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An Extraordinary Success Story

By Leslie Linthicum
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Pete Domenici's rise to senior senator, gatekeeper of the nation's budget, supporter of New Mexico's national labs and mental health advocate began as an immigrant story in downtown Albuquerque.
    The son of immigrants from Lucca, Italy, Domenici came into the world in 1932 in his parents' home in downtown Albuquerque.
    His childhood nickname— "Bocce" for an Italian lawn bowling ball— came when an aunt looked at the round 10-pound baby and said, "He looks like a bocce!"
    Domenici's parents were grocers. They ran the Montezuma Wholesale Grocery Co. in Albuquerque while raising five children and teaching them the value of hard work and prayer.
    He also developed the instinct of a master politician— a Republican who won six terms in the U.S. Senate representing a state with a heavy Democratic majority.
    "I am not just a Republican senator," Pete Domenici said in an interview in 1996.
    At that time he was in his fourth term in the Senate and already a major figure in New Mexico and national politics.
    He said his role was to be responsive to all of the state's diverse constituencies. "It is not a Republican role," he said. "The facts are, when I got elected, I got elected by a lot of Democrats."
    Looking out for military installations, labs, roads and communities back home while developing a national stature helped Domenici easily roll over every Democrat who tried over the years to unseat him.
    Domenici won several re-elections with more than 70 percent of the vote and one of his opponents later likened taking on Domenici to a "suicidal mission."
   
Roundabout path
    Growing up, Domenici didn't set his sights on politics.
    He lettered in baseball at St. Mary's School and also played on the football team. He attended St. Joseph's College and the University of New Mexico, where he became an All WAC pitcher and met his future wife, Nancy.
    He graduated with a teaching degree in 1954, taught for a year at Garfield Junior High School in Albuquerque's North Valley. He went on to law school at Denver University and graduated in 1958, the same year he married Nancy. They would go on to have eight children.
    In a 1996 interview with a UNM alumni magazine, Domenici said he got his start in politics when he was having coffee with some lawyer friends and they persuaded him to run for a seat on the Albuquerque City Commission because he was always talking about city politics.
    There were 32 other candidates in the field and Domenici won. That was 1966 and he went on to head the commission, the equivalent of being mayor today.
    "It was a quirk of fate," Domenici said of his quick rise. He subsequently ran for governor in 1970 and lost to Democrat Bruce King. Two years later, he ran for an open U.S. Senate seat and won, beating Democrat Jack Daniels by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.
    It was a path Domenici modestly called "filtering up."
    Domenici went to Washington in 1973 and immediately won a seat on the Senate Budget Committee, a development that began to shape his legacy back home.
    His long-term political tenure, ability to bring federal cash to the national labs and attention to constituent needs, whether it was acequias or veterans services, earned him the nickname "St. Pete" and won him job security.
    In 1981, he became chair of the Senate Budget Committee, a prominent position in the days of runaway national deficits. He lost the chairmanship when Republicans lost the majority and regained it in 1995. In 1997, he led the negotiations that resulted in the Balanced Budget Act.
    Domenici moved from Budget to the Energy committee— an important assignment for New Mexico— and was chair until Democrats regained control of the Senate in 2006.
    He currently is vice chairman, and fellow New Mexican Jeff Bingaman is the chair.
    At one point, a higher office appeared within his reach.
    In 1988, he was on Republican George H.W. Bush's short list for vice president and seemed as surprised as anyone when Bush stepped onto the deck of a riverboat in New Orleans and announced that his pick was a Senate newcomer named Dan Quayle.
   
Straightforward style
    Domenici's personal style belied his stature. Not one for entourages and fanfare, he often ambled up to speaking engagements alone and, if it was on a weekend, wearing an open-collared shirt, a windbreaker and Hush Puppies.
    When a young staffer in his Washington office was moving into a new apartment in the 1980s, New Mexico's senior senator showed up on a Saturday morning to help her unload her U-Haul.
    His official style was more aggressive. His D.C. office has never been shy about sending out press releases announcing his accomplishments and the senator himself was known to call newsrooms to ask why he was left out of a news story or not quoted prominently.
    Domenici's habit of hanging up at the end of those phone calls without saying "Goodbye" became part of his political legacy.
    It also figured prominently in the controversy that unfolded after the firing of then-United States Attorney David Iglesias.
    Domenici's age and health problems were whispered campaign issues in 2002 and have been a question in his political future.
    In 1999, Domenici was playing football with his grandchildren on Thanksgiving and aggravated an old elbow injury, pinching a nerve that eventually led to pain and partial paralysis in his right hand.
    He also suffered from arthritis in his back and occasionally used a motorized scooter to navigate the halls of the Senate.
    In 2004, Domenici talked about his health in terms of continuing in the Senate.
    "Some mornings I wake up feeling terrible," the Almanac of American Politics quoted him as saying. "Some mornings I wake up feeling great. Now how's that going to affect my decision? Just let time tell."