A Different Kind of Udall

Stephen LemonsSeptember 26, 2019
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Mesa math teacher Michelle Udall is the rare Republican from the legendary Udall political clan to hold office in the state. But as a GOP lawmaker who wholeheartedly supports public education, she’s hardly easy to pigeonhole.

Michelle Udall is no shrinking violet – a fact made abundantly clear as she took the floor of  the Arizona House of Representatives on April 6, 2017. The freshman legislator was explaining her vote on a piece of legislation near and dear to the hearts of many conservative Republicans: Senate Bill 1431, which aimed to open up Arizona’s limited voucher program to every kid in the state, allowing them to use taxpayer funds to attend private schools, if they qualified.

The bill promised to be a plume in the chapeau of Governor Doug Ducey, who had made its passage a priority. Once passed, the legislation would garner Ducey some serious love from right-wing charter school queen and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as well as Ducey’s pals in the conservative Koch network, for whom siphoning students from public schools has always been a driving goal.

At the time, Udall, then 41, was debuting in the House after a four-year stint on the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board. In 2016, she had been elected to represent Mesa’s ruby red Legislative District 25, where registered Republican voters outnumber Dems 2-to-1.

Her seatmate, representative from District 25 and future House Speaker Russell “Rusty” Bowers, also a Republican, voted for the voucher expansion. So did Senator Bob Worsley from District 25, who had reined in some of the bill’s excesses with a last-minute amendment.

But Udall, a mother of four and a high school math teacher when she’s not at the Legislature, feared the bill’s broad mandate. Like many educators, she saw it potentially gutting public schools in the state. So she was voting no. “I believe we need to properly fund our public schools before we pull money away from them and into other programs,” she told the House.

PACHYDERM POLITICO: GOP lawmaker Michelle Udall hails from an illustrious – and largely Democratic – political family.; Photo by Steve Craft
PACHYDERM POLITICO: GOP lawmaker Michelle Udall hails from an illustrious – and largely Democratic – political family.; Photo by Steve Craft

Channeling Ronald Reagan, Udall – related by marriage to longtime U.S. Congressman Morris “Mo” Udall, who represented Arizona for 30 years as an unabashedly liberal Democrat – referred to the voucher system as “an entitlement program” that lacked a means test. As a conservative, she could not vote for such government spending unless it was strictly based on need.

She called herself a fierce proponent of school choice, but she pointed out that there was a plethora of options for parents in Arizona, from charter schools to homeschooling to traditional public schools. “If school choice was the panacea of education, we would have the top education system in the country,” she said. “We don’t need more choices, we need better choices. And in order to do that, we’ve got to improve the schools that we have.”

Udall was one of just four Republicans who joined their Democratic colleagues to try to block the bill. Nevertheless, the bill passed the House 31-28, with one abstention, and since it had already passed the Senate, on it went for Ducey’s signature to become law.

Udall’s stance would get her labeled a “RINO,” a Republican in Name Only,” by the far-right ideologues in her party. But her opposition to the voucher expansion proved prescient. That’s because Ducey’s gambit boomeranged, sparking a grassroots movement by teachers and parents called Save Our Schools, which put a referendum on the ballot in 2018, Proposition 305, asking voters to jettison the voucher plan.

And did they ever. The electorate repealed the law 65 to 35 percent, handing Ducey one of his biggest defeats to date. Fast-forward a year, and Udall is now chair of the House Education Committee, an intriguing and unlikely star in a Legislature where moderates increasingly hold sway as the Republican majority dwindles and the state turns deeper shades of purple.

But lest you misread her last name and think her an heir to the famous Democrats from that family, think again. Her last name was acquired by marriage to a side of the Udall clan that’s as Republican as Mitt Romney, and she remains a devout and socially conservative follower of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Udall resembles what Bill Maher calls “Republican classic,” a sober, level-headed alternative to the moon-howling, wingnutty denizens of the far right. Wonky and centered, she sees a place for government in our lives, albeit a limited one. And she’s as focused on improving education in this state as she is when she’s showing high school sophomores how to calculate cosines.

Balance Beams and the Philippines

Seated in her tiny cubbyhole of an office at the Capitol, Udall has just gotten in after a day teaching Algebra I at Mesa’s Mountain View High School, a large campus of more than 3,200 students at East Brown and North Lindsay roads.

The August heat is raging outside, but the Legislature’s lower chamber is cool and nearly empty as the deliberative body is out of session until January. Udall comes in regularly nonetheless, for stakeholder meetings and less challenging work, like discussing her circuitous path to political influence with a journalist.

Born and raised in Mesa, Udall was an athlete and scholar from a young age, splitting her time between advanced classes and training to compete in gymnastics. The balance beam was her best event, and the sport’s discipline molded her approach to politics and life in general. “If you get up on the balance beam at a gymnastics meet and everyone’s watching you and you get shaky and can’t keep your calm, you’re going to fall,” she explains. “So you learn to focus on what you’re doing, get it done, and get off the beam. I think that’s helped me so much when things do get really stressful and a little bit crazy, to stay focused, stay calm.” Udall accrued mental and physical toughness through sports in her formative years. Serving on an LDS mission to the Philippines in her early 20s taught her resourcefulness. After high school, she scored a full scholarship to MIT, where she studied engineering and materials science, the study of substances used for construction or manufacture. But her father died of cancer while she was away. And after a year or so, she became homesick and weary of the Boston snow.

Returning to Phoenix, she transferred to Arizona State University and began studying computer science. There she met her husband-to-be, Jesse Udall, the son of David K. Udall, a prominent Mesa attorney, former city councilman and member of the influential pioneer family, whose members have served as judges, congressmen and senators throughout the West.

Mo Udall was undoubtedly the most well-known of them. A World War II veteran and former player with the Denver Nuggets in the old National Basketball League, he vied unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, bested in the end by Jimmy Carter, the Georgia governor and peanut farmer.

U.S. Representative Mo Udall with President John F. Kennedy in the Blue Room at the White House on May 18, 1961; Photo by Robert Knudsen courtesy JFK Presidential Library and Museum
U.S. Representative Mo Udall with President John F. Kennedy in the Blue Room at the White House on May 18, 1961; Photo by Robert Knudsen courtesy JFK Presidential Library and Museum

An inveterate liberal, Mo Udall liked to joke that, in golf terms, his handicap was being “a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona.” Hailing from St. Johns, where the Udalls had settled after migrating from Utah, he had lost an eye from a childhood injury, and wore a glass replacement for the rest of his life. Tall and Lincolnesque, with a quick wit that got him dubbed by columnists as “too funny to be president,” Udall passed in 1998 after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease.

Other famous Udalls include Mo’s nephew Tom Udall, U.S. senator from New Mexico, and Mo’s son Mark, former U.S. senator from Colorado. Both are Democrats, as was Mo’s brother Stewart, who served as Secretary of the Interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

While the Udall Dems hog most of the historical limelight, there have been a number of prominent Republicans in the family, including former Oregon Senator Gordon H. Smith, whose mother was a Udall, and Jesse Addison Udall, a Republican and onetime chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

How did the family become split along partisan lines? Michelle Udall explains it, thus: “A few generations back there was a man, he had two wives. All the children of one were Republican, all the children of the other were Democrats. And it has pretty much stayed that way through the generations.”

That man was prominent Mormon David King Udall, the patriarch of the Udall clan, who served in Arizona’s territorial Legislature as a Republican and practiced polygamy in the days before the LDS church banned it.

Michelle Udall’s father-in-law is descended from David King Udall, on the side of the family that’s aligned with the GOP.

No Mo Democrat

Michelle Udall’s politics have drawn the ire of far-right doctrinaires and praise from progressives, particularly when it comes to her stance on education.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, a professor of rhetoric at ASU and co-founder of the victorious Save Our Schools effort, praises Udall’s courage in standing up to pressure from fellow Republicans in 2017. “There were people coming out of the governor’s office crying,” she recalls of the arm-twisting going on back then. “It passed anyway, but [Udall] agreed early on that the bill would be devastating.”

Tyler Montague, an East Valley political guru, Republican moderate and longtime Udall friend, has helped Udall with her campaigns. He notes that Udall refuses to engage in legislative horse trading, perhaps to her detriment at times. “She will absolutely go down in flames on something if she thinks it’s the right thing to do,” he says.

One example was Udall’s support this year for a measure to set a standard tuition rate at Arizona universities for all graduates of state high schools that would be higher than regular in-state tuition but lower than the rate paid by students from out of state. The bill was largely seen as an effort to assist undocumented high school graduates, even those who did not qualify for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has been listing since the hardline Trump administration took over.

Michelle and Jesse Udall with, from left to right, children JD, Brian, Adelyn and Louisa.; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Michelle and Jesse Udall with, from left to right, children JD, Brian, Adelyn and Louisa.; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Udall’s backing for the bill drew the ire of Mesa arch-conservative Russell Pearce, who was recalled from his Arizona Senate seat in 2011 for being too right-wing – even for a Republican stronghold like Mesa. Now a top aide to Maricopa County Treasurer Royce Flora, Pearce enjoys a six-figure salary and carte blanche with the county email, from which he rails against anyone who ticks him off.

Pearce claimed the tuition bill was unconstitutional, and in an email to Udall that local media latched onto, threatened to sue anyone who voted for it. The bill didn’t survive the legislative session, but the Arizona Board of Regents voted this August to authorize the new tuition rate, anyway.

An anonymous, reactionary newsletter, the American Post-Gazette, is regularly emailed to the Republican party faithful and has also taken aim at Udall. One Gazette piece from 2018 endorsed Udall’s primary rival that year, referring to Udall as an “incumbent liberal” and a “nicer, female version of Bob Worsley” – a fellow moderate Republican and Mormon (and founder of SkyMall, curiously) who termed out of his Arizona Senate seat this year.

Regardless, Udall rolled right over opponent Marlene Hinton in the GOP primary, besting her by 8,000 votes. Udall didn’t garner as many votes in the primary as her campaign cohort Bowers, but in the general election, she was the top vote-getter, scoring around 40 percent of the vote with more than 52,000 ballots cast in her favor.

In no small part that’s due to Udall’s surname, which is highly regarded in Mesa and has been a “huge blessing,” she says. Montague classifies the Udall name as political gold, which frees his friend from having to raise gads of money to run for office. “I mean, she sends out a couple of pieces of mail and that’s her campaign,” Montague says. “She’s well-known. The Udall name’s worth a lot in terms of name ID.”

However, it’s also true that Udall accurately represents her district, which has shifted boundaries over the years, but has elected relative centrists, such as Worsley, ex-state House Speaker Kirk Adams, and Rich Crandall, who served parts of the same area both in the state House and the state Senate.

It was, in fact, Crandall who put the political bug in Udall’s ear as they were talking at a local LDS meeting, motivating her to run for the school board. “I just planted the seed at the right time,” Crandall says. “[Udall] happened to be in my LDS ward. We talked a lot about school district things to start, and then it morphed into politics.”

In the parlance of the East Valley, the major political division in that area is between Infowars-huffing right-wingers, and GOP moderates such as Crandall, who helped save the state’s Medicaid plan from extinction when he was in office. Crandall noted that the district has always boasted good public schools, which have been attended by successive generations of families. Crandall himself went to Mountain View, where Udall teaches, as did his children. And Udall attended Westwood High School in Mesa, as did her husband, Jesse.

No one will ever mistake Michelle Udall’s politics for Mo’s. Udall is ardently pro-life, opposing a Democratic attempt in the Legislature to pass the Equal Rights Amendment on the debatable proposition that it would bolster abortion rights. And this year, she successfully sponsored a symbolic resolution to declare pornography a “public health crisis,” a throwback to the moral hygiene crusades of yore.

“I believe in the basic values of the Republican Party,” Udall says. “The party moves a little bit at different times, but I feel like I’ve stayed put.”

With all the enthusiasm of a mentor, Crandall says he can see Udall advancing to a higher office, likely something that involves plenty of policy deep dives and close scrutiny – like county supervisor, for instance.

But Udall seems content for the moment in her current role. “I’d like to stay [in the Legislature] for a while,” Udall says. “I enjoy what I’m doing here. I feel like I’m able to make a difference, and in a positive direction, hopefully.”

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