A time to praise: Officials honor Domenici


The man who has dominated New Mexico politics in recent years today made a humble acknowledgment.

“I am going to make an admission that I never, never make,” Gov. Bill Richardson said to the retiring U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici. “Had I run against you, you probably would have beat me.”

Richardson was speaking during a ceremony to honor Domenici at the Domenici Public Policy Conference at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. His remark came after he recalled an encounter he had with Domenici shortly after he was appointed energy secretary in the late 1990s.

Richardson said he went to Domenici — then the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee — to inform him of his appointment. Domenici asked Richardson who controlled the Department of Energy.

“I said, ‘I do. I’ll be secretary,’” Richardson told the group of several hundred gathered in the Pan American Center. “He said, ‘No, no, no. I control the Department of Energy because I control the purse strings.’”

Then Domenici asked Richardson about his future political plans. There had been some speculation that Richardson might run against Domenici for Senate. Richardson said he wrote on a card, “I will not run against you, ever” and handed it to Domenici, to which Domenici replied, “Good move.”

Richardson used the story to illustrate his point that Domenici “liked power” and “knew how to use it.” That’s what has made him an effective senator, Richardson said.

“Good public policy was made by someone who knew power, knew how to use it, but also cared deeply about the state,” Richardson said.

Domenici, during his own speech, gave a tart response, but did it with a chuckle.

“I wish he would use ‘proper power,’” Domenici said. “… Power is what Richardson talks about. I don’t talk about power. He’s crazy.”

Lots of praise

Chuckles and kind words characterized the event at which Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, all Democrats, also praised the Republican senator’s 36-year tenure — the longest of any U.S. senator in the state’s history. U.S. Rep. Tom Udall — the Democrat seeking to replace Domenici in the Senate — was in attendance at the event but did not speak.

No Republican elected officials spoke about Domenici at the event. Udall’s opponent, Republican Steve Pearce, did not attend. Neither did U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, who is in Afghanistan.

Bingaman said Domenici will be best known for his work in four areas — the federal budget, energy, nuclear issues and the national laboratories. Richardson added that Domenici’s work on mental health parity will be remembered.

Several of the speakers referred to Domenici’s ability to relate to people and his desire to serve them. Denish commented on that in recalling that Domenici was first elected 36 years ago by beating her father.

“If I had to pick anybody other than my dad to fight on behalf of New Mexicans, serve six terms in the Senate… I would pick you, Sen. Domenici,” Denish said.

Miyagishima recalled that it was Domenici, when he was a child, who inspired him to get into politics.

“I hope that for every Democrat I inspired that there was at least a Republican,” Domenici said in response.

‘We have some extraordinary things to do’

Domenici had ominous words for those in attendance at the event.

“This great country of ours has some really big problems that might be tougher than at any time during my 36 years,” Domenici said. “Energy and the economy are tied in some kind of struggle that isn’t good for us.”

Domenici said the United States can’t stay on its current path of spending $700 billion a year on foreign oil for another decade or “something will bust.”

“Clearly we have to do some extraordinary things in the next few years to lessen that demand. I wish I were there,” Domenici said.

He added that he hopes to do “something big” on the issue with Bingaman before he leaves office at the end of the year. Domenici is the ranking member on the energy committee, which Bingaman now chairs.

The NMSU conference, which will be an annual event, is designed to advance the issues on which the senator has focused his career. It’s part of The Pete V. Domenici Legacy, a statewide effort led by NMSU to honor the senator’s historic tenure. In addition to the conference, the effort includes planning and construction of a building on campus to honor the senator, the formation of the Domenici Institute at NMSU and publication of a book chronicling his service.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported today that Domenici has opted to archive papers and memorabilia from his career at NMSU instead of the University of New Mexico, which is his alma matter and hometown college. Domenici told the newspaper that NMSU was “more committed to what they would do with them… in terms of trying to make some annual events built around it. Without question, they were enthusiastic about providing facilities over time to house them and keep them in perpetuity.”

“That was a better proposal and a better way of doing it than UNM,” the newspaper quoted Domenici as saying.

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