SANTA FE -- Call him the silent senator.
State Sen. Michael Sanchez promised to disclose by Labor Day whether he would seek the Democratic nomination for governor. Instead, he boycotted his own campaign announcement.
Now he responds to no one who wants to ask whether he is in, out or still stuck on a fencepost somewhere between his law office in Los Lunas and the State Capitol.
As majority leader of the Senate, Sanchez is a political powerhouse. But he mishandled his flirtation with a gubernatorial campaign. Sanchez set a deadline, missed it, then ducked for cover.
Had Sanchez entered the governor's race, the field of Democrats likely would have stabilized. State Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque and Attorney General Gary King are running. Sanchez would have become the favorite to beat them in a primary, and his presence would have stifled interest by others.
But with Sanchez apparently out, a 40-year-old lawmaker still could emerge as a contender for governor.
He is state Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City. Morales would not have run if Sanchez had. Morales knew he could not have matched Sanchez in fundraising or name recognition in a primary.
Now Morales could be an alternative for a party unexcited by Lopez or King.
Morales says he continues to receive encouragement from people who cannot envision the announced candidates providing tough competition for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
"The constant feedback I get is that it's not going to work" with Lopez or King as the nominee, Morales said.
Morales has a Ph.D. in education. He has been a teacher, baseball coach, Grant County clerk and, since 2008, a state senator. In his regular job, he works for a regional medical center.
Morales says Martinez's style has been unnecessarily combative, and that people would be ready for a change if they had a good option.
Martinez's administration this year stripped funding from 15 mental health agencies because of the possibility of fraud. A political organization friendly to Martinez has been running ads to shore up support for that decision. But the issue has energized her critics, including Morales. They say proper oversight of the mental health providers was lacking under Martinez's watch.
Morales also has been the legislator most outspoken about deficiencies in the A-F grading system for public schools that Martinez counts as one of her proudest accomplishments. At a legislative hearing in which Morales led the questioning, a member of Martinez's administration admitted that the grading formula was so complicated that perhaps only five people in New Mexico could understand it.
Martinez says giving schools letter grades improved accountability. Morales counters that the system is inaccurate, volatile and does a disservice to students and school staffs.
"When elephants rumble, it's the grass that suffers," Morales said.
Though Morales would be the youngest candidate in the race, he says he is the most seasoned on fiscal matters, having been appointed to the Senate Finance Committee his second year in office.
"I was a part of making tough decisions to see New Mexico come out of the recession," he said.
Lopez stumbled badly last winter when she delayed a committee vote for a third consecutive year on whether the Senate should confirm Martinez's nominee for education secretary. King has lost two previous races for governor, an office his late father, Bruce King, won three times.
Morales would be more than a fresh face in the race. He fights hard for his causes, but has none of Sanchez's abrasiveness. Morales is the best orator of the bunch, and he would match Martinez on likeability.
Martinez would dwarf Morales in fundraising, but she would do the same with Lopez or King.
If he jumps in, Morales would make the governor's race more interesting, and he would make sure the focus was on each candidate's performance in office.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.