Former Sen. Pete Domenici’s disclosure that he fathered a secret child in the 1970s with the 24-year-old daughter of one of his Senate colleagues was a startling revelation to many in New Mexico, especially in light of his reputation as an upstanding family man.
Domenici and Michelle Laxalt sent statements to the Albuquerque Journal, disclosing the relationship for the first time and identifying their son as Nevada attorney Adam Paul Laxalt. They said they decided to go public with their decades-old secret because they believed someone was about to release the information in an attempt to smear Domenici.
The Journal reported on the relationship in a story published Wednesday.
Domenici, a Republican, was the longest-serving senator in New Mexico history when he retired at the beginning of 2009 after six terms.
He voted for the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton in 1998 after Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, but his floor statement focused on the fact that Clinton had lied under oath, noting that the trial “has never been about the president’s private sex acts, as tawdry as they have been.”
But in the same speech, Domenici cited the value of “truthfulness” and how it’s the first pillar of good character.
Domenici, 80, and his wife have been married more than 50 years and have eight children.
Michelle Laxalt, who became a prominent lobbyist and Republican activist, was occasionally put in an odd position of publicly discussing the integrity of the man who is the father of her child.
In 2008, Domenici was admonished by the Senate ethics committee for his involvement in a scandal over the Bush administration’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Laxalt defended Domenici’s integrity on CNN, calling him an honorable man who was supporting “no fewer than eight children.”
Domenici is the latest in a long line of politicians who were forced to reveal secret children, from one-time presidential candidate John Edwards to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just last week, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee acknowledged that he’s the father of a 24-year-old woman.
In New Mexico, political leaders said they were surprised, but they doubted the revelation would negatively impact the Domenici legacy.
“It is going to make his legacy a little bit more colorful because he is not exactly the kind of guy you expect that from,” said Maurilio Vigil, a political science professor emeritus at Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M.
“It is surprising because he was always an upstanding type of fellow, a family man, and that was his image.”
Edward Lujan, former chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said he had heard rumors about the child years ago, but “I didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t care. Those kinds of things honestly are between the families and has nothing to do with how he did his job.”
“I don’t think there was anything hypocritical about anything,” Lujan said. “I admire him as much today as I did yesterday and the day before.”
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said her “thoughts and prayers are with the family.
“It’s a difficult time,” she said, “but Sen. Domenici’s work is a very separate and distinct issue. I think he’s done great things for the state and I don’t think anyone will ever forget the hard work and all that he brought to New Mexico.”
Others weren’t as strong in their defense of Domenici and sizing up how the revelations would affect this legacy.
“I’ll leave that for historians and other people to judge,” said former Gov. Toney Anaya, a Democrat who ran a close race against Domenici in 1978.
Associated Press writers Russell Contreras and Barry Massey contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal