Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici dies at 85

Pete Domenici
Pete Domenici

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – He was called “a giant” of the U.S. Senate. Former U.S. Senator for New Mexico Pete Domenici died Wednesday at the age of 85, leaving a legacy as one of the state’s most powerful and revered politicians.

Domenici’s legacy of public service spanned 36 years in the U.S. Senate where he became a notable Republican power player, working across the aisle to balance the federal budget and bring plenty of federal money and jobs to New Mexico.

He was honored on the Senate floor Wednesday.

“Pete had a long and notable career, one that took him from pitching on the baseball diamond, to teaching mathematics at an Albuquerque junior high school, from city politics, to the U.S. Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “I came to know him as a smart… hardworking, dedicated and a very strong advocate for his home state of New Mexico.”

Domenici was one of five children and the son of an Italian immigrant. Growing up in Albuquerque, he worked in his father’s grocery business.

He graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Albuquerque in 1950, then earned a degree in education from the University of New Mexico in 1954. By 1958, Domenici received a law degree from the University of Denver and returned to Albuquerque to enter into private law practice.

The same year he returned to Albuquerque, Domenici married his wife Nancy Burk in 1958. The couple had eight children together and were still married at the time of Domenici’s death.

The former U.S. Senator’s political career began with his election to the then Albuquerque City Commission in 1966. One year later, he took the position of chair on the city commission.

Domenici first won his seat on the U.S. Senate in 1972. He was re-elected to the seat five more times after that, making Domenici the longest serving U.S. Senator in New Mexico history. To put into perspective how popular Domenici was, he won his first two senate elections by eight and then seven percentage points. No one came within thirty points of him in his next four bids for re-election.

While serving in the U.S. Senate, Domenici became a well-known, bi-partisan power player who drew attention to New Mexico. At home, Domenici is credited with bringing significant amounts of federal funds and jobs to New Mexico, in part through his support for energy and military spending. He’s credited for protecting and expanding jobs for New Mexico’s military bases, including Kirtland and Cannon Air Force Bases, and the state’s national scientific laboratories including Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos National Lab.

Part of his power in drawing federal funds to New Mexico came from his seats on the powerful Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee. Domenici chaired, or served as the ranking minority party leader on the Senate Budget Committee for 22 years.

The committee assignments also gave Domenici a national recognized name, where he became a key voice in energy and budget policy. Domenici is credited at a principal player in helping negociate many federal budgets and the “Balanced Budget Act of 1997.”

A fellow former U.S. Senator, Democrat Jeff Bingaman reflected on Domenici’s career in an interview with KRQE News 13 on Wednesday.

“It’s a great loss to the state, there’s no question, he served the state very well for nearly four decades and did a lot of good for New Mexico, was a strong advocate for our state,” said Bingaman.

Bingaman remembers how Domenici worked with politicians, no matter their party. The two spent 26 years working in the U.S. Senate, representing New Mexico as members of the opposite party.

“There were obviously issues we didn’t agree but I never doubted that he was committed to trying to do what he thought was right,” former Senator Bingaman said. “We found a lot of issues where we could come together and come up with a bipartisan solution to a problems.”

Domenici and Bingaman also lead the Senate Energy Committee, each taking turns as the ruling political party chair and as ranking member from the minority party.

“I think the most significant legislative activity we were engaged in is the passage of the 2005 Energy Bill and the 2007 Energy Bill,” said Bingaman. “Both of them were bipartisan bills, both of them passed the senate with a majority of democrats voting for them and a majority of republicans voting for them.”

“We both felt good about that felt we had done something that was good for the country,” said Bingaman of his work with Domenici.

Domenici announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate in 2007, citing a degenerative brain disease. In the speech announcing his decision, Domenici made it clear that he enjoyed his time representing New Mexico in Washington D.C.

“I cannot imagine having spent my life doing anything more important or rewarding than working with New Mexicans to help New Mexicans, what a wonderful thing to know that you have done and what a wonderful thing to contemplate,” said Domenici in 2007. “That is now a lifelong ambition completed.”

Family members said Senator Domenici died at UNM Hospital Wednesday morning in Albuquerque, weeks after undergoing abdominal surgery.

The family has arranged for a viewing at to take place at the Our Lady of Fatima Church, 4020 Lomas Blvd NE in Albuquerque at 6 p.m. Friday, September 15. The viewing will be followed by a Rosary at 7 p.m.

A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, September 16, also at Our Lady of Fatima Church.

A public celebration of Senator Pete Domenici’s life will be held at Isotopes Stadium, 1601 Avenida Cesar Chavez SE in Albuquerque at 3pm on Saturday, September 16. Doors will open at 2 p.m, the event is open to the public.

The family released the following statement early Wednesday morning:

Statement of Domenici Family on passing of former U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici

“This is a difficult time for the entire Domenici family. We have suffered a great loss.

“Our father loved New Mexico and worked for its people. He devoted his life to fighting for them. He worked for everyone, in every corner in the state. And as much as he did he always felt there was even more he could do. If it involved a need in New Mexico, Pete Domenici was always ready to “get to work.”

“So, while we mourn our father’s passing, we celebrate his life and his many achievements and feel tremendous gratitude to his dedicated supporters, exceptional staff and the constituents of his beloved state.

“And we want all to know how deeply appreciative of the hundreds of messages of condolence and support we have receive today. We thank you.”

In lieu of flowers, the Domenici family has requested that donations be made to one or both of a non-profit of your choice, or the following two organizations: National Alliance on Mental Illness – Albuquerque Chapter, Lewy Body Dementia Association provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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