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UpFront: Domenici gave New Mexico a front-row seat

WASHINGTON – I was brand-new to the Albuquerque Journal’s Washington beat in the summer of 2000, and my very first assignment was a doozy – covering the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Beyond excited, I took the train from D.C. to Philly, checked into the downtown Embassy Suites hotel, which hosted the New Mexico delegates, and went to my room to get organized for the big week ahead.

An hour or so later, I got a phone call. A staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici, who died last week at 85, wanted to know if I could join the senator, his wife, Nancy, and a few of his friends for dinner that evening.

Who, me? Um, yes – I’d be honored. I wrote down the address of an old-school Italian restaurant and showed up overdressed and a little nervous. Domenici, who I learned later could be intense, was engaging and relaxed that evening as he asked about my background and family and traded inside jokes and laughs with others at the table, making the stranger feel welcome all the while. It remains one of my most memorable meals, and not just because the pasta was outstanding.

Most people would chalk that invitation up to simple public relations on Domenici’s part, right? Butter up the new reporter and find out what makes him tick. But as I covered the legendary lawmaker on Capitol Hill in the years that followed, I realized his private dinner invitation to a cub reporter he didn’t know also said a lot about the person he was.

New Mexico’s longest-serving senator – the unpretentious son of Italian immigrants who became a major Washington power broker and never forgot his roots – was committed to making human connections. Upon his death Wednesday, scores of New Mexicans posted their own personal memories of Domenici on social media. I read about his handwritten notes of appreciation, his unexpected public praise of others, private words of encouragement at tough times, and legislative efforts big and small that helped improve thousands of New Mexicans’ lives.

Domenici was all about New Mexico, all the time. And if you were from the state or connected to it in some way, he was interested in you and your story.

The senator helped me tell hundreds of stories about politics and policy to New Mexico readers during the first decade of this millennium. And he always wanted me to have a front-row seat.

Domenici let me tag along on a rare government trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, included me in a power lunch with the chairman of the Mercantile Exchange in Manhattan and took me on a military-provided Black Hawk helicopter tour of D.C.’s suddenly vulnerable airspace in the days after Sept. 11. He wanted New Mexicans in the front row, too.

Former Sen. Pete Domenici with Journal reporter Michael Coleman in July 2016 in Domenici’s office in the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. (Michael Coleman/Albuquerque Journal)

The senator would routinely invite me into his Capitol Hill office after congressional hearings. We’d sit surrounded by what seemed like every New Mexico rug, painting or plaque he ever received as he patiently answered my questions. Domenici wanted me to understand him because he wanted New Mexicans to understand him.

Oh, yes. I butted heads with the sometimes gruff senator, too. More than a few times, I got an early-morning phone call from Meredith Culbertson, his former scheduler, asking if I had “time to speak to the senator.” Of course, I always took the call – expecting him to grumble that I got something wrong in that morning’s paper.

Sometimes I did, but most times I didn’t, at least not in terms of facts. He just didn’t like the way I presented the story that day.

But I always listened, explained myself and usually learned something about his motivations and intentions in the process.

As soon as those calls were done, punctuated by his well-known penchant for hanging up without saying goodbye, Domenici moved on. He always put quibbles with my reporting aside in the interest of keeping New Mexicans informed about how Washington was – or wasn’t – working for them. He regularly directed his busy top lieutenants, chief of staff Steve Bell and Senate Budget Committee Director Bill Hoagland, to spend time explaining arcane Senate rules and budget procedures to me.

No one did more to help me understand the ways of Washington than Pete Domenici. He helped me become a more deeply informed journalist, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

The New Mexico legend did something else for me.

Over the years, he’d occasionally ask about my love life. Whom was I dating? How was it going? Had he met her? There was a period in the 2000s when I also wondered if I’d ever get serious about a relationship.

As I got longer in the tooth, the former baseball star encouraged me to settle down, informing me that a man “can’t play the field forever.”

I listened to that advice, and when I met a woman who seemed right for me in 2012, I courted her and married her. She even has a New Mexico pedigree, having been raised in Hobbs. When Starlee met Sen. Domenici in D.C. last year, he graciously bragged on me, making me proud.

The last time I spoke to him, on the phone in early spring, I informed him that Starlee was pregnant. He seemed pleased by that. My first child, a baby girl, will be born any day now.

So, thanks for the memories, senator. Rest easy, knowing that so many of us are better for the life you lived.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Washington correspondent Michael Coleman at mcoleman@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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