Former New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici died last week in Albuquerque from complications following abdominal surgery. He was 85.
Domenici was a tireless and bipartisan legislator over his career as the longest-serving senator in New Mexico history, from 1973 to 2009. He was also a thoroughly decent man who viewed political compromise as desirable, not a weakness.
Domenici was also fiercely determined to make sure his home state was well represented. He was able to direct large amounts of federal dollars to the Land of Enchantment. He did that as a chairman of the Senate Budget Committee (where he was a budget hawk), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (where from 2002 to 2007, the ranking Democrat was New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, who succeeded him as chairman). During his Senate Energy tenure, Domenici was also chairman of the powerful Energy Appropriations Subcommittee.)
Domenici was able to steer increasing federal R&D funds to the state’s two Department of Energy National Laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia. He was also behind funding a nuclear waste pilot disposal project in the state, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project. The federal government is the largest employer in the state. In an obituary, the Albuquerque Journal noted that at Sandia and Los Alamos Domenici was known as “St. Pete.”
Pietro Vichi Domenici was the child of Italian immigrants. He mother was an undocumented immigrant who was detained during World War II in a sweep of Italian “sympathizers.” In a tense Senate floor debate on immigration policy in 2006, where Dominici defended immigrants, he said, “Federal officials came to our house to arrest my mother while my father was at work. It was a frightening situation for my entire family that occurred through no fault of my mother, who had lived in America for more than 30 years as an exemplary citizen.” She was later released and not deported.
Domenici became a talented baseball player, a school teacher, a lawyer and chairman of the Albuquerque City Council, before his election to the U.S. Senate.
In a 2008 speech to the New Mexico legislature, Domenici said, “We are losing our ability to move forward as a nation because of destructive personality-driven partisan politics. Let me leave this warning with you: America’s democracy is in trouble unless we put aside the political extremes and work toward our common goals.”