Pete Domenici was relaxed and waxing philosophical about another time.
A time when the United States had won the Cold War, and the old Soviet Union was in dissolution and disarray. But that victory, a triumph for Ronald Reagan over the Kremlin and for capitalism over communism, brought with it a new set of challenges and dangers.
First and foremost, the vast Soviet nuclear weapons complex was no longer subject to iron-fisted command and control. In fact, it was splintered and spread across several breakaway nations, including Ukraine and Belarus. Tons of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium were stockpiled around the area, and American experts were terrified they would fall into the hands of a rogue nuclear power or a terrorist organization.
Domenici, a Republican who represented New Mexico for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, was the powerful chairman of the Senate Budget Committee at that time and a key player in orchestrating a plan to control that dangerous stockpile. And he knew it would take American taxpayer money.
As he recalled the story in a recent interview, Domenici and an aide walked over to the House of Representatives and met with a key Democrat on a House appropriations committee. Domenici outlined the problem and said he needed an appropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars that would be used to buy Soviet weapons-grade material – effectively taking it out of circulation.
His counterpart asked his own aide if he concurred with Domenici’s analysis, and the answer was yes.
“Consider it done,” the House appropriator said. “We’ll put it in the bill.”
It was a classic Domenici deal. Pragmatic, bipartisan and in service to the nation. And effective. As far as is known, none of that stockpile ever made into the hands of an ISIS, al-Qaida or any other terrorist group. Some of it ended up powering nuclear reactors in the United States.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who now heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the Albuquerque Journal’s Michael Coleman that Domenici was “an indispensable leader in the post-Cold War effort to protect the American people.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Pietro Vici Domenici died Wednesday morning at the age of 85 – about two hours before the opening of the 10th annual Domenici Public Policy Conference at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. The two-day program of accomplished political and economic leaders went on as scheduled, in his honor, under the direction of NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers.
A former lawyer, math teacher and semi-pro baseball player, Domenici was a political legend. After serving six terms, he retired from the Senate in 2007 after being diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease, but went on to do significant work on the debt and deficit for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He recently returned to his hometown of Albuquerque, where he was doing consulting work out of the law office of his son, Pete Domenici Jr.
Word of his death spread quickly and the tributes flowed in – from former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. House Speaker Paul Ryan and others joined in, with Ryan calling him “larger than life” and thanking him for all he had taught him. “He remains an inspiration to me,” Ryan said.
Locally, Domenici was known for his incredibly effective representation of New Mexico – sometimes dubbed “St. Pete” for his ability to bring projects here and nationally, and for legislative feats like a balanced budget and a new national energy policy, teaming with fellow New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, on that effort.
Remembering all too well the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, he spoke with great satisfaction during that interview about America’s energy independence and the role fracking technology developed at Sandia National Laboratories played in it.
He reportedly was on the short list to be the vice presidential running mate of George H.W. Bush, who instead chose Dan Quayle of Indiana. In hindsight, there’s no question Domenici would have been the better choice – and no shortage of speculation about what that might have meant for Domenici.
On a personal level, he and his wife Nancy lived in a modest home in Washington where they raised eight children. Pete Domenici wasn’t one of those politicians who went to Washington to make his own fortune.
He also has another son, Adam Laxalt, who is attorney general of Nevada.
He was a Republican with deep convictions, a friend of business and someone who understood the need for the creation of wealth to lift everyone. But he frequently worked across the aisle to get things done.
And he worried about America’s deepening divide.
“We are in danger of losing our ability to move forward as a nation because of destructive, personality-driven partisan politics,” he said in a 2008 speech to the New Mexico Legislature. “Let me leave this warning with you. America’s democracy is in trouble unless we put aside the political extremes and work toward common goals.”
We extend best wishes to his family, and suggest that the best way for America to honor this great American and his legacy is to heed his warning and take this advice to heart.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.