Face to face with Pete Domenici: Moving off the sidelines - Albuquerque Journal

Face to face with Pete Domenici: Moving off the sidelines

Former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
Former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Pete Domenici would like to be seen as someone who is hopeful about New Mexico and the nation.

That said, he’s worried. He’s worried about the lack of economic progress in the state and the challenges facing the nation – from the corrosive partisanship in Washington to North Korea to civil unrest sparked by people and groups protesting President Trump.

“How much can this democracy take?” he asked rhetorically during an interview in his Downtown office in Albuquerque.

Domenici, who with his wife, Nancy, moved back to Albuquerque from Washington, D.C., earlier this year and has begun working as a consultant, brings a unique perspective. A one-time Albuquerque city commissioner, Domenici went on to represent New Mexico for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, where he became one of the most influential political figures in the United States before deciding in 2007 not to seek re-election. He completed his sixth term in January 2009.

A Republican, he was known for working across the aisle and was particularly influential on budget matters, mental health and energy policy. Some of his signature accomplishments came about by working with Democrats, including Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Sen. Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Domenici and Democrat Leon Panetta negotiated one of the country’s last balanced budgets, and he played a major role in working to get tons of weapons-grade plutonium out of the Soviet Union after its collapse.

“That material ended up in American nuclear power plants,” he said. “It was a good deal for America and for the world.”

Domenici, who decided not to seek re-election after the diagnosis of a degenerative brain disease – a diagnosis that was reconsidered later – spent the past seven years working with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He said it was a position he took after insisting the center also bring on Democrat Alice Rivlin, budget director for President Bill Clinton, to work with him on budget matters.

Domenici says he enjoyed the work, but at age 84 he’s glad to be home with family, and in a state where he believes he can still make a difference.

To that end, he has embarked on a consulting venture under the name of “Domenici Insights,” with space on the 10th floor at his son’s law office overlooking Downtown.

Domenici is quick to tick off a list of challenges facing the state and the need to address them. At the same time, he is upfront about his own battles with health issues, including a neurological condition that causes extreme pain in his hand.

His mobility is limited, and he tires easily.

But he is up to speed on topics ranging from Syria to the “nuclear option” used by Senate Republicans to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and he homes in on New Mexico’s bleak economic picture.

Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico at the U.S. Capitol in October 1993. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico at the U.S. Capitol in October 1993. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Looking to help

He says he wants to use his background, political skills and connections to help New Mexico out of its economic funk.

New Mexico has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and is facing a budget crisis due in large part to low oil and natural gas prices. The state’s governor and lawmakers remain far apart on how to fund next year’s budget and cannot even agree on whether the state has enough money to pay its bills through the end of this fiscal year.

As has been the case throughout his career, Domenici has strong opinions he doesn’t hesitate to express.

“You’ve got to start by saying children in New Mexico can’t be left out,” he says. “We need better job training. I see no real effort to put groups together – money and strength – so you have a chance at attracting what President Trump describes as a new cycle of growth.”

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., in silhouette at left at the U.S. Capitol in 1993. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., in silhouette at left at the U.S. Capitol in 1993. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Jobs agenda

Domenici’s résumé would seem to put him firmly in the camp of establishment Republicans who were less than thrilled by Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination and then the presidency. But he believes Trump’s economic agenda will mean jobs and renewed economic vitality in America.

The question, he says, is how do we position ourselves to share in that?

“If they can succeed in Ohio. … We’re sitting here and don’t seem to have a stick in the game and don’t seem to worry about it. But I do worry.”

“Our situation is difficult and hard on our people,” he says. “We need a game changer to get a share of this growth.”

Former Sen. Pete Domenici says it's important for New Mexico to capitalize on its strengths and the technology from the labs, pointing to fracking as an example of game-changing technology developed in part at Sandia National Laboratories. (Source: Sandia National Laboratories)
Former Sen. Pete Domenici says it’s important for New Mexico to capitalize on its strengths and the technology from the labs, pointing to fracking as an example of game-changing technology developed in part at Sandia National Laboratories. (Source: Sandia National Laboratories)

For Domenici, that’s about government and the private sector working to boost entrepreneurship for those families “that invest their life savings to start a business.”

It’s about capitalizing on New Mexico’s strengths and the technology from the labs, which he proudly supported, and he often points out Sandia National Laboratories’ role in developing fracking technology as an example of game-changing technology from the labs.

There are still plenty of influential people who listen when Domenici talks. He retains the ability to attract major players around the country to his annual Domenici Institute at New Mexico State University.

Democratic Party strategist James Carville, former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, also a Democrat, and Panetta, who headed both the CIA and Department of Defense under Democratic presidents, are examples.

He is passionate about wanting to make a positive impact on a state with so many dismal statistics and says we have bounced back from setbacks in the past. But he acknowledges the difficult path ahead.

He isn’t sure how much his health will allow him to do, or how his efforts here will be received.

“You’ve got to let it fall where it falls,” he says.

But where New Mexico is concerned, he says he’s watched from the sidelines for too long.

“When you’re dealt apples, you’ve got to use the apples. When you aren’t dealt anything, you’ve got to go looking.”

Face to Face is a feature by senior editor Kent Walz, who periodically sits down for a chat with a newsmaker. You can contact Walz at kwalz@abqjournal.com.

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