Tom Udall: Five things to know about new United States Ambassador to New Zealand

With a new President comes a new US Ambassador to New Zealand - Tom Udall, a Democrat who describes himself as a "troubled optimist" and is outspoken about the "broken" American political system. 

Former US Ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown was appointed by Donald Trump. Following a chaotic power handover in January, President Joe Biden has finally unveiled his pick to represent him in New Zealand and Samoa. 

It's anyone's guess if Udall will become a well-known figure in New Zealand in the same way Brown did, due in part to his regular appearances on The AM Show. But Udall certainly brings a lot of experience to Aotearoa, with more than a decade sitting in the US Senate. 

His appointment comes at a time when New Zealand's relationship with the US appears to be improving under the Biden administration, while relations between China and the West seem to be slipping. 

Here's five things to know about Ambassador Udall. 

1. A key political ally 

Analytical reporting by Reuters suggests Udall's appointment as Ambassador is strategic for President Biden, as New Zealand "has been an important ally" in the Asia Pacific region. 

Udall's appointment comes after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week hosted Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping for a virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on managing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Political analysts believe Biden hopes to use the 21-member APEC forum - hosted virtually this year by New Zealand - to combat what the US views as China's unfair trade practices, as well as humanitarian concerns. 

The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Chinese officials in response to the crackdown on democratic practices in Hong Kong, an issue New Zealand has also spoken out against

Tom Udall.
Tom Udall. Photo credit: Getty

Udall himself described his Ambassador position in a statement as "integral", as the US will "work closely with New Zealand to confront the challenges facing our nations", with China cited as one of those challenges alongside climate and COVID-19. 

New Zealand's relationship with the US appears far more optimistic with Biden in the top job, whose left-leaning values align much better with the Labour Government than those of former President Trump. 

"We look forward to working with the Biden Administration on regional issues," Ardern said in a foreign affairs speech in Wellington, while she described the relationship with China as "increasingly complex". 

2. 12 years in Senate takes its toll

Udall spent 12 years in the US Senate, the American political system's upper chamber, which sits above the House of Representatives. It's different to New Zealand, where we only have one parliamentary chamber. 

Udall retired this year after two terms in the Senate representing the state of New Mexico. In his farewell speech, he spoke about his concerns for the United States and a political system he described as "broken". 

"The Senate is broken. It's not working for the American people," Udall said. "We are becoming better and better warriors. We're good at landing a punch - at exposing hypocrisy and riling each other up. But we aren't fostering our better angels."

He described himself as a "troubled optimist" in the speech.  

Udall's speech came days before Senate Leader Mitch McConnel attempted to thwart bipartisan efforts to pass a COVID-19 relief package before a holiday break. 

Udall joined forces with other senators in 2011 to try and end the filibuster rule, a term used to describe senators speaking for as long as they wish, as an attempt to block or delay action on legislation or other matters. 

"We have the power to change the Senate from being a graveyard for good ideas to an institution that can respond effectively to the challenges facing our nation," Udall said at the time. 

3. Advocate for indigenous issues and climate

Udall is described as being a strong advocate for Native American tribes. 

Udall's proudest achievement as a senator, he says, was working with tribal leaders to advance their priorities and to support New Mexico's 23 tribes. His advocacy included securing investments in Native-language revitalisation.

Udall was also a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal in the US Senate, a climate change policy to establish net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 - similar to New Zealand's Zero Carbon Act. 

Republicans and Trump did not agree with the Green New Deal when it was first introduced in 2019, claiming adopting its goals would force Americans to cease traveling and not be able to eat meat.

4. Politics - a family affair

Udall comes from a family of American politicians. 

He's the son of Stewart Udall, who was Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969. He's also the nephew of former Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, the cousin of former Colorado Senator Mark Udall, and the second cousin of Republican Utah Senator Mike Lee. 

5. Mormon faith

Udall is a Mormon, according to his biography. 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a religious group that embraces concepts of Christianity, but many Christians don't recognise Mormons as an official denomination.

Mormons believe that God sent many prophets to spread his word after Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. The church is headquartered in Salt Lake City, in the US state of Utah.