Domenici gave New Mex­i­cans front-row seat

Albuquerque Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Cole­man

WASHINGTON — I was brand-new to the Al­bu­querque Jour­nal’s Washington beat in the sum­mer of 2000, and my very first as­sign­ment was a doozy — cov­er­ing the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Philadel­phia.

Be­yond ex­cited, I took the train from D.C. to Philly, checked into the down­town Em­bassy Suites ho­tel, which hosted the New Mex­ico del­e­gates, and went to my room to get or­ga­nized for the big week ahead.

An hour or so later, I got a phone call. A staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici, who died last week at 85, wanted to know if I could join the sen­a­tor, his wife, Nancy, and a few of his friends for din­ner that evening.

Who, me? Um, yes — I’d be hon­ored. I wrote down the ad­dress of an old-school Ital­ian restau­rant and showed up over­dressed and a lit­tle ner­vous. The sen­a­tor, who I learned later could be in­tense, was en­gag­ing and re­laxed as he asked about my back­ground and fam­ily and traded in­side

jokes and laughs with oth­ers at the ta­ble, mak­ing the stranger feel wel­come all the while. It re­mains one of my most mem­o­rable meals, and not just be­cause the pasta was out­stand­ing.

Most peo­ple would chalk that in­vi­ta­tion up to sim­ple pub­lic re­la­tions on Domenici’s part, right? But­ter up the new re­porter and find out what makes him tick. But as I cov­ered the le­gendary law­maker on Capi­tol Hill in the years that fol­lowed, I re­al­ized his pri­vate din­ner in­vi­ta­tion to a cub re­porter he didn’t know also said a lot about the per­son he was.

New Mex­ico’s long­est-serv­ing sen­a­tor — the un­pre­ten­tious son of Ital­ian im­mi­grants who be­came an im­por­tant Washington power bro­ker and never for­got his roots — was gen­uinely com­mit­ted to mak­ing hu­man con­nec­tions. Upon his death Wed­nes­day, scores of New Mex­i­cans posted their own per­sonal mem­o­ries of Domenici on so­cial me­dia. I read about his hand­writ­ten notes of ap­pre­ci­a­tion, his un­ex­pected pub­lic praise of oth­ers, pri­vate words of en­cour­age­ment at tough times, and leg­isla­tive ef­forts big and small that helped im­prove thou­sands of New Mex­i­cans’ lives.

Domenici was all about New Mex­ico, all the time. And if you were from the state or con­nected to it in some way, he was in­ter­ested in you and your story.

The sen­a­tor helped me tell hun­dreds of sto­ries about pol­i­tics and pol­icy to New Mex­ico read­ers dur­ing the first decade of this mil­len­nium. And he al­ways wanted me to have a front-row seat.

Domenici let me tag along on a rare gov­ern­ment trip to the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, in­cluded me in a power lunch with the chair­man of the Mer­can­tile Ex­change in Man­hat­tan and took me on a mil­i­tary-pro­vided Black Hawk he­li­copter tour of D.C.’s sud­denly vul­ner­a­ble airspace in the days af­ter Sept. 11. He wanted New Mex­i­cans in the front row, too.

The sen­a­tor would rou­tinely in­vite me into his Capi­tol Hill of­fice af­ter con­gres­sional hear­ings. We’d sit sur­rounded by what seemed like ev­ery New Mex­ico rug, paint­ing or plaque he ever re­ceived as he pa­tiently an­swered my ques­tions. Domenici wanted me to un­der­stand him be­cause he wanted New Mex­i­cans to un­der­stand him.

Oh, yes. I butted heads with the some­times gruff sen­a­tor, too. More than a few times, I got an early-morn­ing phone call from Mered­ith Cul­bert­son, the sen­a­tor’s for­mer sched­uler, ask­ing if I had “time to speak to the sen­a­tor.” Of course, I al­ways took the call — ex­pect­ing him to grum­ble that I got some­thing wrong in that morn­ing’s pa­per.

Some­times I did, but most times I didn’t, at least not in terms of facts. He just didn’t like the way the story was pre­sented that day.

But I al­ways lis­tened, ex­plained my­self and usu­ally learned some­thing about his mo­ti­va­tions and in­ten­tions in the process.

As soon as those calls were done, punc­tu­ated by his well-known pen­chant for hang­ing up with­out say­ing good­bye, Domenici moved on. He al­ways put quib­bles with my re­port­ing aside in the in­ter­est of keep­ing New Mex­i­cans in­formed about how Washington was — or wasn’t — work­ing for them. He reg­u­larly di­rected his busy top lieu­tenants, chief of staff Steve Bell and Senate Bud­get Com­mit­tee Di­rec­tor Bill Hoagland, to spend time ex­plain­ing ar­cane Senate rules and bud­get pro­ce­dures to me.

No one did more to help me un­der­stand the ways of Washington than Pete Domenici. He helped me become a more deeply in­formed jour­nal­ist, and for that I’ll al­ways be grate­ful.

The New Mex­ico legend did some­thing else for me.

Over the years, he’d oc­ca­sion­ally ask about my love life. Whom was I dat­ing? How was it go­ing? Had he met her? There was a pe­riod in the 2000s when I also won­dered if I’d ever get se­ri­ous about a re­la­tion­ship.

As I got longer in the tooth, the for­mer base­ball star en­cour­aged me to set­tle down, in­form­ing me that a man “can’t play the field for­ever.”

I lis­tened to that ad­vice, and when I met a woman who seemed right for me in 2012, I courted her and mar­ried her. She even has a New Mex­ico pedi­gree, hav­ing been raised in Hobbs. When Star­lee met Sen. Domenici in D.C. last year, he gra­ciously bragged on me, mak­ing me proud.

The last time I spoke to him, on the phone in early spring, I in­formed him that Star­lee was preg­nant. He seemed pleased by that. My first child, a baby girl, will be born any day now.

So, thanks for the mem­o­ries, sen­a­tor. Rest easy, know­ing that so many of us are bet­ter for the life you lived.

Up­Front is a reg­u­lar Jour­nal news and opin­ion col­umn. Com­ment di­rectly to Washington cor­re­spon­dent Michael Cole­man at mcole­man@ abqjour­nal.com. Go to www.abqjour­nal.com/ let­ters/new to sub­mit a let­ter to the editor.

JIM THOMP­SON/JOUR­NAL

With an im­age of long­time U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici be­hind them, Pete Domenici Jr. and his mother, Nancy Domenici, thank those who came to Satur­day’s me­mo­rial ser­vice for the late sen­a­tor at Iso­topes Park.

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