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Domenici conference attendees mourn his passing

LAS CRUCES — The Domenici Public Policy Conference marked its 10th year by celebrating former Sen. Pete Domenici’s legacy and mourning the death Wednesday of New Mexico’s longest-serving senator.

“We lost a great American. We lost a great New Mexican. We lost a great friend,” said Garrey Carruthers, New Mexico State University chancellor, during opening ceremonies for the conference.

There was a gasp from some of those in attendance after Carruthers announced Domenici had died a few hours before the conference was set to begin. He then led the crowd in observing a moment of silence.

NMSU student association President Kevin Prieto read a letter from the former senator who said he was sorry he could not attend this year. “You know if I was there in person, I’d be asking questions,” he wrote.

Domenici recently canceled his appearance because he was recovering from surgery. He had been present at all the previous public policy conferences hosted by the Domenici Institute at NMSU, which is also home to his archives.

Former Sen. Richard Lugar

Former Sen. Richard Lugar gave Wednesday’s keynote address at Domenici’s invitation. He said the two “were close friends and frequent collaborators.” They served in the U.S. Senate 32 of their 36 years together.

“Sen. Domenici was a dynamic and trusted leader who was known for his experience and deep expertise on an array of subjects,” Lugar said.

In his policy address, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also outlined concerns that the Trump administration is “downsizing the U.S. role in the world” by withdrawing from trade agreements and questioning strategic security partnerships, including NATO.

“Since World War II, the most essential factor in preventing conflict is U.S. leadership,” Lugar said. He was critical of the U.S. pulling out of the Paris accord on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and threatening to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, in his address, warned against starting a “trade war” with China because that country would “simply retaliate and impose tariffs on all those American-made goods that go to China.”

When asked by University of New Mexico student panelist Tucker Berry about the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Locke said the U.S. should consider a new strategy rather than rely on China pressuring Pyongyang.

“What do we have to lose by sitting down and talking to North Korea now?” Locke asked.

Domenici was involved in selecting the topics for the annual conference, including this year’s focus on foreign policy. On the first day of the conference, just hours after his death, his legacy as elder statesman loomed large.

“I don’t think we understood, even living through it, until we started the conference and the archive here at New Mexico State University… how big it really is,” said Sharon Jones, retired chief of staff for the NMSU chancellor.

Jones and her husband worked on Domenici’s campaign for governor and the Senate. And he often stayed in their home when he attended the conference.

The conference concludes today with a focus on equity in education and preparing the future workforce.