ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Pete V. Domenici, the son of Italian immigrants who rose to become a power broker in the U.S. Senate, died Wednesday in New Mexico. The Republican was known for reaching across the partisan divide and his work on the federal budget and energy policy over a career that spanned more than 30 years.
Domenici was surrounded by family when he died at an Albuquerque hospital after suffering a setback following a recent surgery, his family said. He was 85.
The Albuquerque-born Domenici carried a consistent message of fiscal restraint from his first term in 1972 until leaving office in 2009 — regardless of which party was in power. He even refused once to buckle to President Ronald Reagan.
Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Bennett Johnson of Louisiana described Domenici as “the consummate legislator.”
“He always knows his subject very, very well,” Bennett said previously. “He’s strong in his views, but not rigid in his approach to negotiations. He’s willing to give in when necessary, but he keeps his eye on the ultimate objective.”
New Mexico’s longest-serving U.S. senator, Domenici was remembered most for his ability to reach across the aisle and for his unflagging support of the state’s military installations and national laboratories.
Domenici announced in October 2007 that he wouldn’t seek a seventh term because he had been diagnosed with an incurable brain disorder, frontotemporal lobar degeneration.
“I love the job too much,” Domenici said days before leaving the Senate. “I feel like I’d like to have the job tomorrow and the next day.”
His decision started a scramble that saw the state’s three congressmen give up their seats to run for the Senate. His successor was Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, the son of Stewart Udall, a former Arizona congressman and Interior secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
“While we sat on different sides of the political aisle, I admired Pete’s dedication to the well-being of all of New Mexico,” Sen. Udall said in a statement.
As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Domenici oversaw part of the debate on a national energy policy, including decisions about oil and gas drilling, nuclear power and renewable energy.
Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, said Wednesday that he was proud to have served with Domenici at a time when there was more willingness to put partisanship aside.
Following a moment of silence Wednesday at the state capitol in Santa Fe, Republicans and Democrats — from Gov. Susana Martinez to legislative leaders — all said that Domenici was someone who put politics aside for the benefit of the people.
“He really forever changed the landscape of New Mexico economically, politically, on so many levels,” said GOP Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes of Albuquerque. “In today’s somewhat hyperpartisan world, we can really learn a lesson.”
Late in his career, Domenici was linked to the ouster of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, one of nine federal prosecutors fired in a series of politically tinged dismissals in 2006. The Senate Ethics Committee found Domenici created an appearance of impropriety when he called Iglesias to inquire about the timing of corruption indictments. However, no punishment was recommended.
Domenici made headlines again in 2013 when he acknowledged that he had a son out of wedlock in the 1970s. The saga shocked New Mexicans who viewed him as a man of honesty and integrity during his six terms and 36 years in the Senate. That son went on to build an impressive resume himself — Adam Laxalt is now the Nevada attorney general.
In 2004, Domenici co-wrote a book, “A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy,” on the benefits of a nuclear-powered future and how to get there. He long argued that the nation had an irrational fear that held back its ability to benefit from nuclear energy.
He also was dedicated to reining in the federal budget. His knowledge on the subject made him popular with the national press after Democrat Bill Clinton was elected partly on a platform of trimming the bulging deficit.
His independence on budget matters also cost him conservative support. He warned as early as 1983 that the Republican economic recovery would be in jeopardy without effective action against huge budget deficits.
When Reagan summoned him to put off for one more day a budget process that had been delayed for two months, Domenici refused. Saying no to the president, he recalled afterward, was the toughest thing he’d ever done.
Domenici also campaigned for free trade with Mexico and scoffed at misgivings about its impact on U.S. employment.
“Can you imagine an economic superpower afraid to go into free trade with our own neighbour?” he said.
In one of his last speeches as a senator, Domenici acknowledged during a debate over a failed immigration bill that his mother had entered the country illegally as a child. She eventually became a U.S. citizen.
He was born Pietro Vichi Domenici on May 7, 1932, the only son of Cherubino and Alda Domenici, who also had four daughters. He attended an Albuquerque Catholic school and graduated in 1954 from the University of New Mexico. At UNM, he was a pitcher on the baseball team and after graduation signed a contract with the minor league Albuquerque Dukes.
He also taught math in Albuquerque public schools. He received his law degree from Denver University and opened a law office in 1958 — the same year he married Nancy Burk. The couple had two sons and six daughters.
He began his political career in 1966 after his morning coffee buddies persuaded him to run for the Albuquerque City Commission. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1970 and then won the 1972 Senate election.
Domenici is survived by his wife; sons Peter, David and Adam; daughters Helen, Paula, Nanette, Nella, Clare and Lisa; and numerous grandchildren.
Lee reported from Santa Fe. Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.