Thursday, October 04, 2007


They say time waits for no man, but on rare occasions it does seem to stand still. Such a moment came for New Mexico at 2:32 p.m. on October 3, 2007 as news flashed that NM U.S. Senator Pete Domenici would not seek re-election to the exclusive club of 100 where he has served longer than any other New Mexican and from where he carved out an historic record of achievement that brought untold billions into the state since he was first elected in 1972.

The news was particularly poignant as the AP reported in late night dispatches that the 75 year old ABQ native was suffering from a serious brain ailment that often leads to dementia. That revelation comes on the heels of a Survey USA poll that showed Pete's approval rating diving to 41%, increasing the promise of a hotly contested battle for re-election; a battle that would be played out under the klieg lights of television and put his frailty squarely in the faces of voters.

Domenici plans on filling out the remaining 14 months of his term. If he were unable to, the Democratic Governor would appoint a senator.

By concluding his career now, Domenici will leave with his dignity intact and with accolades from across the political spectrum.

"For more than three decades, Senator Domenici has been a respected and powerful champion for New Mexico’s interests in the US Senate." Said Big Bill.

The offices of Rep. Wilson, Udall and Senator Bingaman also issued laudatory statements. Rep. Pearce was waiting until Domenici makes it official this afternoon.


Domenici has been the state's political Godfather. He knew how to accumulate power and he knew how to use it. And he used it to distribute largess to federal installations without which many New Mexico towns would have dried up and blown away. He reached the pinnacle of his career in the 80's as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee when he became a serious prospect for the 1988 vice-presidential ticket with George Bush.

He has been the personification of the NM Republican Party, so much so that his retirement news set off a scramble by top insiders to come up with notable candidates for offices that could be impacted by his departure.

Until the US Attorney scandal, his age, and the Iraq war sent his approval ratings tumbling, Domenici had demonstrated political appeal with Hispanics, Native Americans as well as Anglos, an impressive achievement for a Republican.

His uniquely American life began humbly as the son of immigrant Italian parents in downtown Albuquerque. Today at 4 p.m. he returns to deliver a political valedictory in his neighborhood of birth at Saint Mary's school where he graduated high school and where his sister is principal.

Pete Domenici was a Tiger Woods of politics. He excelled when the pressure was on and when the stakes were highest. He could have made millions in the private sector, but chose La Politica and the joys and challenges of the public life. New Mexico went along for the ride and reaped benefits beyond its highest expectations.


I talked with KRQE-TV about Domenici's retirement. You can see that here. I also interviewed with KOB-TV to give New Mexico perspective and context on this big story. It can be seen on their Web site. Also, here is coverage from the ABQ Journal

Big Bill
Ambition that in some cases has been bottled up for decades began to spill out in the immediate hours following Domenici's bombshell, but all eyes were on NM Governor Bill Richardson. The overwhelming consensus was that the Domenici senate seat was his for the asking, but he wasn't asking. In fact, he was as coy as ever, with his campaign telling the Los Angles Times: "...It changes nothing. We are running for president and are confident about our chances of winning."

This was another of those statements that closed the door, but not all the way. Frustration over it was already noticeable in the elite circle of candidates that have a realistic chance at their party's nominations.

Operatives for ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez were busy putting out feelers and talking of forming an exploratory committee to raise funds. He already has a state committee for a possible run for the 2010 Dem nomination for Governor. But Richardson looms large. What happens if Marty gets in and Bill decides down the road to do the same? Not good. Which is why top Dems will push the Guv for a definitive statement on his senate intentions. Not that they will necessarily get one.

"Big Bill is acting like an 800 pound gorilla because he is one," said a Senior Alligator.

On NBC's Nightly News, Tim Russert commented that there is going to be "enormous pressure" on Richardson to abandon his presidential race and go after the Pete seat. Insiders in Washington told me Senator Chuck Schumer, heading up the Democratic Party's senate recruitment effort, has already made overtures to the Richardson camp.

Inside that camp the word was that Bill wants to stay on the Prez trail and would rather an administration appointment from a Democratic White House--like Secretary of State--rather than a nice plum US Senate seat, But it was a hard sell.


A former NM GOP state rep told me that Democrats like Marty Chavez, Patricia Madrid and Congressman Tom Udall could be left twisting in the wind by Bill until his presidential hopes are clarified by the January Iowa caucuses.

"The deadline for filing petitions for the Senate and House seats and other state offices is February 12. He could keep issuing these statements that don't decisively take him out of the race and then make a decision after the first round of primaries. That might not stop other candidates from getting in, but I'm not sure their entry would stop him from coming in late." He explained.


Will Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish's make overtures to Mayor Chavez, their chief rival for the 2010 Dem Guv nomination. The deal would be for Di to back Marty for Senate to keep him out of the Guv race. It was like time travel when I heard this as I recalled that is was Di's dad, Jack Daniels, who fell to Pete as the Dem nominee when Pete first captured the senate seat in 1972. An aide to Denish said no such deal was brewing.


Besides Chavez, noise on the Dem side is being heard from former Attorney General Patricia Madrid, but her bruising campaign and narrow loss to Congresswoman Heather Wilson last year has Dem experts wondering if she would be strong enough to take the seat, but she does have name ID. However, she has yet to signal a serious intent.

"The list on both sides is not going to be as big as it would be in the old days, Joe. Money is much more of a driver. If you don't have it or the ability to raise a lot, you are not going to get much of a shot," commented another of my Alligators.

Back in Dem land, the sole seriously financed senate challenger currently on the Democratic playing field, Santa Fe's Don Wiviott, was contemplating the possibility of top-tier competition. He has put $400,000 of his own cash into the campaign. But now that the stakes are as high as they get--a vacant NM senate seat for the first time since 1972---insiders were saying he may have to raise the ante and come up with several million dollars from his bank account if he is going to stay in the game.


Northern New Mexico Dem Congressman Tom Udall is seen as Chavez's major obstacle to winning a Dem senate nomination but he, like Chavez, has to be nervous about a possible Richardson entry.

"Tom could collect petition signatures for both offices--his House seat and the senate seat and be prepared to file for one or the other come February," explained one of many experts consulted during the day.

Unlike Chavez, Udall has a secure US House seat to hold on to as well as a new slot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Chavez could run and lose and still be ABQ Mayor. If Udall goes for the gold and loses, it will be game set and match.


In Republican land, what has been brewing behind the scenes was now bursting out into the open as Domenici prepared to board a private jet in D.C. today with wife Nancy and his longtime secretary Angela Raisch and head home to make his retirement announcement.

ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson is seen as the most likely of the state's three House members to take the plunge. She was anointed to her House seat by Domenici in '98 and has been traveling outside of her district in recent months in a move widely seen as preparation for an eventual senate bid.

Southern NM Congressman Steve Pearce, Heather's possible rival for the GOP senate nod, wasn't talking, but his sympathizers said he is not going to walk into any Richardson buzz saw.

"If he is convinced Richardson is going to run, he won't go near it. Let Heather be the sacrificial lamb, if that's what she wants. If she gambled and lost, she could always land a well-paying lobbying job in Washington. Pearce has to keep the Governor's chair in his sights as well as the senate seat," relayed one of our R informers.

GOP State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons is also sounding out politicos about a senate run, but he is seen as weakened by recent negative news headlines over a Las Cruces land deal.

The potential for a bloggers paradise of three open US House seats and a senate seat to boot is now on the table, but reality will likely interfere and folks will probably start blinking, leaving us with some fascinating power plays but not the total chaos.


If Heather decides to vacate the ABQ House seat look for more Dem candidates to join Martin Heinrich. State Rep. Al Park told me he could be among them. Michelle Lujan Grisham is already expected to get in and a vacant seat could bring Bryon Paez back to play, not to mention others. On the Republican side Bernalillo County Sherif Darren White, businessmen Louis Abruzzo and Tom Tinnin, State Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, State Sen. Joe Carraro and restaurant owner Ed Tinsley are all being mentioned as possible R Wilson replacements.

If Pearce tries to make a leap to the Senate, Don Ana State Rep. Joe Cervantes will become a major factor in the Dem race to succeed him, Supporters of Bill McCamley, the leading candidate for the Dem nomination for the Pearce seat, were already expressing their worry.

Up North, a Udall vacancy would open up the floodgates. Prominent Dem Hispanic candidates would abound including Javier Gonzales and Geno Zamora.

But this is Big Bill's world and we just live in it. As long as his popularity remains in the mid-60's and his Prez kitty has millions of bucks that he could quickly transfer to a senate campaign, his every move will be scrutinized by a long line of would-be New Mexico congressional members.


I'm not entirely pleased with today's missive on the biggest political story in a generation. I could feel my eyelids drooping as I was writing. I was on the radio calling the ABQ city election until late Tuesday night and then blogged that story until 2 a.m. Wednesday. That was followed by an early morning KKOB-AM appearance. Then, the Pete news broke and it was off to KOB-TV and KRQE-TV and a round of interviews and then back to the blog beat and some national press interviews.

The situation was so desperate that at 12:16 a.m. I ground up the Starbucks and had Sinatra singing "Come Fly With Me" on the CD player. But who's complaining? It's the political life; the one we chose and one in which the ride never disappoints.

Gracias por la compañía, amigos.

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