Institutional Memories: St. Pete

I moved to Washington, D.C. to begin working for U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici in March 1990, when I was 22 years old. At that time, Domenici was just wrapping up his third term in office — meaning he had been serving as a U.S. Senator for 18 of my 22 years on this planet. To us twentysomethings, he was already an institution, a name and face we’d been seeing on television and in the pages of the Albuquerque Journal our entire lives.

While New Mexicans have always called him “Pete,” to those of us working in his office, he was always “Senator.” It wasn’t something he asked us to call him — he would probably have preferred that we call him Pete as well — but it just seemed natural to us; he had earned it. Plus, it instilled in most of us a sense of protocol and respect that we always thought was somewhat lacking in other Congressional offices — and to this day, I still refer to any elected officials by their formal titles. (I once called over to the office of New Mexico Congressman Steve Schiff, and spent several minutes on the phone with a staffer who kept telling me “Steve thinks…” and “Steve wants to…” When I hung up, I sat at my desk for several minutes thinking, “Do I know a Steve over there?” before finally realizing he meant Congressman Schiff.)

Anyway, although we called him “Senator,” and constituents called him “Pete,” to many in New Mexico, he was more deserving of the nickname the media had at first snarkily, then affectionately, given him: St. Pete.

Senator always laughed at this title, and with good reason: he’s a humble guy. It’s always easy to sneer at elected officials — especially powerful, long-serving members of Congress — as out-of-touch, easily influenced, and overly full of themselves. And certainly, there are some like that. But Senator wasn’t — and still isn’t. He’s the son of Albuquerque grocers, both Italian immigrants. His parents didn’t speak English well, and always insisted that their son learn the language immediately, go to school, and take advantage of what their adopted country had to offer.

I’d say he lived up to their dreams for him. After attending the University of New Mexico (go Lobos!), he briefly pitched for New Mexico’s Triple-A baseball team, the Albuquerque Dukes (his real claim to fame as a pitcher, he once told me, was that he had hit Ernie Banks in the back), taught middle school math, served as an attorney and then as Chairman of the Albuquerque City Council, the de facto mayor of the city. After a failed bid for governor in 1970, he successfully ran for U.S. Senator in 1972. He’s been there ever since.

Yet, despite being a New Mexico institution, Senator remains a regular guy, with endearing regular guy habits. He walks to work. He apologizes to his wife for leaving a ring on her coffee table. He’s a terrible driver. When he sits in a chair, he pulls one leg up underneath him, carefully hidden behind his desk. He and his wonderful wife, Nancy, raised eight children. He forgets names. He enjoys his wine. He laughs at dumb jokes. And he treats people with an almost disarming respect that makes every constituent feel like a close personal friend — probably his biggest strength as an elected official. In my time, we were forever answering phone calls and letters from “close friends” who, we discovered, had talked with him only once in a restaurant in Socorro.

He took good care of his constituents, and his state. Any New Mexican who wanted to meet with him was given a moment on his schedule — and let me tell you, he kept quite a schedule. Every day, each staffer was given a copy of his multi-paged schedule — always carefully and deliberately typed, on a manual typewriter, by his long-time assistant, Angela — with his life scheduled in fifteen-minute sized chunks. And always, always, constituents were part of that day. If he was in his office, he would spend 15 minutes with them, discussing concerns and taking pictures. And if he wasn’t in his office, we were always instructed to walk them over to wherever he may have been — whether in committee or on the Senate floor — where Senator always took a moment to step away from business to chat. Out of touch? Hardly.

As a legislator, he’s always fought passionately for the issues he believes in. During my seven years in his office, he was either ranking member or chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and budget drove almost everything we did. Want to create a new program? Great — just come up with a way of paying for it. He was a stickler for keeping the books in order, and made a name for himself by standing up to even Republican presidents when he thought tax cuts were too irresponsible or new programs too expensive. There were programs he liked that he voted against simply because no one had come up with a way to pay for them. It was a principled stand, though not always a popular one.

Away from the budget, he believes strongly in investing in our energy policies, and continues to be one of the Congress’ most impassioned advocates for those suffering from mental illness.

Last October, citing health reasons, Senator announced he would not seek re-election. His retirement is a genuine loss, not only for New Mexico, but for the U.S. Senate, where very few of the Old Guard remain who still respect the institution, respect their colleagues, respect their constituents, and understand the advantage of being able to disagree without being disagreeable.

For the last six months, New Mexicans have, quite rightly, been honoring his life and achievements with one celebratory dinner or event after another — including one this weekend in Albuquerque. I’ve not been able to attend any of them, and thus I appreciate you staying here with me for just a moment while I’ve said a bit about him.

Senator, I thank you for your service to your country, your state, and your community. More than anything, I thank you for your basic decency. Those of us who worked for you consider ourselves part of one large extended family, and I feel very honored to have played even a small part in your exceptional legacy.

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2 responses to “Institutional Memories: St. Pete

  1. His retirement will be a great loss for New Mexico and the United States. I hope he has a lot of wonderful, and much deserved, family time with Mrs. Domenici and his other family members.

    On a side note; boy could he pick his staffers! :)

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  2. Brian, enjoyed your reminisces! While working for the Senator, I shared a house with several staffers from Senator Bingaman’s office. They would become annoyed with our calling him “Senator” claiming “you refer to him as if he were the only one.” His retirement will be a loss for our NM and to the country.

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