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Remembering Sen. Pete Domenici — the Great Compromiser

Image: Remembering Sen. Pete Domenici — the Great Compromiser
President Bush shakes hands with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., after he signing the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

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Wednesday, 13 Sep 2017 02:27 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The news that former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., died Wednesday morning at age 85 immediately brought back decades of memories I have from covering New Mexico's longest-serving senator.

One poignant memory was of an interview in Domenici’s Senate office in the summer of 1980. Ronald Reagan had wrapped up the Republican nomination for president and was considering various prospective running mates — among them George H.W. Bush (who eventually got the nod), Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, and Domenici.

“I’m flattered you want to write about me as a vice presidential candidate, but it’s not going to happen,” Domenici said, as we both puffed on Camels (he would kick his heavy cigarette habit a few years later, but I took another 22 years to do the same).

The senator then explained that most vice presidential choices came about as a the result of “insider campaigns,” designed to catch the attention of the presidential nominee and his inner circle. Domenici had nothing like that, he insisted.

“You have to understand how I got into politics,” he said, recalling his days as a young lawyer in Albuquerque in the mid-1960s. The son of Italian immigrants, he worked in his father’s grocery business before earning degrees from the University of New Mexico and the University of Denver.

By the time he was practicing law and raising a family that would grow to eight children, Domenici’s primary form of relaxation was poker with friends on the weekends.

“I was always complaining about what was wrong in the city,” he said, “and finally, the guys told me to either shut up or run for office and do something about it.”

In 1966, he did the latter and won a seat on the Albuquerque City Commission. Two years later, he was elected council chairman, the equivalent of mayor before the city adopted a strong mayor form of government.

Domenici won high marks for balancing the city budget and working with Democrats on the council. In 1970, he became the Republican nominee for governor, but lost a heartbreakingly close (51 to 49 percent) race to Democrat Bruce King.

Governor was the office he clearly wanted but, two years later, when veteran Democratic Sen. Clinton P. Anderson retired, Domenici was handed a chance for a consolation prize. Running on a conservative platform, he easily won the Senate nomination over moderate former Gov. David Cargo, and then rolled up 54 percent of the vote in the fall over Democrat Jack Daniels.

Given his record in city hall, it was easy for Domenici to work with Democrats in the Senate during his 36 years in Washington. As chairman or ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee for 22 years, he worked with Presidents Reagan and Bill Clinton to cut deficits. His legacy was a string of growing surpluses that lasted from 1998 to 2001.

Domenici also served as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee and co-authored the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and 2007 with fellow Democratic New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman. The landmark legislation eased many regulations and was pivotal in advancing a policy that would bring the U.S. to near-independence in oil and gas production by 2017.

But Domenici also came to believe that oil and gas were not enough to keep the U.S. energy independent. In his final days in office, he became a passionate advocate of the U.S. adopting expansive nuclear power to the degree of France and Germany. In pursuing this policy, Domenici reached out to climate change advocates by explaining that an expanded nuclear energy policy would reduce carbon emissions.

Reports of his death will inevitably mention that as a stalwart Catholic, Domenici was embarrassed by revelations in 2013 he secretly fathered a child with a daughter of Senate colleague Paul Laxalt of Nevada.

The former senator acknowledged this promptly, and explained he kept this secret because he did not want to embarrass his family or the Laxalts. In 2014, he helped son Adam Laxalt raised money to be elected attorney general of Nevada.

As it was when his friends told him to run for office, and when he ran for the Senate because the governorship slipped through his grasp, Pete Domenici dealt with colleagues of both parties as he dealt with most folks he knew: as a “good guy.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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John-Gizzi
The news that former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., died Wednesday morning at age 85 immediately brought back decades of memories I have from covering New Mexico's longest-serving senator.
sen. pete domenici, new mexico, senate
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2017-27-13
Wednesday, 13 Sep 2017 02:27 PM
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