Perhaps the most famous historical figure to grow up in Arizona’s First Congressional District, Stew Udall would have turned 100 in March of this year. Eva Putzova wants to carry on his proud tradition.
Udall served in Congress in the 1950s, and as Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, engaging in what might be termed “the politics of beauty” to protect America’s air, water and wildlife, establish national parks and monuments, create a network of scenic rivers and trails, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided support for parks and open space in hundreds of communities, and help launch Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification campaign. He also overruled Commissioner of Reclamation Floyd Dominy to save the Grand Canyon from proposed power dams.
Udall grew up in St. John’s, Arizona, the son of Mormon ranchers. They were without electricity or running water until New Deal projects brought both and changed the family’s politics from Republican to Democratic. After World War II service, Stew and brother Mo played basketball for the University of Arizona, successfully pushing to desegregate its Jim Crow cafeteria. His lifetime battle against racism included recruiting the first African American rangers for the National Park Service and supporting self-determination for Indian tribes.
He was a peacemaker, traveling to the Soviet Union with poet Robert Frost to talk nuclear disarmament with Nikita Khrushchev, and being quick to recognize the folly of the Vietnam War. After leaving Washington, Udall legally represented the families of “down-winders” poisoned by atomic tests and Navajo uranium miners whose work led to cancer. Udall recognized the dangers of global warming as early as the 1970s and, during the last years of his life in Santa Fe, campaigned actively for climate solutions. He died in 2010.
Congressional candidate Eva Putzova shares Udall’s vision and values. Her experience includes 13 years working at Northern Arizona University and a stint on the Flagstaff City Council, where she led the winning fight for a $15 minimum wage. An immigrant from Slovakia, she grew up during the Cold War that Udall did much to soften. She too is a peacemaker, hoping to reduce American military involvement in the Middle East and elsewhere, and shift funds from weapons to life-affirming measures like Medicare For All. An environmentalist, she opposes the Oak Flat Mine, which would create a massive and polluting scar on land held sacred by the San Carlos Apache Nation.
Her district is home to the largest Native American population in the U.S. Putzova laments that, like the Udalls in the 1930s, 30 percent of Native American families don’t yet have running water and 15,000 indigenous families still lack electricity, despite the coal mines and power lines on their lands. She opposes continued uranium mining. Hundreds of such mines on the Navajo reservation still haven’t been cleaned up, another incomplete part of Udall’s vision.
Convinced, as Udall was, that climate change poses a massive threat to the planet, Putzova supports the Green New Deal concept and applauds young activists who have been fighting for it. “I’m among the oldest progressives running for Congress,” she says. “The future belongs to the youth.”
In 2009 Udall wrote a letter to his grandchildren urging them to challenge climate change. “Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!”. As part of Udall’s grandchildren’s generation, Putzova takes his words seriously.
John de Graaf is a filmmaker making a film on the life of Stewart Udall.