WASHINGTON – Former Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico was remembered Wednesday as a skilled legislator and bipartisan statesman who always put New Mexico and its citizens first.
The 85-year-old son of Italian immigrants who became the longest-serving senator in New Mexico history passed away Wednesday after suffering setbacks from abdominal surgery. Domenici died in intensive care at University of New Mexico Hospital, surrounded by family and friends.
Warm tributes came from across the United States on Wednesday, including from former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and numerous prominent New Mexicans.
“This is a difficult time for the entire Domenici family,” his family said in a statement Wednesday evening. “We have suffered a great loss. Our father loved New Mexico and worked for its people. He devoted his life to fighting for them. He worked for everyone, in every corner in the state. And as much as he did, he always felt there was even more he could do. If it involved a need in New Mexico, Pete Domenici was always ready to ‘get to work.’
“So, while we mourn our father’s passing, we celebrate his life and his many achievements and feel tremendous gratitude to his dedicated supporters, exceptional staff and the constituents of his beloved state.”
Bush – who signed into law several major pieces of legislation written by Domenici – said he and his wife, Laura, were “saddened” by the death of their “good friend.”
“He loved New Mexico and represented his constituents well in the Senate – an institution for which he had great respect, and in which he earned great respect,” Bush said. “We will miss him, and we send our heartfelt sympathies and best wishes to Nancy and Pete’s loved ones.”
Clinton, a Democrat, praised Domenici’s willingness to work across the aisle.
“Though we often disagreed politically, I always respected him for his deep convictions and his belief that compromise is essential for a functioning democracy,” Clinton said.
Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, served six terms in the Senate and had planned to seek re-election to a seventh until his doctors diagnosed him with a degenerative brain disease in 2007, leading to his retirement at the end of his final term in 2009.
Although physical ailments forced him from public office, Domenici stayed active as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. In 2010, he and Alice Rivlin, a former budget director under Clinton, produced a widely circulated plan to tackle the federal debt. Domenici said in a recent Journal interview that although he was still battling health problems, he hoped to use his policy experience to help boost the state’s economy as a consultant.
Born in Albuquerque in 1932, Domenici became a standout baseball player, a schoolteacher, then a lawyer and chairman of the City Commission.
He first won election to the U.S. Senate in 1972. Over the next 36 years, the plain-spoken, bespectacled lawmaker became known on Capitol Hill as a politically pragmatic deal-maker adept at working with Democrats.
“Pete served our state well in the U.S. Senate for nearly four decades,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat who served with Domenici in the Senate for 26 years before his own retirement in 2013. “In the 26 years we served together in the Senate, there were many times when we were able to find common ground and forge bipartisan solutions to problems.”
In a 2008 speech to the New Mexico Legislature, Domenici spoke of deepening partisan division in America.
“We are in danger of losing our ability to move forward as a nation because of destructive personality-driven partisan politics,” Domenici said. “Let me leave this warning with you: America’s democracy is in trouble unless we put aside the political extremes and work toward our common goals.”
McConnell praised his former colleague in remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.
“Like others in this chamber, I served with Sen. Domenici for many years,” McConnell said. “I came to know him as smart, hardworking and dedicated – and a very strong advocate for his home state of New Mexico. We are all saddened by this news today.”
Domenici had a well-known knack for funneling federal dollars to his home state. As a longtime chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, he used his access to the federal purse strings to pay for New Mexico priorities, whether it was acequia repairs in the Española Valley, money for rural health clinics in southern New Mexico or new fighter jets at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.
At Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, Domenici became known as “St. Pete” for his success in protecting and expanding the labs’ science budgets.
But he also won wide acclaim for his service to the nation. He was key in the effort to secure funding to get weapons-grade plutonium out of the Soviet Union when it broke apart in the 1980s, and he and then-Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, negotiated the nation’s last balanced budget in 1997.
Domenici generally supported former President Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, but the budget hawk also frustrated the former president by demanding that he rein in defense spending and raise taxes to help tamp down inflation and balance the federal budget.
During his six Senate terms, Domenici served as budget committee chairman or its top minority member for 22 years. His work culminated in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which restored fiscal discipline to the federal budget process and led to rare surpluses from 1998 to 2001.
The New Mexico Republican, who had a daughter with schizophrenia, spent years working alongside the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, both Democrats, on legislation that would improve health insurance coverage for people with mental disabilities. Bush signed the Mental Health Parity Act into law in 2008.
Domenici also wielded the chairman’s gavel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 2002 until 2007. Working with Bingaman, then the panel’s ranking Democrat, Domenici wrote the Energy Policy Acts of 2005 and 2007. The laws ushered in a new era in domestic oil and gas production that resulted in the U.S. being the world’s leading exporter of refined oil and put the nation on the brink of energy independence. Domenici attributed that in part to the development of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, technology at Sandia National Laboratories.
Domenici was also known as Congress’ most ardent champion of nuclear power. Domenici set out his vision for the rejuvenation of nuclear energy in a speech at Harvard University in 1997. His vision included turning Russian weapons-grade uranium into fuel for reactors, recycling used nuclear fuel and expanding nuclear energy in the United States to reduce carbon emissions.
The senator also played a pivotal role in clearing the way for the nation’s first geologic disposal facility for nuclear waste – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, which manages radioactive byproducts from national defense programs.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who is now chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, called Domenici “an indispensable leader in the post-Cold War effort to protect the American people.”
In 1988, Domenici was reported to be on a short list of possible vice presidential running mates under consideration by George H.W. Bush. But at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans that year, a freshman senator from Indiana named Dan Quayle got the nod instead.
Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat who is now the dean of New Mexico’s congressional delegation and who took over Domenici’s seat in the Senate in 2009, called him a “legend.”
“Sen. Domenici is a legend in New Mexico politics, and though he will be sorely missed, his impact will be felt in the state – and the nation – for generations to come,” Udall said.
The early days
Domenici was named Pietro Vichi Domenici by his parents, Cherubino Domenici, a wholesale grocer, and the former Alda Vichi. The youngest of six kids and a chubby infant, Domenici was also nicknamed Bocci, the Italian word for bowling ball.
Domenici and his wife, Nancy, met as students at the University of New Mexico and became inseparable. The couple were practicing Roman Catholics who had eight children together. The Domenicis raised their big brood in suburban Maryland during his early Senate career, then moved to a row house a few blocks from his Capitol Hill office as their kids grew older and moved away.
The Domenicis remained in the modest home – with a front door usually decorated with a small New Mexico chile ristra – after Domenici’s retirement. The couple sold their Washington home and returned to Albuquerque in early 2017.
Domenici, widely perceived as a consummate family man, stunned New Mexicans and the Washington political establishment in 2013 when he acknowledged that he had fathered a child out of wedlock in the early 1980s with Michelle Laxalt, a former Washington lobbyist.
Laxalt is the daughter of retired Sen. Paul Laxalt, a Nevada Republican who served with Domenici in the Senate. Michelle Laxalt and Domenici issued a joint statement to the Journal in February 2013 explaining that they kept the child’s paternity secret for 35 years at Laxalt’s insistence, revealing it only when they learned that someone was shopping a story about the pregnancy to the media.
Domenici’s son with Laxalt – Adam Laxalt – was elected as the Republican attorney general of Nevada in 2014.
The senator from New Mexico surprised some during a tense debate on immigration reform in 2006 when he stood up on the Senate floor and voiced a passionate defense of immigrants, whom some in the Senate were portraying as detrimental to the nation. He recalled that his own mother, an undocumented immigrant in Albuquerque during World War II, was detained in a raid that targeted Italian “sympathizers.”
“Federal officials came to our house to arrest my mother while my father was at work,” Domenici said. “It was a frightening situation for my entire family that occurred through no fault of my mother, who had lived in America for more than 30 years as an exemplary citizen.”
Domenici’s mother was later released and was not deported.
“I understand that they (immigrants) are just like every other family in America,” Domenici said. “There is nothing different. They have the same love, same hope, same will and same aspirations as those of us who were born here have.”
The senator, who had close personal friendships with members of both parties, was among the last of a breed of congressional lawmakers who routinely worked both side of the aisle in pursuit of deals that could move legislation to the president’s desk.
“I am not just a Republican senator,” Domenici said in a 1996 interview. “It is not a Republican role. The facts are, when I got elected, I got elected by a lot of Democrats.”
Journal Senior Editor Kent Walz and Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.