FOR THE RECORD: This story should have said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Howie Morales left classroom teaching in 2004. The story incorrectly reported he left classroom teaching in 2000.
Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Howie Morales’ journey from teacher and high school baseball coach to Democratic candidate for governor hasn’t left much time for rest stops.
Morales, 41, is the youngest of the five candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s 2014 nomination, but he says his background as a state senator and former county clerk – in addition to a doctoral degree in education and top hospital job – has prepared him for the responsibilities of statewide office.
Obviously, people think just from my appearance that I look younger than I really am,” Morales told the Journal. “But I really don’t worry about the concern I’m too young or need more experience, because I actually come across as the most experienced candidate in this race.”
In March, Morales stirred the attention of state politicos by receiving the largest share of delegate votes – about 29 percent – at the Democratic pre-primary nominating convention. He also has received endorsements from two of the state’s largest unions, which have 35,000 combined members in New Mexico and plenty of political heft.
But the Morales campaign also faces stark challenges, chiefly a limited campaign war chest – he reported having $44,700 in his campaign account earlier this week – and a shortage of statewide name recognition.
“A combination of low name recognition and a small bank account creates a challenge,” longtime New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff said.
Recent state history also poses a hurdle, as no sitting state legislator has been elected governor since Jerry Apodaca in 1974.
Growing up in Silver City, Morales learned firsthand about labor issues, as his father and a grandfather worked in local mines.
“When the mines would go on strike, I knew what it was to have to pay with food stamps or wait in line for government cheese and milk,” Morales said in a recent interview.
Morales, whose given name is Henry – he got the nickname “Howie” from a cousin who couldn’t pronounce his name – attended Western New Mexico University on a baseball scholarship, though the team was scrapped in 1993.
After several years as a special education teacher, Morales left the classroom in 2000 due to what he describes as disillusionment with federal No Child Left Behind mandates. He was hired as the Cobre High School baseball coach in neighboring Bayard – the school’s baseball field was named after him in 2010 – and went on to earn a couple of graduate degrees.
Morales is on leave from his job as administrator of the Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City, where his wife, a psychiatrist, also works as a medical director.
In his first foray into public office, Morales was elected Grant County clerk in 2004. When longtime state Sen. Ben Altamirano died in December 2007, Morales was recommended by local county commissions and then appointed to the vacant seat by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. He finished out the last year of Altamirano’s term, was elected to his own term in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012.
The rapid ascent from hardscrabble roots to the Roundhouse has even impressed political foes.
“He is a charismatic guy; he’s well-liked in our southwest communities, coached many of our kids and is viewed as sort of the ‘golden boy who made good,’ ” said Linda Pecotte, chairwoman of the Grant County Republican Party.
In the Legislature, Morales has been critical of Gov. Susana Martinez’s education initiatives, including an A-F school grading system and new teacher evaluations.
Morales sponsored 2013 legislation that would have revamped the school grading system, but Martinez vetoed the bill.
He says the Republican governor’s education ideas are misguided.
“I do feel that they’re based off of a premise that is sort of a business model, which is different than the educational model,” said Morales, who points out he is the only candidate with classroom teaching experience.
In addition, one of his big labor endorsements was from the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico, one of the state’s largest teachers unions.
A member of a key Senate budget panel, Morales became a lawmaker a year before an economic downturn prompted steep state spending cuts. He has taken issue with Martinez’s claim that she balanced the state budget, noting that Martinez did not take office until January 2011, after some cuts had already been made.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Morales is well-versed on health care and education, in addition to the state’s finances.
“He’s bright, he’s young and he has an energy level that would lend itself to the magnitude of the campaign he’s trying to run,” said Smith, who represents a neighboring Senate district. “He’s not a one-issue candidate.”
However, critics have targeted some of Morales’ votes, including one he cast against a 2013 tax package restructuring the state’s business tax structure, among other things, and another in favor of a 2010 bill to impose a tax on junk food items.
“He seems to be trying to position himself as an ultraliberal with his voting record, instead of truly putting our state first,” Pecotte wrote in an email.
Geography could be an advantage for Morales in the five-way Democratic race, as Morales is the only candidate who hails from the southern part of the state, Sanderoff said.
“I think for Howie Morales to have any chance of winning the Democratic primary, he has to really consolidate support in southern New Mexico,” he said.
A father of two young children, Morales said he’s traveled up to 1,300 miles a day while on the campaign trail.
As for the endorsements from AFT and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, Sanderoff said they could also be influential.
“The key there will be what the unions do with those endorsements,” he said, referring to possible spending on television ads and campaign mailers.
The union support could also be key because Morales has invested a smaller amount of his own money – a total of $25,000 – into his campaign than have three of his four rivals.
If elected governor, Morales would seek to increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $11 per hour by 2017. He would also aim to give state employees a 6 percent pay raise, triple the state tourism marketing budget and create 200,000 new jobs by 2022.
He said those proposals could be accomplished in part by eliminating some existing tax breaks, though he did not specify which ones.
“I think we have some outdated incentives that have been there for a long time that we’ll have to really take an in-depth look at,” Morales said.
Other campaign pledges include calling a special session on water-related issues and leading trade missions to more than a dozen different countries.
Morales, who charges that Gov. Martinez has failed to fulfill her pledges to eliminate government corruption, also claims he would improve transparency.
“I will be a governor who is open and honest,” he said. “Our taxpayers deserve the opportunity to be able to understand exactly what’s happening in state government.”
Morales has encountered some turbulence on the campaign trail, with ties to individuals connected to recent New Mexico controversies raising some eyebrows.
Last month, Morales attended a Deming campaign event that was hosted by a group of supporters that included Scott Chandler, owner of a beleaguered southern New Mexico ranch for troubled teens.
At least three pending lawsuits allege children were abused while in the Tierra Blanca Ranch’s youth program, and Chandler reportedly said that Morales worked during this year’s 30-day legislative session to “help out the ranch.”
However, Morales said he doesn’t know much about the ranch’s operations and said he never voted on a bill that would have given a state agency more oversight over youth programs like the one run by Tierra Blanca.
“I have never lobbied for or against any piece of legislation that would have affected the ranch,” Morales said. “All I did was what I was supposed to do as a state legislator – be open and listen to any person’s concerns about how state government is run.”
Morales confirmed he has flown to campaign events on a plane owned by Roque Garcia, the former head of a behavioral and mental health nonprofit in Las Cruces. The Martinez administration has claimed an audit showed overbilling and possible fraud on the part of Garcia’s nonprofit and 14 other providers.
Morales said he has known Garcia for years and pointed out that Garcia has not been formally charged with any wrongdoing.
“Nothing’s come out of it,” Morales said. “I appreciate the assistance he’s given me.”