Thank you, Pete

For your ser­vice to New Mex­ico and the na­tion

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION -

Pete Domenici was re­laxed and wax­ing philo­soph­i­cal about an­other time.

A time when the United States had won the Cold War, and the old Soviet Union was in dis­so­lu­tion and dis­ar­ray. But that vic­tory, a tri­umph for Ron­ald Rea­gan over the Krem­lin and for cap­i­tal­ism over com­mu­nism, brought with it a new set of chal­lenges and dangers.

First and fore­most, the vast Soviet nu­clear weapons com­plex was no longer sub­ject to iron-fisted com­mand and con­trol. In fact, it was splin­tered and spread across sev­eral break­away na­tions, in­clud­ing Ukraine and Be­larus. Tons of weapons-grade plu­to­nium and ura­nium were stock­piled around the area, and Amer­i­can ex­perts were ter­ri­fied they would fall into the hands of a rogue nu­clear power or a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Domenici, a Repub­li­can who rep­re­sented New Mex­ico for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, was the pow­er­ful chair­man of the Senate Bud­get Com­mit­tee at that time and a key player in or­ches­trat­ing a plan to con­trol that dan­ger­ous stock­pile. And he knew it would take Amer­i­can tax­payer money.

As he re­called the story in a re­cent in­ter­view, Domenici and an aide walked over to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and met with a key Demo­crat on a House ap­pro­pri­a­tions com­mit­tee. Domenici out­lined the prob­lem and said he needed an ap­pro­pri­a­tion of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars that would be used to buy Soviet weapons-grade ma­te­rial — ef­fec­tively tak­ing it out of cir­cu­la­tion.

His coun­ter­part asked his own aide if he con­curred with Domenici’s anal­y­sis, and the an­swer was yes.

“Con­sider it done,” the House ap­pro­pri­a­tor said. “We’ll put it in the bill.”

It was a clas­sic Domenici deal. Prag­matic, bi­par­ti­san and in ser­vice to the na­tion. And ef­fec­tive. As far as is known, none of that stock­pile ever made into the hands of an ISIS, al-Qaida or any other ter­ror­ist group. Some of it ended up pow­er­ing nu­clear re­ac­tors in the United States.

For­mer Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Demo­crat who now heads the Nu­clear Threat Ini­tia­tive, told the Al­bu­querque Jour­nal’s Michael Cole­man that Domenici was “an in­dis­pens­able leader in the postCold War ef­fort to pro­tect the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

The son of Ital­ian im­mi­grants, Pi­etro Vici Domenici died Wed­nes­day morn­ing at the age of 85 — about two hours be­fore the open­ing of the 10th an­nual Domenici Pub­lic Pol­icy Con­fer­ence at New Mex­ico State Univer­sity in Las Cruces. The two-day pro­gram of ac­com­plished po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic lead­ers went on as sched­uled, in his honor, un­der the di­rec­tion of NMSU Chan­cel­lor Gar­rey Car­ruthers.

A for­mer lawyer, math teacher and semi-pro base­ball player, Domenici was a po­lit­i­cal legend. Af­ter serv­ing six terms, he re­tired from the Senate in 2007 af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with a de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease, but went on to do sig­nif­i­cant work on the debt and deficit for the Bi­par­ti­san Pol­icy Cen­ter in Washington, D.C. He re­cently re­turned to his home­town of Al­bu­querque, where he was do­ing con­sult­ing work out of the law of­fice of his son, Pete Domenici Jr.

Word of his death spread quickly and the tributes flowed in — from for­mer Pres­i­dents Ge­orge W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton to Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Hein­rich. House Speaker Paul Ryan and oth­ers joined in, with Ryan call­ing him “larger than life” and thanking him for all he had taught him. “He re­mains an in­spi­ra­tion to me,” Ryan said.

Lo­cally, Domenici was known for his in­cred­i­bly ef­fec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of New Mex­ico — some­times dubbed “St. Pete” for his abil­ity to bring projects here and na­tion­ally, and for leg­isla­tive feats like a bal­anced bud­get and a new na­tional en­ergy pol­icy, team­ing with fel­low New Mex­ico Sen. Jeff Binga­man, a Demo­crat, on that ef­fort.

Re­mem­ber­ing all too well the Arab oil em­bargo of the 1970s, he spoke with great sat­is­fac­tion dur­ing that in­ter­view about Amer­ica’s en­ergy in­de­pen­dence and the role frack­ing technology de­vel­oped at San­dia Na­tional Lab­o­ra­to­ries played in it.

He re­port­edly was on the short list to be the vice pres­i­den­tial run­ning mate of Ge­orge H.W. Bush, who in­stead chose Dan Quayle of In­di­ana. In hind­sight, there’s no ques­tion Domenici would have been the bet­ter choice — and no short­age of spec­u­la­tion about what that might have meant for Domenici.

On a per­sonal level, he and his wife Nancy lived in a mod­est home in Washington where they raised eight chil­dren. Pete Domenici wasn’t one of those politicians who went to Washington to make his own for­tune.

He also has an­other son, Adam Lax­alt, who is at­tor­ney gen­eral of Ne­vada.

He was a Repub­li­can with deep con­vic­tions, a friend of busi­ness and some­one who un­der­stood the need for the cre­ation of wealth to lift ev­ery­one. But he fre­quently worked across the aisle to get things done.

And he wor­ried about Amer­ica’s deep­en­ing di­vide. “We are in dan­ger of los­ing our abil­ity to move for­ward as a na­tion be­cause of de­struc­tive, per­son­al­i­ty­driven par­ti­san pol­i­tics,” he said in a 2008 speech to the New Mex­ico Leg­is­la­ture. “Let me leave this warn­ing with you. Amer­ica’s democracy is in trou­ble un­less we put aside the po­lit­i­cal ex­tremes and work to­ward com­mon goals.”

We ex­tend best wishes to his fam­ily, and sug­gest that the best way for Amer­ica to honor this great Amer­i­can and his legacy is to heed his warn­ing and take this ad­vice to heart.


For­mer U.S. Sen. Pete V. Domenici on the floor of the N.M. House be­fore the gover­nor’s 2015 State of the State ad­dress.

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