Longtime GOP Sen. Pete Domenici has died at age 85, marking the end of an era for New Mexico politics.
Domenici, 85, recently had abdominal surgery, according to the Albuquerque News Journal, which first reported his death.
“He is out of pain and we all feel good about that,” the Domenici family said in a statement to newspaper. “We are grateful for all of the people who helped here at the hospital and elsewhere.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Domenici’s death on the Senate floor. The two served together for decades.
“He 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,” McConnell said. “In fact, when he ran for Senate in 1972, Domenici became the first Republican elected from his home state in nearly four decades. By the time he retired, he did so as the longest-serving senator in New Mexico history.”
Domenici was an iconic figure both in New Mexico and in the Senate, where he served for 36 years. He was chairman or ranking member of the Budget Committee for 22 years, building a reputation as a fiscal conservative. He also wielded the gavel on the Energy and Natural Resources panel.
One of Domenici’s big issues was parity for health insurance coverage for mental illnesses. His daughter Clare suffered from schizophrenia, which spurred Domenici to push hard on the topic.
Domenici ran for Senate Republican leadership posts several times, yet was never able to gain the support needed to vault into the GOP’s senior ranks.
But it was on the Appropriations Committee where Domenici may have had his biggest impact back home. He steered hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to the national labs in Los Alamos and Sandia. He was also a strong advocate for the nuclear power industry.
His ability to steer pork back home helped make Domenici virtually untouchable in New Mexico. He routinely won reelection by large margins from the 1980s to the early 2000s.
Domenici was born in Albuquerque, the son of Italian immigrants. He worked in his parents’ grocery store, although his real passion was baseball. He once received a contract to pitch for a minor league team in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.
But Domenici’s baseball career ended quickly, and he ended up going to law school.
Domenici became active in Albuquerque politics, and he unsuccessfully ran for New Mexico governor in 1970. In 1972, Domenici ran for the U.S. Senate, defeating Democrat Jack Daniels.