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Udall Cousins Carve Out Own Turf

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Mark Udall (left) and his cousin Sen. Tom Udall look at family photos as they talk about their family’s legacy and their efforts to foster changes in the Senate.

“We’re not going to ever fill those shoes, but we can follow the direction their boot-steps lead,” Mark says. He is the wilder of the two, more prone to wise-cracking. Tom’s humor is more understated. He takes notes while he listens, and his hair is neatly combed in place, where Mark’s flops onto his forehead.

Even though they are pursuing distinct agendas, colleagues tend to view the Udalls as a team. This is only natural, since the cousins’ careers have taken them on remarkably similar paths: They both served in the House from 1999 to 2008, when they moved across the Capitol Dome to the Senate.

In the House, they were often seen sitting together on the floor during votes. In the Senate, they requested adjacent desks.

“I certainly see them as chips off their fathers’ blocks,” says former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who is a second cousin of both men. Like many Mormon families, the Udall family tree is complicated by polygamy; Smith’s grandfather was the son of one of patriarch David King Udall’s two wives, while Tom and Mark’s grandfather was the son of the other wife.

Bipartisanship, he says, is a lesser-known part of the Udall legacy.

Smith, who is now president of the National Association of Broadcasters, was himself a frequent aisle-crosser in his Senate days and knows that being a moderate isn’t always rewarded.

“It’s where the action is, but it’s a dangerous place to be,” he says of centrist territory. “The political process is often not kind to peacemakers and deal-makers.”

Tom and Mark, though, are armed against the potential ravages with a potent weapon: likability. Colleagues almost unanimously use a word that’s rare in politics to describe them — nice.

“They are just pleasant and delightful people,” says Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who is, surprisingly, another distant Udall cousin. His tea party backing and staunch conservatism often put him at political odds with his Democratic kin, but they get along personally.

“They’ve inherited this calm inner decency and genuine friendliness,” McCain says. “They are personable.”

Others note that the Udalls’ familiarity with the Senate and relationships they developed in the House have served them well. “They came to the Senate extremely knowledgeable about how things work around here,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) says. “It’s allowed them to be quite effective.”

So far, their achievements remain works in progress. Tom is still pressing for filibuster reform, although he has acknowledged the effort is dead for now. He realizes changing Senate rules isn’t the sexiest cause.

“In the House, people would say not to talk about procedure, but I think people understand the filibuster,” he says. “They get it.”

Mark, meanwhile, is anxious to build on the success of the bipartisan seating during the president’s speech. He is an unlikely deficit hawk, too, something he didn’t think would become one of his primary concerns.

“If you asked me a few years ago, I would have said that I’d be working on green energy — but these are the challenges in front of us,” he said.

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