Pete Domenici, former GOP senator from New Mexico, has died

Mitch McConnell announces former Senator Pete Domenici's death on Senate floor.
Roll Call/YouTube

Pete Domenici, a political powerhouse who for 36 years represented New Mexico in the U.S. Senate, died Wednesday in Albuquerque following a recent surgery. He was 85.

Domenici, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, became known as an expert on the federal budget, as well as energy issues. The father of a daughter who suffers from schizophrenia, Domenici also became known as a national advocate for mental health parity in health insurance coverage.

When he was elected to the Senate, he was the first New Mexico Republican to become a senator in 38 years. Domenici never lost a race after an unsuccessful run for governor in 1970 against Democrat Bruce King. He became the state’s longest-serving U.S. senator.

When he announced he wouldn’t be seeking re-election 2007, Domenici said that when he first ran for public office, his friends urged him not to run because they did not want to see him hurt by personal attacks.

“Obviously, I didn’t listen to them,” he said. “And I’m glad I didn’t. I have found politics to not be as harsh as my friends predicted. For the most part, it’s been just the opposite.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Domenici graduated in 1954 from The University of New Mexico, where he starred as a pitcher on the baseball team.

He received his law degree from Denver University in 1958 and opened a law office in Albuquerque.

Domenici, known as a moderate conservative, became known as “St. Pete” for his work in securing funds for national laboratories in New Mexico as well as military facilities in the state. He also was respected by many state and local government leaders throughout the state — including many Democrats — for his help in getting funds for local projects.

New Mexico leaders from both political parties were quick to praise Domenici after his death was announced.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, said in a statement, “Sen. Domenici was a dedicated statesman who always put New Mexico first. … He tirelessly advocated for a better future for all New Mexico, from our labs and military bases to infrastructure and our innovation centers. Senator Domenici was also a champion of higher education, pioneering the Domenici Public Policy Conference which, even today, brings national leaders in government and innovation to New Mexico to help guide future generations of policymakers. While we mourn Senator Domenici’s loss, we celebrate his legacy as a champion for New Mexico and our nation. There is no doubt generations of New Mexicans have a brighter future with more opportunity because of Senator Domenici’s tireless work.”

“Today we mourn the loss of a fellow New Mexican, a patriot, and a devoted statesman,” state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, also a Republican, said in a statement. “Sen. Domenici loved New Mexico and genuinely cared for the welfare of each and every citizen. He was a bold and fearless leader and served us and the nation with dignity, compassion, and benevolence. Sen. Domenici was also a long-time family friend and worked closely with my father, state Sen. Aubrey Dunn Sr. He was a friend of the State Land Office and offered his unwavering support on education policy and land and water issues.”

Last December, Dunn announced that Domenici had accepted a position as a senior adviser to the Land Office, focusing on education issues and land and water conservation. A spokeswoman for Dunn said Domenici’s contract with the Land Office ended in June.

State Republican Party Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi said in a statement, “Sen. Domenici’s love and dedication to our state and country was unparalleled. We will always honor the progress and success of Senator Domenici’s legacy, not only for the Republican Party of New Mexico, but also for our wonderful state.” Republican National Committee members Rosie Tripp and Harvey Yates also praised the late senator.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said in a statement, “It is with a heavy heart today that we say goodbye to a man that single handedly transformed the state of New Mexico. … He was a titan – a fighter – and his work for the wellness and prosperity of New Mexico will forever be remembered.”

Former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who served in Congress while Domenici was in the Senate, said in a statement, “Pete Domenici was a political giant who loved New Mexico and championed our state’s interests for more than 50 years. His contributions to the labs, our energy resources, the state budget, and protecting our environment are incalculable. Above all, he was a decent man who never forgot his roots, his family, and his fellow New Mexicans.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat who succeeded Domenici, said, “What I admire most about Pete is that during his over 30 years representing the state of New Mexico in the Senate, he always kept New Mexicans first. … Pete dedicated his life to digging into the complex public policy issues important to our state – from Native American issues to water policy to nuclear energy. Even after he retired, he kept working to make New Mexico a better place for everyone.”

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement, “Sen. Domenici dedicated his entire life to the state and people he loved. His decades of service to New Mexico left a lasting impact that will continue to be felt in every corner of our state for years to come. I am grateful for the example Sen. Domenici set on how to advance important and complex policy goals in Washington with civility. Republicans and Democrats alike who worked with him on issues like the budget, energy, defense, and behavioral health still point to his dedication to improving the lives of those he served through bipartisan cooperation and compromise.”

When he announced his decision not to run again in late 2007, Domenici said he was suffering from 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. He said he was confident of his ability to serve the remaining 14 months of his term but did not want to risk impairment over an additional six years in office.

He said at the time that the condition had not noticeably affected him over the previous two years but that a medical checkup had shown that his disease had progressed since a checkup a few months before. However, shortly before leaving office, Domenici announced that he was no longer suffering from the condition.

At the time of his retirement, Domenici was at the center of a controversy surrounding the dismissal of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who charged that Domenici and then-U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson pushed him to bring charges against Manny Aragon, who had been state Senate majority leader, to boost Wilson in her close 2006 re-election race with New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid.

After retiring, Domenici worked as a senior fellow for a Washington, D.C., think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., founded in 2007 by a group of four former senators, Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole and Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchel. It promotes bipartisan approaches to various policy issues.

Domenici in 2013 shocked the state by announcing that he had fathered a son out of wedlock with the daughter of one of his Senate colleagues. Domenici kept that secret for about 35. The son, Adam Laxalt, now is attorney general of Nevada. When Domenici made the disclosure, critics pointed out that in the late 1990s, at the height of President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, Domenici helped start a program for school students called “Character Counts.”

Domenici moved back to New Mexico earlier this year.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexica­ Read his blog at