By Jim Owen
Following the disappointment of finishing far behind Gary King in the Democratic Party primary election for governor, state Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, has returned his focus to legislative matters.
Visiting each of the 33 counties during the campaign gave him "insight on how New Mexicans are doing in all parts of the state," Morales said. "It was a wonderful experience. I have such a broader view."
Morales won six counties (Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, Catron, Dona Ana and Socorro). He carried his home county with 85 percent of the vote.
"I was the only candidate in any statewide race who came from outside the Santa Fe or Albuquerque area," he noted. "It is such a big state, it is difficult to connect with everyone and get your message out."
Complicating that challenge was Morales' inability to finance significant statewide television advertising. He did not get a TV spot on the air until the final week of the campaign.
"There were too many in the race, which dried up the money," he said. "People waited until after the primary (to make campaign contributions). That really put me at a disadvantage, because of the other candidates' personal money."
His campaign got off to an encouraging start at the party's pre-primary convention, where Morales won nearly 30 percent of delegates' votes. He said those Democratic activists are "the insiders who keep up on the issues and the political scene."
The convention and campaign built name recognition for Morales, who said he "came into the race relatively unknown to the whole state." More than 400 people attended his campaign announcement in Silver City.
Morales gained momentum when the New Mexico chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, as well as AFSCME Council 18, endorsed him. The campaign had more than 800 donors, representing every New Mexico county.
"I showed that I was a viable candidate," said Morales, who would not speculate about another possible run for governor. Noting that 2018 "is a long way away," he stressed that he is focusing on legislative issues.
During his seven years in the state Senate, Morales has become one of the Democrats' leading voices about public education. A former teacher and coach, he holds a doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction.
He has been an outspoken opponent of several education initiatives implemented by Gov. Susana Martinez and her education secretary. During the most recent legislative session, Morales proposed two bills regarding the governor's A-F grading system for schools. He wanted to establish a school-grading council to review the program's methodology.
He said the grading formula should include student participation in extracurricular activities, attendance and truancy rates, teacher training and experience, poverty, family educational background, access to educational resources, rural-versus-urban locations, "and other factors beyond the school and classroom."
His proposal to amend the grading system cleared both chambers of the Legislature, but Martinez vetoed it.
Morales said he will continue trying to reform public education, while also advocating for increased funding of human-service programs and higher pay for state employees (including teachers).
Another area of concern for Grant County's senator is the state budget. As a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Morales plays a role in developing the spending plan each year.