Pete Domenici, the longest serving senator from the state of New Mexico, died Wednesday at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. He was 85.
Sen. Domenici was a Republican known as a power broker in the Senate for more than 30 years, known for his work on the federal budget and energy policy. Pete Domenici Jr., his son, said the senator had undergone abdominal surgery in recent weeks.
Domenici announced in October 2007 that he wouldn’t seek a seventh Senate term because he had been diagnosed with an incurable brain disorder, frontotemporal lobar degeneration.
“The progress of this disease is apparently erratic and unpredictable. It may well be that seven years from now, it will be stable,” Domenici said in announcing his retirement. “On the other hand, it may also be that the disease will have incapacitated me. That’s possible.”
The Albuquerque-born son of Italian immigrants was a consistent fiscal conservative budget hawk since his first term in 1972 until he left office in early 2009. He even refused once to buckle to President Ronald Reagan, who wanted him to delay the budget process.
His health first became an issue nearly two decades ago after suffering from nerve damage in his right arm while playing touch football with his grandchildren in 1999. He also suffered from arthritis in his lower back and even temporarily used a scooter between his office and the U.S. Capitol.
Born Pietro Vichi Domenici on May 7, 1932, as the only son of Cherubino and Alda Domenici, he attended an Albuquerque Catholic high school before graduating in 1954 from the University of New Mexico. At UNM, he was a pitcher on the baseball team and even signed a contract to pitch for the minor league Albuquerque Dukes.
He taught math in the Albuquerque public schools and received his law degree from Denver University. He opened a law office in 1958 and, that very same year, married Nancy Burk. They had two sons and six daughters.
He started his long political career in 1966 after friends persuaded him to run for the city commission. He won election to the Albuquerque City Commission, which he later chaired in 1967. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1970 before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, succeeding longtime Democratic Sen. Clinton Anderson, who had retired.
“I love the job too much,” former Sen. Domenici said only days before he left the Senate. “I feel like I’d like to have the job tomorrow and the next day.”