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Mark Udall: For this Democrat, finding common ground a way of life

Published October 4, 2008 at 12:05 a.m.

CORRECTION: This story should have said that Mount Elbert is the highest peak in Colorado.

Barry Goldwater was a family friend. In later years, John McCain was, too.

Mark Udall's childhood provided a fascinating mix of politics and the Wild West.

He and his five siblings camped under the stars and explored Indian reservations and monuments. At political dinners in the Beltway, Republicans and Democrats mingled.

"The dinner conversations were fascinating," Udall's sister, Dodie Udall, said. "There wasn't the divisiveness that we see now. The emphasis wasn't so much on the party, but on the problem."

That has been the theme of Udall's campaign for the U.S. Senate.

"It's going to take working together, finding common ground and getting things done," Udall said last month during a debate on Channel 2 with his Republican opponent, former Congressman Bob Schaffer.

Udall's "can't we just all get along" mantra is expressed so often on the stump it elicits eye rolling from his opponents.

But those who have known Udall for years say it's not a political shtick or a campaign slogan, but a way of life for the 58-year-old.

"It's who he is," said his wife, Maggie Fox. "He tries to get people to work together. It's an essential part of his character, whether he's on an outdoor trip, with his family or working in Congress."

But in a contentious Senate race that may be the most-watched in the nation, the question is whether Udall can deliver the brass-knuckles punch that is so often needed in politics.

West meets East

Mark Emery Udall was born in Tucson in 1950 to Morris "Mo" Udall and Patricia Emery Udall, a Denver native. Five siblings followed: Randy in 1951, Dodie in 1952, Anne in 1954, Brad in 1957 and Kate in 1960.

Growing up, the Udall children heard stories about hard times in the old days for pioneer families in the West. Among those storytellers was Goldwater, the Arizona senator and template by which conservatives modeled themselves.

"There wasn't much water. The federal government didn't care about the Arizona territory," Mark Udall said. "So you had to work together to get anything done."

Summers were spent exploring the West, from a simple hike up the Tucson foothills, where the Udall children would shoot tin cans with a .22-caliber rifle to excursions in the station wagon to the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations that fascinated Patricia Udall.

Mark Udall was 4 when his Uncle Stewart, who lived a half-mile away, was elected to Congress. Six years later, President Kennedy appointed the congressman to head the Department of Interior.

Mo Udall inherited his brother's seat, where he came to earn a reputation as the "liberal conscience" of the House of Representatives.

After Mo Udall went to Congress, the family would spend the school year in Washington. Their circle of friends changed: the kids who once shot at tin cans in the desert now spent dinners at places like Bobby Kennedy's house.

"Stewart's wife, Lee, would have these barbecues in Washington and invite Republicans and Democrats, and all us kids would play together," Dodie said.

"It was a totally different environment. Public service was something that was very valued. Today, with the falling poll numbers on politicians it's become sort of a dirty word, but that's not how we were raised."

The Udalls lived in a small house in D.C. The three girls shared one room and the three boys shared another. As the eldest, Mark served as team leader and peacemaker.

"There is a 10-year difference between Mark and the youngest, and a lot of jobs fell on Mark's shoulders," Dodie said. "He had the job of keeping everyone in line.

At the age of 10, Udall spent eight weeks at New Mexico's Cottonwood Gulch camp, an educational outdoor program that focused on, among other things, science and culture. The campers spent 21/2 weeks hiking in southern Colorado, and another 21/2-weeks exploring northern Arizona.

Udall returned for another seven summers. His mother had taught him to drive when he was 13, and the camp had Udall drive the flatbed trucks around the property. At age 15, the camp hired Udall to be a counselor to the 10-year-olds.

"It was a huge influence on who he is," his wife said. "He is the best logistical coordinator under the sun."

Coming full circle

After Mo and Patricia Udall divorced in 1965, the children spent their school years in Tucson. Mark graduated from Canyon del Oro High School in 1968, where he was student body president his senior year. Dodie didn't appreciate the post at the time.

"I can remember Randy and myself sitting outside in the car fuming because we were ready to go home, and Mark had to do his politicking," she said.

Udall in 1975 spent half a year in New Hampshire working on his father's 1976 presidential campaign, a run that would end in defeat to Jimmy Carter. But the great outdoors beckoned and, with his father's blessing, Udall moved to Crested Butte, and moved in with Dodie and Randy.

It was there that he met his future wife, who was getting her graduate degree at the University of Colorado and working for Outward Bound. He and Maggie Fox climbed mountains, hiked, biked and kayaked together.

Udall spent nearly 20 years with Colorado Outward Bound, an organization that teaches interpersonal, wilderness survival and leadership skills to people of all ages. He started as an instructor but spent the last 10 years as director, supervising a staff of 450 people and launching fund-raising drives.

But Udall was ready for another challenge.

When Democrat Peggy Lamm called to tell him in early 1996 she wasn't going to run again for her seat in the state House, Udall was interested.

"There were a lot of years I spent more nights under the stars than under a roof," he said. "I thought it was time for me to give back, to protect those places."

In January 1997, Udall succeeded Lamm in the legislature, representing portions of Boulder County that until 1995 had been represented by Republicans. He was dismissed as a typical Boulder liberal when he introduced bills on what was then seen as a tree-hugger fantasy: renewable energy.

Former House Majority Leader Norma Anderson, a Lakewood Republican, said she disagreed with Udall over issues but never over style.

"He did not pick fights," she said. "He got along very well with others. Mark and I are still friends today."

Udall likely would have run for a second term in the state House, but Congressman David Skaggs in October 1997 stunned Colorado's political world by announcing he wouldn't seek another term.

When Udall opted to run for Congress instead, some wondered whether his demeanor was suited to such an ego-driven environment.

He won his first congressional race in November 1998, and buried his father the following month.

Mo Udall suffered from Parkinson's disease and had been in a semi-coma in a veterans hospital in Washington. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visited his old mentor there, the New York Times wrote in its obituary.

"Mr. Udall took him in hand, although they did not think alike on many issues. Four years later, when Mr. McCain won the Senate seat of a retiring Barry Goldwater, he said he felt his deepest sense of gratitude not to his fellow conservative but to Mr. Udall," the Times reported.

When Mark Udall went to Congress, his first request of his new chief of staff, Alan Salazar, was for a picture guide so he could learn the names of his fellow lawmakers. Salazar was impressed.

Over the years, Udall said he has strived to work closely with the Colorado delegation and across the aisle in an even-handed manner.

"Being rude is an unpardonable sin in the Udall operation," Salazar said. "Mark won't abide rudeness."

Salazar was asked if that was the reason Udall didn't seem more forceful in his recent Meet the Press debate with Schaffer.

Salazar said he would leave the debates to others to analyze. But he said Udall was smiling when he left the NBC studio in Washington.

"The Senate has enough people who can filibuster, it needs more people who can listen," Salazar said Udall told his staff.

Then Udall paused.

"I should have said that to Bob back there."

Democratic political consultant Steve Welchert watched the debate and saw the quandary of a man whose natural courtliness can become lost in a business where volume speaks volumes.

"Mark's not too nice to be in Congress, but he's too nice to be a candidate," Welchert said. "The business of politics can be messy and tough and Mark is a gentleman.

"And that trait has served him well in building effective partisan bridges in Congress. Colleagues don't see him as a guy who spits nails, they see a guy who wants to solve problems."

bartels@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5327

25 things you might not know about Mark Udall

1 He's never lived in Boulder, although he's referred to as "Boulder liberal Mark Udall" by his opponents.

2 His youngest sister, Kate Udall, is an actress who has appeared on Law & Order.

3 John McCain, when asked about Mark Udall on the campaign trail in Iowa in 2007, said, "I love him. He's a wonderful young man."

4 Udall climbed within 3,000 feet of the summit of Mount Everest in 1994 but had to turn back because of 120-mile hour winds.

5 He's also climbed Alaska's Mount McKinley, the mountain mistakenly used in the first TV ad of Senate opponent Bob Schaffer. The shot was supposed to be of Pikes Peak.

6 Udall constantly text messages his family.

7 His favorite musical group is Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

8 His late father, 6-foot-5 Morris "Mo" Udall, played for the Denver Nuggets in 1948-1949. That's where Mo Udall met his wife, Denver native Patricia Emery.

9 Udall's maternal great grandfather led the survey to measure Long's Peak and designate it as Colorado's highest peak. His grandfather once owned a piece of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.

10 On his father's side, Udall's and Mitt Romney's great great grandfathers were Mormon pioneers together in the Arizona territory, where they were persecuted for their religious beliefs.

11 Mark Udall was raised Presbyterian. His wife, Maggie Fox, was raised Catholic. They've raised their children in the Christian faith.

12 Columnist James J. Kilpatrick once deemed Mo Udall "too funny to be president," which ended up being the title of the Arizona congressman's autobiography.

13 The Udalls have never liked being called "the Kennedys of the West." The Kennedys initially made their fortune in stocks and banking, while the early Udalls were farmers.

14 Mark Udall is 6-foot-2, short by Udall standards - he has sisters almost as tall as he is. Udall's wife is nearly 6 feet. Their son, Jed, is 6-6. Their daughter, Tess, is 6-1.

15 Udall won the state golf championship in his high school division, and consistently is ranked the best or second-best golfer in Congress.

16 When Udall was arrested for possession of marijuana in Arizona in 1972, his father made him spend the night in jail. Udall pleaded guilty, paid a fine, received probation and "learned a lesson."

17 He earned the admiration of sportsmen for his 1998 bill in the state legislature that imposed stiff surcharges on poachers caught illegally taking big game trophy heads.

18 He beat CU law professor Gene Nichol in an upset in the 1998 Democratic congressional primary in the 2nd District.

19 He keeps a pair of his father's basketball shoes in his Capitol office.

20 He co-sponsored liberal Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's proposal to create a Department of Peace, but dropped his support after reviewing the details.

21 He briefly jumped into the U.S. Senate race in 2004, but bowed out hours later when Attorney General Ken Salazar decided to run for the Democratic nomination.

22 He's a voracious reader, particularly about the Middle East.

23 When asked his biggest regret, he once said he doesn't live with regrets but he had made plenty of mistakes.

24 He and his brother Randy are responsible for their sister being nicknamed "Dodie." Her name was Judith and her parents decided to call her "Jody" but the young boys couldn't pronounce that.

25 Udall's hero is his late mother, Patricia, a marksman, pilot and Peace Corps volunteer at 56.

Biography

Mark Emery Udall

* Party: Democrat

* Age: 58

* Born: Tucson, Ariz.

* Family: Wife, Maggie Fox, son, Jed, 21, and daughter, Tess, 18

* Residence: Eldorado Springs

* Political biography: Worked on his father's 1976 presidential campaign; Colorado legislature, 1997-1998; Congress, 1999 to present

* Web site:

www.UdallforColorado.com

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