Commentary: “Saint Pete.” That’s what many of us who knew and worked with New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici called him. He got this nickname for the successful work he did in Washington, D.C., on behalf of his native New Mexico to obtain earmarks, save military bases, and help constituents. Elected in 1972, he served six terms in the U.S. Senate, making him New Mexico’s longest-serving senator. The first time I ever heard his name mentioned was when I was a small child in my hometown of Española, New Mexico. As my family sat down to eat dinner, there was a knock at the door and my father got up to answer it. In a couple of minutes, he came by with a flyer in his hand. My mother asked him who it was and my father put the flyer down on the table and said, “Some guy named Pete Domenici and he’s running for Senate.”
Little did I know back then that during my career, I would work with Domenici on issues involving cross-border trade and infrastructure. So when I heard of his passing on September 13, I was greatly saddened. Domenici was a throwback to the era in which Washington politicians represented their own parties’ interests, but they worked together to compromise on issues that were important to Americans. Over the years, he became a master politician, who could deal with presidents and foreign leaders, and still come back home to have a glass of wine with friends and talk about his years playing baseball.
Of all the projects that I watched Domenici participate in, the one that impressed me most was his role in helping to establish the Santa Teresa Port of Entry on New Mexico’s border with Mexico. In 1991, I was a kid fresh out of college, working for New Mexico Governor Bruce King in his International Trade Division. As one of its objectives, the King Administration wanted to establish a port of entry near Juarez so that New Mexico could reap some of the benefits of the fast-growing U.S.-Mexico trade, especially as the North American Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated. King, a Democrat, and Domenici, a Republican, teamed with local developer Charlie Crowder to come up with a plan to pitch the port of entry. Santa Teresa, located on a mesa west of El Paso was chosen as the preferred site. For its existence, this had been a remote stretch of desert with a few cattle ranches in the vicinity.
Establishing an international border crossing is extremely difficult – local, state, and federal agencies all have to approve the project and provide their support, and this can take years. At the federal level, a presidential permit needs to be acquired on both sides of the border in order for the crossing to be established. As New Mexico’s senior U.S. Senator, Domenici’s responsibility was to convince the Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush Administrations that New Mexico warranted a new international port of entry. When Domenici presented the idea to Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker, he was initially turned down. New Mexico’s trade with Mexico was very low and a greenfield port of entry in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere was not a priority. Domenici kept coming back to Baker pledging support on other White House initiatives, negotiating, and being persistent as only Domenici could be.
Back in New Mexico, he worked with Governor King and his staff to master-plan the port, and with Jeff Bingaman, the state’s other U.S. Senator who was a Democrat. After a couple of years of back-and-forth negotiations, backroom deals, and talks with Mexican officials, New Mexico was granted permission to proceed with the port. As the presidential permits were being finalized and the port footprint determined, the Mexican side of the border began construction on the permanent port of entry. In order to demonstrate quick movement to the Mexican and Washington officials, on the New Mexico side, the state hurriedly rushed a couple of pre-fabricated buildings from the Department of Corrections that were used for conjugal visits (no kidding) to serve as the temporary port, while the permanent port was constructed.
Meanwhile, Domenici kept the momentum going and the port was finally built in 1992, and officially opened in 1993. Domenici had horse-traded, backslapped, and crossed political aisles to make sure that the project became a reality. Until 2008 when he decided not to run again for the Senate, Domenici tirelessly brought funding and support for the Santa Teresa Port of Entry, which was his baby. Today, the highway leading to the Santa Teresa Port of Entry is named the “Pete V. Domenici Highway.”
Throughout the years, I frequently interacted with Senator Domenici on border projects involving infrastructure, policy, and institutional funding. I used to love sitting down and listening to him talk about the backroom politics in Washington, and how much maneuvering went into making the Santa Teresa Port of Entry a reality. I always was transported back 25 years in the past when I was a star-struck, young man just starting my career basking in the presence of a political giant. A couple of years ago, when Union Pacific’s huge Santa Teresa Intermodal yards were up and running, I took him on a tour of this facility, the port of entry and the industrial parks in the Santa Teresa region. As I was driving, I said to him, “See, Senator, all the work that you put in to make this happen is paying off for not only New Mexico, but our border region. Without you, this would not be here, nor would I.” He looked at me and smiled, and I swear he got a little choked up, and his eyes became a little watery, which made me have to turn away from him so that I wouldn’t lose my composure. Saint Pete, we are all going to miss you.
Jerry Pacheco is President of the Border Industrial Association. His columns appear in The Albuquerque Journal.