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Mark Udall: High Noon in the Senate

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Vail, Colo. - He looks like the classic Westerner, right out of the pages of an outdoor magazine. Tall, lean and handsome with a shock of grey hair, he's dressed in a navy blazer, open neck shirt, creased blue jeans with silver belt buckle and cowboy boots. It's Gary Cooper-goes-to-Washington instead of Jimmy Stewart, and he's here to field questions about what's on the minds of people in Ski Country USA.

He's Sen. Mark Udall, a fifth generation Westerner and scion of one of the West's most famous Democratic families who's already Colorado's senior senator even though he took office only three months ago after winning what political observers considered one of the nation's most important Senate races, thanks to President Obama's choice of Ken Salazar as his Secretary of Interior.

And thanks also to the global economic meltdown, the shifting demographics of the American West that are turning many of the region's red states into blue, and the political skills that made him a leading voice on conservation and renewable energy during 10 years in the House, the 58-year-old Udall appears poised to play a key role in shaping the eco-politics of the 21st century.

The son of liberal icon former Rep. Mo Udall and the nephew of former Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall - whose son Tom is the new junior senator from New Mexico - he's making a quick stop in the I-70 ski corridor during a day-long statewide tour to meet this week with about 50 members of the Vail Valley Partnership, a local Chamber of Commerce-type organization.

Standing in a meeting hall surrounded by spectacular multi-million-dollar mountainside McMansions, hundreds of which are for sale by hard-pressed owners here and in other nearby ski resort communities, Udall quickly learns that his audience wants to know what Congress and Obama will do to keep the economy from careening out of control like a novice skier on one of Vail's daunting double black diamond slopes.

Udall begins by half-apologizing for having voted last summer for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize businesses by eliminating secret ballot voting, a decision he wants to "clarify" for the benefit of his pro-business audience.

He says he supported the measure, which passed the House but hasn't been taken up by the Senate, because he felt the National Labor Relations Board could best deal with concerns raised by the bill's opponents. "But I'm not convinced that the Employee Free Choice Act is the way to do that. Both sides have legitimate concerns," he says, while noting that there aren't enough votes to bring the bill to the Senate floor for debate and a vote. "Business and labor need to find common ground on this one," he adds.

And while Udall assures his audience that he's confident "we're doing the right things in Washington," he tells a local banker that Obama's proposed budget will produce significant deficits, now running at 10 or 11 percent, which isn't sustainable." He warns that the government will have to curtail spending, particularly in entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, if it is to bring these deficits down to manageable levels over the next five years and ease the credit crunch.

Fittingly, a pointed question comes from the owner of a local chain of ski equipment and sportswear stores, who complains that banks' refusal to extend credit at a time of slumping sales threatens small businesses like his. "I'm afraid for some of us, the stimulus may be too late," he declares. "Somebody needs to tell these banks to loosen up. The rules have changed and if we're to survive, we need help. Just hang with us and we'll pay you back."

Udall assures him that small businesses are a critically important part of the economy, and that he'll do all in his power to see that the nearly $800 billion stimulus package and proposed federal budget help the Colorado state government -- which faces a $300 million budget shortfall -- make the transition from mining and logging to tourism and an Internet-based economy.

He adds, "I very much look forward to representing Colorado for the next five-and-a-half years, even though I know not everybody here voted for me," an obvious reference to the fact that Democrats rank third in Colorado's voter registration behind Republicans and unaffiliated voters, even though Obama carried the Centennial State in November after it voted twice for George W. Bush.

Noting that he has just come from Grand Junction in western Colorado's natural gas and oil shale region, Udall says the state "is on the cutting edge" of the drive for alternative energy, sparked by a multi-billion-dollar wind and solar power industry he helped promote in Congress. "But there's no one answer here," he warns. "We're going to need it all, wind, solar, oil shale and we're going to continue to have to use coal. There's no silver bullet."

Another man asks if Obama's proposed healthcare reform will take some of the financial burden off the U.S. auto industry. Udall says he's confident Congress will pass a healthcare reform package this year that will provide health insurance for every American. It won't be a government-run system, but how to pay for it will be the biggest problem, he concedes.

And when a woman who owns a company that organizes corporate retreats complains about Obama's criticism of corporations like AIG that held lavish retreats with government bailout funds, Udall responds sympathically. "We need to take a deep breath on that," he says. "We need to lead and not go looking for pitchforks. We need to hold people responsible but without causing collateral damage."

Afterwards, as he heads for another meeting on the way to Denver and his home outside Boulder, I ask Udall if he's surprised that he didn't get a single question about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He says he's not and suggests that the reason is that this is a business-oriented audience whose members are more concerned about "domestic problems." He says the fact that casualties are sharply down and that voters feel Obama is taking the right approach in a gradual withdrawal from Iraq while shifting troops to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan has eased people's concerns,.and he pronounces Obama's foreign trip a triumph of "substance and style."

Udall, an avid mountaineer who has climbed all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains and nearly reached the peak of Mount Everest in 1994 before high winds forced him to turn back, seems to have made a good impression on his constituents as they crowd around him afterwards. But not all of them.

As Jon Becker, a local businessman tells me, "I've lived in Vail since 1986, and this is the first time I've seen the national economy have such a negative impact on this area.. For the last five years, people have been coming here and begging contractors to build big houses, and now the builders are all running around looking for crumbs."

Clearly, Udall has many more political mountains to climb as he tries to position himself and Colorado at the center of the struggle to rebuild the nation's economy around new sources of energy and new approaches to economic self sufficiency.