Colorado’s Republican Civil Rights Icon

Peter Dominick
Former U.S. Rep. Peter Dominick / Courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office

Sixty years ago, the nation anticipated a New Frontier as the 42-year-old Democrat John F. Kennedy began a star-crossed presidency in which he promised to lead a country that would “bear any burden” in the cause of liberty. Here in Colorado, the excitement of the dawning 1960s showed up arrived for those on the other side of the political divide. Peter Dominick, a Holland & Hart lawyer, took office early in 1961 as a Republican U.S. representative in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Dominick, then 45, had come to Denver in 1946 after serving as a pilot in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Dominick was born in Connecticut to an affluent family that found its success through the establishment of a Wall Street brokerage firm shortly after the Civil War. The company, which still exists, grew rapidly enough that it could buy the third seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Growing up in Massachusetts, the tall young man enjoyed polo and tennis and attended the prestigious St. Mark’s School in Southborough. He matriculated at Yale University in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, for undergraduate studies and then went on to earn a law degree there before moving to New York, marrying his wife, Nancy, and starting his legal career in 1940.

After less than two years at the bar, and two days after Pearl Harbor, Dominick joined the military. He already knew something of flying, so it was perhaps a natural choice for Dominick to sign on as an aviation cadet. During the war, the New Englander flew dangerous missions in a region of the Himalayas known as “the Hump.” Rising to the rank of captain, Dominick won two air medals and the distinguished flying cross as he flew missions from Burma (now known as Myanmar) and India into China. Unbeknownst to his family, Dominick kept detailed diaries of his service, which were published in 2018.

In Colorado, Dominick settled into a life at Holland & Hart and with his wife and growing family in Arapahoe County. The Dominicks had four children — Peter Jr., Michael, Lynne and Alexander. Entering Republican politics, Dominick was an avid supporter of Dwight Eisenhower during the general’s successful 1952 campaign for the White House and then first ran for public office in 1954, losing a contest for a seat in the state House of Representatives. He tried again two years later and, in 1957, became a member of the General Assembly.

By 1960, Dominick decided the time was right to run for Congress. The 2nd Congressional District, which at the time included northeastern Colorado, but not Denver, was represented by Byron Johnson, who had risen to fame in the state as an economist and former University of Denver professor. Dominick won with nearly 58% of the vote. He shared the spotlight in that year’s election with John Love, another Republican who won the governorship and later served as an advisor to President Richard Nixon.

After one term in the House, Dominick again benefited from good political timing in 1962. That year he ran for the U.S. Senate against another one-term incumbent, John Carroll. A World War I and World War II veteran, Carroll had served as Denver’s district attorney and as an assistant to President Harry Truman before entering Congress. Dominick won easily, going on to serve two terms in the chamber.

Even by the standards of his time, Dominick was a conservative Republican. He was skeptical of taxation and generally opposed bills that would increase the rights of labor unions to organize. On the other hand, Dominick voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the legislation in 1968 that included the Fair Housing Act. Dominick also voted to confirm Thurgood Marshall, the first Black American ever nominated to the Supreme Court. During the late 1960s and early 1970s Dominick, who loved the outdoors, voted for the country’s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. He also sponsored legislation to create three units of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the state: the Eagles Nest Wilderness, Flat Tops Wilderness, and Weminuche Wilderness.

Dominick was a steadfast supporter of President Richard Nixon, even as the Watergate scandal began to dominate public awareness of politics. By the early 1970s, he had also begun to show symptoms of heart disease. Political backlash in the aftermath of Nixon’s fall and Dominick’s loss of vitality led to a decisive loss to Gary Hart in 1974. By then, Dominick may also have been suffering from multiple sclerosis, though the symptoms of that disease did not become apparent until after he left the Senate.

President Gerald Ford, a fellow student at Yale Law School, appointed Dominick as ambassador to Switzerland in 1975. Service as a U.S. ambassador did not last long. Dominick resigned the post after about eight months as his health continued to decline. Retirement, which the former senator spent in a wheelchair, was relatively short. Dominick died on March 18, 1981 — 40 years ago this month — in Hobe Sound, Florida. His remains are interred at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. Nancy Dominick died in 2015.

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