Westword (Joe Horton): I was speaking with Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey last week and we were talking about the race, your race here in Colorado, and when I was asked him about the national implications of the race he said, "...what the Committee [the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] will do is to help provide resources so that he can take the message he believes in that is important to Coloradans, to help deliver that message. It will help to develop organizational capacity at a time that more Democrats have been registered in Colorado as a result of the primary process. It will let its national donor base know that this is an election of national significance…” I’m just interested—what kind of national spotlight are you seeing on this race?

Mark Udall: There is obviously interest around the country in the race, but you know where my focus is—on the campaign in Colorado and showing the people of Colorado that I'm going to stand up for them if they send me to the Senate on their behalf. We're taping into that hunger, if you will, for change and the new energy that I think is reflective in all the people that you mentioned who registered, the incredible turnout of the caucuses—not just Democrats but independents who want to be part of the decision-making process. The nice tie I like to dwell on when I use the “e” word, energy, is that, in many ways, the drive to be engaged is part and parcel of people's belief that Colorado can be a leader in the clean, renewable energy field.

WW: With the convention and with the importance paid to this “purple West”—or the importance that the West will play in the presidential electoral map as well as the individual senate races—have you seen an influx or have you seen a rise in the national party's influence or resources in your race?

MU: You know I think what you're seeing the national party's been saying, “why are you having success in the Rocky Mountain West? What are Democrats doing in the West that has led to these electoral results?” What I've been saying and people like Sen. Salazar and Gov. Schweitzer of Montana, Gov. Napolitano of Arizona, our own Gov. Ritter, is that the western values that we embody in the West—independence, hard work, a willingness to work together—really resonate for voters, whether they are Democrats, independents or Republicans. That's our message to national Democrats: there's no secret here, there's no history really, it's that we've been meeting people where they live and we've been reflective of those qualities that are front and center in the West.

The reason the West is the wonderful place to live is the reason we've built great communities in the West, we work together, we're independent-minded and hard work doesn't scare us off. Without being immodest or arrogant, we've been saying, “look at our successes here, we're happy to tell why we think we're successful, take a look at them,” and we're spending less time bragging about our successes and more time governing. Which for me is solving some problems and creating opportunities. Two examples of that, okay, solving a problem: well, we had of course a real shortfall in the needs we had for higher education and our transportation infrastructure in Colorado, and the Democrats, the business community, those who know that we have to invest in our state came together with Referendum C as you remember and that put our state back on track. And that was the problem; we've solved it and now we have more work to do there obviously. Grabbing an opportunity, perfect example, is Amendment 37 and the real emphasis on green energy, and the Governor's picked up on that opportunity [37 is the state’s renewable energy requirement; a similar bill in Washington passed the House but lost by one vote in the Senate], and it's real, and it's beginning to unfold in some exciting ways, all you have to do go out to the balloon farms on the eastern plains.

WW: One of the things that has been mentioned is the particular success of your family, of the Udall family as it were. Some people have said—I was speaking to Brian Colón, who's the chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party—and he was saying that you’re reminding a lot of people of "the Kennedys of the West" was his term for it. What do you think; do you see yourself and your family as that kind western dynasty? And if so or if not, where do western Democrats draw a distinction or a similarity between, say, Cape Cod Democrats?

MU: I think we are proud, independent-minded, Rocky Mountain-western Democrats. My aunt [Elma Udall, sister of Mo and Stewart, family historian] I think had it right. We're of course always proud to be affiliated with John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and their commitment to public service. She once remarked, though, that the Kennedys are East, the Udalls are the West, the Kennedys are the ocean, the Udalls are the desert, the Kennedys are rich industrialists (and bootleggers), the Udalls are Mormon dirt farmers [Mark himself says he is currently not affiliated with any particular church]. And that maybe does really draw the distinction. But, look, you don't hear in my family ever any talk with the “d” word, dynasty. What we talk about is public service and the fact that we've been fortunate to grow up in a family where that was emphasized, where the idea that you dedicate yourself to causes greater than your own self-interest makes sense. So that's my quick response.

And there are countless Udalls in both political parties. There are a lot of Republican Udalls [Oregon senator Gordon Smith, whose mother was a Udall, is defending his GOP seat this year] as well as Democrats too who aren't in elective office and make really important contributions in their communities and the business world and the nonprofit world and the world of education. All I have to do is look at my five siblings and then Tom Udall and his five siblings and they're all doing very interesting and important things and making a contribution in their own right. So you don't have to be in elective office to be a participant in your community.

WW: Understanding that your message and also the message of your opponent plays heavily on Colorado themes as you would expect, using Colorado analogies—"finding the path up," "standing on your own is the way to a sound energy policy"—with all of the national attention that accompanies this year in particular, how do you make sure as a candidate, win or lose, that western issues come to the forefront, come to the national spotlight?

MU: That's a very important question, and what I'm doing is nicely but firmly pointing out to the Obama campaign that during the convention let's highlight western leaders like Gov. Ritter, Gov. Schweitzer from Montana, Gov. Richardson [of New Mexico], of course Senator Salazar, and I guess there's nothing more compelling than to hear their stories, their personal stories and also their stories of public service. When our convention highlights those successes and those leaders, and boy I could add countless others, of course Speaker Romanoff, Senate President Peter Groff and others. If we put all of those folks front and center during the convention, they'll appeal not just to Coloradans but I think people all over the country. And I think that's the opportunity we have and if in particular we emphasize that we're independent-minded, we problem solve in the West.

I will tell you in the old days and in today's days, Mother Nature laughs last and Mother Nature has the final say, so in the end your political party is less important than working together at the end of the day to solve problems and create opportunity. I only have to look back to the Udalls and the Goldwaters [John McCain assumed conservative icon Barry Goldwater’s seat in the Senate in 1987] in Arizona when in the end the important thing was to build that school and make sure the irrigation ditches were working and that there were roads that you could get people to the hospital and you could get crops to market, and that was the ultimate determination of what you focused on when you served the public life. Yeah, you had some philosophical differences perhaps, but those differences fell away pretty quickly once we have a common interest. I think that's the great example my parents and grandparents and people across the West have had front and center. And in order to do that you've gotta be independent-minded, you have to stand up for people, you have to do what's right. I'm excited about the convention coming to Colorado; I think we've such a fun and interesting and compelling story to tell as Democrats in the West. -- Joe Horton


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