Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici dies

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Pete Domenici

NMSU photo

Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, shown here speaking at the Domenici Public Policy Conference at New Mexico State University in 2009.

Pete Domenici, a Republican who served New Mexico in the U.S. Senate from 1973-2009, died Wednesday morning in Albuquerque.

Domenici was 85. His death was confirmed to the Albuquerque Journal by his wife, Nancy, and his son, Pete Domenici Jr.

Domenici had recently undergone abdominal surgery. He suffered a setback and was in intensive care, the Journal reported. He died surrounded by family and friends at University of New Mexico Hospital.

“He is out of pain and we all feel good about that,” the Domenicis said in a statement to the Journal. “We are grateful for all of the people who helped here at the hospital and elsewhere.”

Domenici, who will be remembered largely for his work on the federal budget, energy policy, mental health parity, bipartisanship, and bringing federal dollars to his home state, died on the opening day of the annual Domenici Public Policy Conference at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers opened the conference with a mention of Domenici’s death. He asked those in attendance to “join me for a moment of silence for our great friend, who’s now watching from above.”

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At the Domenici Conference, former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, remembered Domenici for “his fairness and his deep expertise on an array of subjects.” Lugar, who was in Las Cruces to give a speech on foreign policy, said he spoke with Domenici by phone on Saturday.

“I appreciate him so much. I am so sad he is not here with us today,” Lugar said. “… I am so pleased that the Domenici Institute [at NMSU] continues Pete’s legacy.”

Domenici, New Mexico’s longest-serving U.S. senator, retired in 2009 after being diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease. He was the chair or ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee for 22 years and was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — positions that gave him, and New Mexico, great clout in Washington.

In the words of the Albuquerque Journal, Domenici “had a well-known knack for funneling federal dollars to his home state,” using his influence “to pay for New Mexico priorities, whether it was acequia repairs in the Española Valley, money for rural health clinics in southern New Mexico or new fighter jets at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.”

After retiring, Domenici stayed active as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and through NMSU’s Domenici Institute. In 2010, he and former Congressional Budget Office Director Alice Rivlin co-chaired a task force aimed at reducing the national debt and deficit.

Domenici’s health improved after his retirement. He and his wife remained in Washington until earlier this year, when they moved back to Albuquerque. In November, N.M. Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, announced that Domenici would work for him as a senior adviser when he returned to the state.

Many expressed condolences upon learning of Domenici’s passing. former state Rep. J. Paul Taylor, D-Mesilla, was quoted by the Las Cruces Sun-News as saying Domenici’s death was a heavy blow.

“He was a wonderful senator and did a great deal for New Mexico and the nation. He’s going to be greatly missed,” Taylor said.

Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat who served alongside Domenici for decades, was quoted by the Journal as saying he and Domenici were often “able to find common ground and forge bipartisan solutions to problems.”

“Even on those occasions when we disagreed, I never doubted his commitment to do what he believed was best for New Mexico,” Bingaman said.

In Washington, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, remembered Domenici in remarks on the Senate floor.

“I came to know him as smart, hard-working and dedicated — and a very strong advocate for his home state of New Mexico,” McConnell said, according to the Journal. “We are all saddened by this news today.”

U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, a former member of the U.S. House from New Mexico and a Republican, said she was “saddened by the news that my friend, mentor, colleague, fellow New Mexican, and great American, Senator Pete Domenici passed away this morning,” the Journal reported.

“I always felt privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Sen. Domenici on so many projects important to the country and New Mexico,” Wilson said.

The man who replaced Domenici in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Tom Udall, on Wednesday remembered Domenici as “a legend in New Mexico politics” and a leader who believed in bipartisanship.

“While we sat on different sides of the political aisle, I admired Pete’s dedication to the well-being of all of New Mexico,” Udall 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.”

“It’s partly thanks to him that the New Mexico congressional delegation continues a tradition of working together regardless of party,” Udall said. “We need more of that in Congress today.”

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., recalled “the example Senator 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,” Heinrich said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said Domenici “was a powerful voice for all New Mexicans.”

“He was a titan – a fighter – and his work for the wellness and prosperity of New Mexico will forever be remembered,” Pearce said.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said Domenici’s “political pragmatism represented the views of New Mexicans in every corner of the state, which is why he was so respected.”

“I can’t think of anyone who had a greater impact on New Mexico, particularly through his work on energy policy and securing funding to expand the work at our national labs,” she said. “His budget prowess gave New Mexico outsized influence, which helped shape the state’s economy while meeting our national security needs during and beyond the Cold War.”

N.M. House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said New Mexicans should recall Domenici’s “willingness to work with Democrats and Republicans alike to improve the condition of our state and nation.”

“Our country would be a better place if more public officials took Senator Domenici’s approach to governing,” Gentry said. “We have lost a legendary statesman today.”

This breaking news article has been updated.

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