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End of An Era

By Michael Coleman
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Washington Bureau
    WASHINGTON— Sen. Pete Domenici will fly home to Albuquerque today to announce he will retire next year at the end of six terms and 36 years in office.
    The 75-year-old New Mexico Republican, the longest-serving senator in state history, will make his decision public at a news conference at St. Mary's School, where he graduated in 1950.
    Domenici is expected to cite health issues as the reason— not an ethics controversy or concern over Democratic opposition in a re-election bid.
    Although Domenici's office declined to comment Wednesday, a White House official told the Journal that Domenici told President Bush on Tuesday of his decision not to seek re-election in 2008.
    If a senator leaves office in midterm— which Domenici does not plan to do— the governor would appoint a successor to serve until the next election.

Sen. Pete Domenici cited health as reason for decision. He said he has Frontotemporal Lobar Degenerationi, FTLD. (photo by Roberto Rosales/Journal)
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    Domenici's health has declined in recent years. He has battled arthritis in his back, nerve damage in his arm and other ailments. He frequently has trouble standing for extended periods of time.
    Domenici and his staff have consistently denied any retirement plans in recent interviews with the Journal, which could indicate serious new health concerns.
    According to The Associated Press, Domenici began informing associates late Wednesday that he has frontotemporal lobar degeneration, a progressive disease that in some forms can cause dysfunction in the parts of the brain important for organization, decision-making and control of mood and behavior.
    Domenici intends to say today that while he is confident of his ability to serve the remaining 14 months of his current term, he does not want to risk impairment over an additional six years in office, according to draft remarks prepared for the senator and made available to the AP.
    "I am not willing to take a chance that the people who have so honored me with their trust for 40 years might not be served as well as they deserve in the United States Senate."
    The long-popular senator had been preparing to seek re-election despite a possible Senate Ethics Committee investigation. No prominent political figure from either party had expressed interest in running against him.
    Domenici has raised more than $2.5 million for his re-election effort and filed the necessary petitions with Federal Election Commission. Bush recently held a fundraiser for him in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
    The news of his retirement caught colleagues off guard.
    "I did not anticipate it— my impression was that he was going to run again," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who has worked closely with Domenici for 25 years.
    "I am surprised— it must have been health-related," said Mickey Barnett, a longtime New Mexico Republican operative and a former Domenici staffer.
    "I'm sad in a way, and hopeful that he'll enjoy a good life without having to do all that work anymore. I'm happy for him but sad for the people of New Mexico."
    All three members of New Mexico's U.S. House delegation issued statements praising Domenici. They also declined to say whether they plan to run for the open U.S. Senate seat in 2008.
    Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., called her political mentor a champion of balanced federal budgets, a stronger U.S. energy policy, health coverage for the mentally ill and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
    "New Mexicans can be grateful for all our senator has done for our state and nation," Wilson said.
    Bingaman noted Domenici's influence on New Mexico and the nation.
    "He has had a very large impact on our state, of course, but also on the country and those subjects and issues he has chosen to focus on," Bingaman said in an interview, citing nuclear power as an important issue Domenici pushed upward on the national agenda.
    A White House spokesman said Domenici will be missed.
    "Senator Domenici is a strong leader in the U.S. Senate and a dedicated public servant for the people of New Mexico," said Blair Jones.
    "As the longest-serving U.S. senator in New Mexico history he has worked tirelessly to grow our economy, protect our homeland, enhance our energy security and ensure that our nation remains globally competitive."
    Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called Domenici a "statesman and skilled negotiator."
    "Although we have not always seen eye to eye on every issue, we have worked together in the best interest of the state, and I look forward to working with him for the remainder of this Congress," Udall said.
    Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said the senator leaves big shoes to fill.
    "It is a record of achievement that will not soon be replicated and sets a standard by which all New Mexico senators will be judged," Pearce said.
    Domenici has faced an ethics controversy since former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias accused him of improperly pressuring him to speed up indictments of prominent Democrats before the November 2006 elections.
    Domenici has acknowledged calling Iglesias but denies pressuring him. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating to determine whether a formal ethics case against Domenici is warranted.
    New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Allen Weh was in Washington, D.C., on business Wednesday but said he didn't learn of Domenici's decision until a New Mexico party staffer notified him that afternoon.
    He said he had been planning to make a routine visit to Domenici's office today.
    When asked if he was surprised at the announcement, Weh said, "yes and no."
    "I was absolutely convinced he was going to go all the way," Weh said, referring to Domenici's planned bid for a seventh term in 2008. But Weh said many people of Domenici's age often decide to spend more time with family.
    "He can serve another 16 months and do the good things for New Mexico that he's been doing for (six) terms and retire with the honors that are due him— and enjoy the autumn of his life with his wonderful family," Weh said.
    Weh said Domenici has been "a public servant in the highest sense."
    "It's going to be a long time before we have a guy like Pete Domenici come along that will do as much for New Mexico without concern for himself," Weh said.