New Mexico First was created in 1986 by Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici to provide New Mexicans with a public forum in which to discuss issues important to New Mexico. This year the organization decided to honor the contributions of Jeff Bingaman at a First Forum lecture. Fortunately Pete Domenici was available to attend and participate in the policy tribute held last Friday evening at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
The agenda placed the two former New Mexico senior senators on the stage together across from one another. They sat at a small table with ABC reporter Sam Donaldson moderating and posing questions to them which were selected by the NM First board of directors. The topic areas chosen were education, the economy, energy and Congressional gridlock.
When New Mexico First announced the event honoring Jeff, with Pete in attendance, I was excited to see how time and age has affected the dynamic between them. Pete has encountered health problems and stress from political trials and I know that it has affected his outlook. Jeff is still fit and engaged in national and international events. Pete confesses to “memory glitches” but his mind is still alive and engaged.
In 1965 I supported Pete as he ran for Albuquerque City Council, and then watched as he began asserting his personality among the political leaders in the state. I was fascinated with his sense of authority and growing influence with the City Commission and then with our Congressional delegation. I was with him in Clinton Anderson’s office as he convinced Anderson to ask LBJ to approve Albuquerque’s request for the largest downtown urban renewal grant to date in the US. He took me to Washington in 1977 to work for the NM Delegation when he became the senior senator. Once again, he was learning to assert authority and influence events in favor of New Mexico. Each personality he encountered was different and I was impressed at how Pete adapted and changed with each new situation.
Pete had been senior senator for six years trying to counsel Republican and junior senator Jack Schmitt when Jeff Bingaman defeated Schmitt in 1982, requiring Pete to adapt again. Of course, Jeff Bingaman had been a successful NM Attorney General and politician, which enabled him to grow a productive relationship with Pete in spite of the natural tension that exists between party rivals. At the New Mexico First Forum held last week honoring Bingaman, moderator Sam Donaldson said ” I have never seen two senators from the same state, from opposite parties, who worked together so closely and harmoniously for the good of the state and the country as the two of you.”
I feel that I have been blessed to see their relationship over thirty years and Pete’s growth as a national figure for almost fifty years.
Jeff, whose career has been one noted by thoughtful expression of his ideas, said he feels that US education is not as bad as many people say but that the US needs to adopt common core curriculum standards. He said that these standards are being adopted too slowly by the states. He also advocated for more money to support education, citing that only 2% of our Federal budget goes to education. He also said that No Child Left Behind legislation has resulted in too much testing and not enough teaching.
I watched Pete’s energy level rise as he immediately injected “grit” into the discussion and put Donaldson on notice that his job as moderator would be serious and I would get to see the old creative tension between the two Senators. Pete said “I respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleague”. US education is in dire shape and in decline. We rank 17th among developing nations and must work to catch up. He said part of the problem is the influence that the national teachers unions have….then parenthetically said “but not here”. He reflected on his son David’s experience, who is in charge of a charter school in DC, as he praised alternative schools.
On the economy, Donaldson noted that it appears the economy is slowly recovering. Jeff said that there is no quick fix to repairing the economy. He said we need to reform the tax code and invest in our communities. Cheap natural gas and the internet are changing the picture on the economy, providing us with attendant opportunities. Pete stressed the debt and reminded us that we are in a mild recovery with few jobs being created.
Donaldson praised the NM Senators on energy and their record of working together for the benefit of New Mexico. Jeff said he supports oil & gas exploration “done the proper way”, while expressing the hope that we not pull back on the development of alternative energy. He said for the next twenty years coal, nuclear, solar and wind will all be part of our energy mix. Pete stressed the need to support the development of shale resources, particularly in the Farmington area, using fracking and horizontal drilling. He reminded the audience of Sandia National Laboratories’ role in improving fracking and horizontal drilling technology. He admonished people to not support opposition to fracking and assured that ground water will be protected.
Donaldson quoted Rodney King and pointed to Congress saying “why can’t we just all get along?” Friday the Farm Bill was not passed in the House due to the gridlock in DC. Jeff reminded the audience of the extreme gerrymandering that has occurred in the country with representatives elected from districts so unrepresentative of the country that they have no reason to compromise for the benefit of the country. Pete pointed to the filibuster and quoted recent comments by Bob Dole supporting a change in the filibuster rule. He also explained needed changes in how Congress prepares the budget.
Jeff closed the Forum outlining three “transitional” issues which are energy, education and healthcare. On energy, he said that we at the early stages of a lower carbon based economy because of global warming. He said that we are in a carbon and water constrained world and technologies must be developed to address these constraints. He pointed to our national labs to help. He again supported the development of common core standards in the nation’s schools in which students should face more hours of instruction and more days in the classroom and more Federal money to local schools. He encouraged the development of a national action plan for education. On healthcare, he said that the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will improve health outcomes is a no brainer. There will be great benefits to New Mexico with $6.5 billion coming for Medicaid recipients and $2.3 billion for the Health Exchange. The result of this infusion of money will be a large number of jobs for New Mexicans - if we don’t import workers from out of state.
I found the interplay between Bingaman, Domenici and Donaldson fascinating. We were graced by watching three men who are extremely comfortable with themselves and one another. Pete, still ready to articulate his positions and moving easily through a memory lapse as he and Donaldson joked about it. Jeff, of course, bemused at times but never fazed and always impressive.
Jeff and Pete started and sponsored NM First, and I hope that the Congressional delegation will continue to support this valuable New Mexico institution. And congratulations to NM First leader Heather Balas and her team for accommodating an overflow crowd with grace and aplomb.