The longest-serving senator in New Mexico’s history was the Albuquerque-born son of Italian immigrants who carried a consistent message of fiscal restraint from 1972 until leaving office in 2009.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Former New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a Republican who became a power broker in the Senate for his work on the federal budget and energy policy for more than 30 years, died Wednesday.
He was 85. Sen. Domenici died Wednesday at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, his son Pete Domenici Jr. said. The senator had undergone abdominal surgery in recent weeks.
Sen. Domenici announced in October 2007 that he wouldn’t seek a seventh Senate term because he had been diagnosed with an incurable brain disorder, frontotemporal lobar degeneration.
The Albuquerque-born son of Italian immigrants carried a consistent message of fiscal restraint from his first term in 1972 until leaving office in 2009 — regardless of which party was in power. He even refused once to buckle to President Reagan, who wanted him to delay the budget process.
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Former Democratic Sen. Bennett Johnson of Louisiana described Sen. Domenici as “the consummate legislator.”
“He always knows his subject very, very well,” Bennett said. “He’s strong in his views, but not rigid in his approach to negotiations. He’s willing to give in when necessary, but he keeps his eye on the ultimate objective.”
He was the longest-serving senator in New Mexico’s history, and was remembered most for his unflagging support of the state’s national laboratories and military installations.
“I love the job too much,” Sen. Domenici said days before leaving the Senate. “I feel like I’d like to have the job tomorrow and the next day.”
His decision started a scramble that saw all three of the state’s congressmen give up their House seats to run for Senate. Elected to succeed him was Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, the son of Stewart Udall, a former Arizona congressman and Interior secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
During his time in the Senate, Sen. Domenici was a major player on national energy legislation.
As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee beginning in 2003, it was his job to oversee the debate on a national energy policy, including decisions about oil and gas drilling, nuclear power and renewable energy.
Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, said Wednesday that he was proud to have served with Sen. Domenici at a time when there was more willingness to put partisanship aside.
“Pete served our state very well in the U.S. Senate for nearly four decades and did a great deal to benefit New Mexico and the nation,” Bingaman said. “During the 26 years that we served together in the Senate, we disagreed on issues but also found common ground and forged bipartisan solutions to many problems.”
Late in his career, Sen. Domenici was linked to the ouster of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, one of nine federal prosecutors fired in a series of politically tinged dismissals in 2006. The Senate Ethics Committee found Sen. Domenici created an appearance of impropriety when he called Iglesias to inquire about the timing of corruption indictments.
However, no punishment was recommended. Sen. Domenici made headlines once again in 2013 when he acknowledged that he had a son out of wedlock in the 1970s. The saga shocked New Mexicans who viewed Sen. Domenici as a man of honesty and integrity during his six terms and 36 years in the Senate.
While his wife, Nancy, was raising their eight children, Sen. Domenici had an affair and child with Michelle Laxalt, the daughter of one of his Senate colleagues. Laxalt raised the child on her own and she became a prominent lobbyist, Republican activist and political commentator. Their son went on to build an impressive résumé himself — Adam Laxalt, a former Navy JAG, is the Nevada attorney general.
Sen. Domenici’s health became an issue nearly two decades ago. He suffered nerve damage in his right arm while playing touch football with his grandchildren in 1999. He also had arthritis in his lower back, and for a time had to use a low-speed scooter between his office and the Capitol.
“I wasn’t sick in the sense of being bedridden. I just hurt, and it had an impact,” he said. A new exercise regimen helped him get rid of the scooter. Better health enabled him to focus on one of his priorities — energy legislation and a plan to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling that had failed twice previously.
He acknowledged feeling “very dejected” after three months of negotiations and deal-making on a massive energy bill he sponsored failed in Congress in 2003. His National Energy Policy Act would have boosted domestic energy production to cut the nation’s dependence on foreign resources. Supporters said it would help national security and create jobs; opponents said it would have devastated natural resources and affected the deficit.
Sen. Domenici co-wrote a 2004 book, “A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy,” on the benefits of a nuclear-powered future and how to get there. He long argued that the nation had an irrational fear that held back its ability to benefit from nuclear energy.
An avid duck hunter and outdoorsman, he took pride in his record on energy and ecology, although environmentalists ranked him lower than he believed he deserved. Sen. Domenici gained his reputation as a federal budget expert while chairman of the Senate Budget Committee for 12 years and a member of the committee between 1975 and 2002.
He was dedicated to trying to rein in the federal budget. He told the AP in 2005 that after a quarter-century, the budget process was hard to let go of.
“I’ve wound down from … every year having to spend huge amounts of time, energy and lots of power to get a budget resolution and to get it implemented,” he said. “At a number of points in my career, I didn’t think I could live without that because it was so much of my life.”
His knowledge of the budget made him popular with the national press after Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president partly on a platform of trimming the bulging federal deficit. Sen. Domenici was on the first President George Bush’s short list of possible running mates in 1988.
But it was said Sen. Domenici’s budget expertise made him indispensable in the Senate — and his independence on budget matters cost him conservative support. He warned as early as 1983 that the Republican economic recovery would be in jeopardy without effective action against huge budget deficits.
When Reagan summoned him to put off for one more day a budget process that had been delayed for two months, Sen. Domenici refused.
Saying no to the president, he recalled afterward, was the toughest thing he’d done. Sen. Domenici also campaigned for free trade with Mexico, and scoffed at misgivings about its impact on U.S. employment.
“Can you imagine an economic superpower afraid to go into free trade with our own neighbor?” he said.
In one of his last speeches as a senator, Sen. Domenici acknowledged in 2007 during a debate over a failed immigration bill that his mother had entered the country illegally from Italy and was briefly detained by federal agents during World War II when he was a child. She eventually became a U.S. citizen.
He was born Pietro Vichi Domenici on May 7, 1932, the only son of Cherubino and Alda Domenici, who also had four daughters. He attended an Albuquerque Catholic high school, then graduated in 1954 from the University of New Mexico. At UNM, he was a pitcher on the baseball team and after graduation signed a contract to pitch for the minor league Albuquerque Dukes.
He also taught math in the Albuquerque public schools. He received his law degree from Denver University and opened a law office in 1958 — the same year he married Nancy Burk.
The couple had two sons and six daughters. He began his political career in 1966 with his election to the Albuquerque City Commission, becoming its chairman in 1967. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1970, then won the 1972 Senate election, succeeding longtime Democratic Sen. Clinton Anderson, who retired. Sen. Domenici entered politics after his morning coffee buddies persuaded him to run for the city commission.
“My friends at coffee had planned and schemed out a way to push me to run for office,” Sen. Domenici said. “They told me ‘You either have to run for public office or quit complaining.’ ”
Sen. Domenici is survived by his wife; sons Peter, David and Adam; daughters Helen, Paula, Nanette, Nella, Clare and Lisa; and numerous grandchildren.