Inside the Capitol

Saturday, October 13, 2007



SANTA FE - Pete Domenici has always been special. There has been something about him ever since we became acquainted a half century ago that makes him stand out.
Pete was six years ahead of me at the University of New Mexico but we were both members of the same fraternity and Pete often dropped by the house to visit old friends, and maybe to make some new ones.
I Had a room just above the entrance to our fraternity house so quickly became aware when Pete would walk up to the house in late afternoons.
I don't remember him ever coming inside to chat. Someone always noticed him approaching and would yell "Hey, Bocce's here."
The story back then was that when Pete was born, his father observed that his head was as round as a bocce ball. Now I read that it was an aunt who said the 10-pounder was as round as a bocce ball. The name stuck with him through college and with old friends much longer.
Pete commanded an adoring crowd. To him I was just another face in that crowd at the time, but our career paths were to bring us closer.
He had a charisma that inspired confidence He lost only one political race in his life That was to powerhouse Bruce King who chalked up a defeat on many candidates' political records.
Pete has always been quick-witted and fun to talk with. In the Senate, he has been hailed as a genius for his grasp of the federal budget. Although I never heard him claim the title, college friends joked that he was the only student in history to major in everything but nursing.
I'm not sure what that means, but it doesn't mean he isn't smart. If true, it could mean he took his time making a career choice. He didn't choose politics until he was in law practice and decided to run for the Albuquerque City Commission.
Even then, he continued his law practice despite serving as commission chairman, the equivalent of being mayor. After Domenici's loss to Bruce King in the 1970 gubernatorial election, he saw another opportunity in the 1972 U.S. Senate race.
Longtime Sen. Clinton Anderson had announced his retirement. He also said he would like to cap his political career by serving as state Democratic chairman. But a number of young Democrats thought it was time for some changes. Rudy Ortiz beat Anderson for state chairman.
So instead of Anderson presiding over a fifth decade of Democratic domination of New Mexico's two U.S. Senate seats, Anderson sat back, refusing to get involved.
Democrat leaders were scared. They knew what this could mean. A story floats in Democratic circles that Domenici was extended an offer to become the Democratic senatorial candidate, but it fell through because Pete didn't seem interested and because of strong resistance from New Mexico's other U.S. Sen. Joe Montoya.
Democratic bosses had thought they might have a chance of enticing Domenici to their side. He was moderate and had been popular with Democrats when he headed the non-partisan Albuquerque City Commission.
But Pete stuck with the Republican Party and has continued to have strong support among Democratic voters, becoming the longest-serving senator in state history.
Domenici calls himself a conservative when he runs for office because that is a good way to win elections. But now that he has stepped away from political life, it won't hurt him for me finally to reveal the truth.
Pete is not a conservative - at least in Washington terms. If he were, he would have moved up his party's hierarchy. His Republican colleagues admired him and knew he was smart as a whip, or even a floor leader, pardon the pun.
But every time he started his path toward party leadership, he was knocked back by those who considered him a moderate. He might even have become President George H.W. Bush's vice president in 1988 had he possessed credentials sufficiently acceptable to the nominating convention.
But Pete Domenici remained true to the values held by a majority of New Mexicans, including not getting rich in office.
Glad to be back to civilization. Hope everything works from now on.

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