COMMENTARY: My grandfather loved to tell me the story about a young Pete Domenici coming into my family’s drugstore.
Walter Haussamen Sr., my Gramps, owned the shop on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. Domenici would often stop in – sometimes with friends from the neighborhood, sometimes by himself to get a butterscotch sundae from the fountain. Gramps smiled each time he got a chance to tell that story.
Gramps was proud that I’d become a journalist and had a voice in discussions about the future of our state. In his later years, as his health declined, he was excited that I got to talk with people he loved, respected and missed – like Domenici.
When I saw Domenici in 2009, just before he completed his 36-year career in the U.S. Senate, I shared Gramps’ story. Domenici told me he remembered the drugstore. He shared fond memories of old Albuquerque. He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked me to say hello to my grandfather – a message I was able to pass along before Gramps died a few weeks later.
That was the Pete Domenici I knew. Like my Gramps, he loved New Mexico. He was a formidable fighter, but also a believer in respect and civility. And he loved telling stories about Albuquerque.
Domenici died Wednesday at 85. He leaves behind an immense legacy in New Mexico and the nation.
My Gramps often lamented in his later years, as civility declined in Washington, the loss of politicians like Domenici.
Gramps wasn’t alone. Former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, visited Las Cruces in 2008 for the first annual Domenici Public Policy Conference. Dodd gave the keynote address, pleading for civility and respect in American politics. He said Washington needed more Pete Domenicis.
“I love this man and I care about him very deeply,” Dodd said. “This is a unique and wonderful person who has given to his country.”
After retiring from the Senate, Domenici sought a bipartisan way to address the nation’s debt and deficit, which he said threatened America’s future. And Domenici embraced New Mexico State University’s vision to host an annual conference that has become known for high-profile speakers and thoughtful discussions about serious issues. It’s the best public policy event I’ve attended in New Mexico.
Domenici wasn’t perfect, obviously. In 2008, the Senate Ethics Committee found no evidence that he attempted to improperly influence a federal investigation but admonished him for creating an appearance of impropriety by calling then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias about the case. Iglesias had alleged Domenici pressured him to speed indictments to influence an election.
And the public learned in 2013 that Domenici, who was married, had fathered a child in the 1970s with a woman who was not his wife, the daughter of another U.S. senator. Today that son, Adam Laxalt, is Nevada’s attorney general.
But Domenici’s legacy is one of doing important work on budgetary, energy and mental health issues – and all the federal money he brought to New Mexico. He’s one of the most influential and respected politicians in this state’s history.
I’ll also remember Pietro Vichi Domenici – the son of Italian immigrants, a man who fiercely loved Albuquerque, New Mexico and the United States – as the kid who bought butterscotch sundaes from my Gramps, a boy who worked hard in his father’s grocery business, a man whose story is wonderfully New Mexican and American and human.
In these troubling times, I hope Washington can rediscover the civility and respect Domenici exemplified.