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The way we were

Before joining Congress, Mo Udall was elected Pima County official

U.S. Rep. Morris K. Udall, Democrat of Arizona who served from 1961 to 1991, is regarded as one of the most effective legislators of the 20th century, most notably for his role in shaping environmental and land-use policy. A liberal by any standard, he also led on issues such as civil rights during a critical time. He was not only universally respected, but, in what seems a strange notion today, nearly unanimously liked for his sincerity, energy, and famously dry sense of humor.

What is less remembered is his stint as an elected official in Pima County, a tenure that, despite being quite productive, he regarded at the time as a political dead end.

"Mo" Udall was born to a prominent and well-established Mormon family in St. Johns, Apache County, Ariz, in 1922. His education at the University of Arizona was interrupted when he was called to serve in the army in World War II. His service included a time as an officer in an African-American aviation unit in Louisiana. The discrimination he witnessed against the men in his command helped inspire him to pursue the law as a career and influenced his politics.

Back at the UA after his service, Udall was active in student government, having been elected student body president, and the basketball team, where he was considered a standout. He was soon admitted to the law school, where his class included future Govs. Sam Goddard and Raúl Castro. After completing his degree, Udall signed on to play basketball professionally for a season with the Denver Nuggets, a franchise that was so mediocre that it folded a year later.

Returning to Tucson in 1949, he joined his brother Stewart to practice law. Working out of an office in the Valley National Bank building at Congress and Stone, the firm of Udall & Udall became known for taking on "hopeless cases," most famously a local barber who was being bullied by state regulators. Mo also took some contract work for the city and the county, which soon led to a position as chief deputy to newly elected County Attorney Robert "Bob" Morrison, who took office in 1951.

Udall was one of a staff of five deputies, including his law school classmate Castro, who occupied a suite of offices in the courthouse. All were relatively young, Udall being 28. Morrison, who along with newly elected Sheriff Frank Eyman (of John Dillinger fame) was elected on a promise to "clean house" in the wake of scandal-prone incumbents, was eager to fill his staff with new faces.

Gambling and prostitution were flourishing in Pima County, as in other parts of Arizona at the time. Vice was practiced openly, with many bars and clubs even keeping slot machines in full view. It was an open secret that the previous sheriff, Jerome P. Martin, and the previous county attorney, Bryce Wilson, were not only tolerating such lawbreaking, but were complicit. Morrison made going after these a priority for his office, and Udall was to take the lead in the prosecution.

Udall secured convictions of both officials, among others, for taking bribes, the case against Wilson being helped by the bizarre circumstance of a blackmail attempt by a disgruntled businessman at the Ghost Ranch Resort. This, of course, raised the profile of the already popular attorney. When Morrison announced in 1952 that he was stepping down to run for state attorney general, he made it known that Udall was his favorite to succeed him.

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Elected county attorney that November, Udall would continue his predecessor's campaign against vice, breaking up organized gambling rings operating out of bars, VFW halls and the Spanish-American Social Club. He also continued to pursue successful prosecutions of former members of the sheriff's office who were involved in the corruption.

Udall's office had a reputation for fairness. Long before it was required by the courts, Udall allowed defense attorneys access to the prosecution's files. This reflected not only his commitment to justice, but also his faith that his staff did not need "trickery" to win convictions.

He was involved in other important initiatives for the county as well. Foreshadowing his work for natural resources conservation as a congressman, Udall drafted a legal opinion that supported the county's use of bonds for acquisition and improvement of parks, which became a pillar of local land-use policy. A less successful effort at reform was his work on legislation to merge city and county government, a crusade which antagonized both the Board of Supervisors and the state Legislature.

As he finished his term in 1954, word came that Democratic Congressman Harold "Porque" Patten would not be running for re-election. Mo was eager to run, but deferred to his older brother Stewart, then a member of the Amphitheater School Board. Instead, the younger Udall ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Pima County Superior Court, which was then an elected office, but failed to get the Democratic nomination.

Udall regarded his political career as over at this point and returned to private law practice, though he remained active in the Democratic Party. He taught some classes at the University of Arizona College of Law, and wrote a well-regarded textbook, Arizona Law of Evidence, which remains, though revised, in use to this day. It would not be until 1961, when his brother would resign from the House of Representatives to accept an appointment as Secretary of the Interior under President John F. Kennedy that Mo Udall's opportunity to run for higher office would finally be realized, beginning one of the most productive careers in the history of Congress.

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1 comment on this story

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Jul 28, 2019, 1:31 pm
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Mo Udall’s greatest environmental accomplishment was The Alaskan Lands Bill of 1980. That bill doubled the size of the national parks system setting aside vast areas in Alaska including the Alaska National Wildlife Arctic Reserve. ANWAR is the site of the annual caribou migration, a magnificent event.

Your excellent article is fortuitous. Just this week the Trump administration authorized oil/gas exploration and drilling in ANWAR. Sad.

Chris Helms, former Udall staffer

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