SANTA FE — Democratic state Sen. Howie Morales formally entered the race for governor on Tuesday, saying he is not happy with the state's direction and neither are its residents.
"I think people are looking for a fresh, energetic candidate, a leader who is not part of institutional politics," Morales said in an interview.
Morales, 40, of Silver City, became the third Democrat in the field, but he focused many of his comments on Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's performance in office. Martinez, 54, will face the Democratic nominee next year.
"The administration is putting policies in place that are really hurting our state, hurting people," Morales said.
He cited a last-minute bill to cut corporate taxes as one example. Martinez pushed hard for the bill, and another part of it "forces" local governments to raise taxes to make up for lost revenue, Morales said.
He called it a back-door tax increase that amounted to a broken promise by Martinez.
"She said she would not raise taxes but did exactly that," he said.
Danny Diaz, a spokesman for Martinez, fired back at Morales.
"Senator Morales' attack against Governor Martinez is laughable, untrue and lacks any credibility. ... Morales cannot conceal his out-of-the-mainstream record, which includes voting to reinstate the food tax on hardworking New Mexicans while also voting to increase his own legislative retirement pension," he said.
Morales was one of eight senators who voted against the corporate tax bill, which was approved in the final seconds of the legislative session that ended in March. Numerous opponents of the bill, including state Rep. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque, said the measure did not actually clear the House of Representatives until the session deadline had expired.
Morales also criticized Martinez's administration for immediately cutting off funding to the state's biggest mental health agencies after accusing them of fraud. Morales said patient services were disrupted while new, out-of-state providers were hired and the case was sent to state Attorney General Gary King to investigate the allegations.
Martinez has defended stopping the flow of money, saying "credible allegations of fraud" showed that up to $36 million could have been stolen.
King, 59, is one of Morales' opponents for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. The other is state Sen. Linda Lopez, 49, of Albuquerque.
King has been in the race for more than a year and Lopez for six months.
Martinez dwarfed them both in fundraising, amassing almost $3.3 million as of last week, more than 15 times their combined total.
Morales said he expected to be questioned all day about Martinez's big lead in terms of money.
"I'm not intimidated. A lot of that money comes from people who don't live in New Mexico," he said.
Morales emphasized his biography and ties to the state when meeting with reporters and voters.
"My father mined copper, and my grandfather was a custodian. They instilled in me the New Mexico values of caring for each other and the importance of doing everything you can to make things better for the next generation," he said.
Though many believe Morales is still a teacher, he has worked as a hospital administrator for almost six years. He is taking a leave from his job so he can campaign most of the time and attend to his duties as a senator.
Coming from a blue-collar background, Morales highlights his life as an example of all things being possible.
He received a doctorate in education and was a teacher, baseball coach and a Grant County clerk. Former Gov. Bill Richardson appointed him to fill a vacancy in the Senate in 2008, and Morales has since won election to the seat twice.
Morales said some may believe this is not the right time for him to run because of Martinez's campaign wealth. He called it the perfect time because he has the right message.
"The opportunity is now because the need is now," he said.
If elected, he said he would stress collaboration to make government work well, not sputter chaotically. Jobs, education and accountability are his other themes.
In addition to saying Martinez was guilty of broken promises, Morales said her performance was characterized by "hidden agendas and out-of-touch leadership that's more concerned with political ambition than the ambition of our young people."
"A higher minimum wage? Vetoed. Increased standards for nursing homes? Vetoed. Reading coaches in schools? Vetoed. Funding for women's health care? Vetoed," Morales said.
He has been the most vocal critic of the A-F grading system for more than 800 public schools that Martinez counts as one of her proudest accomplishments. He said the system was inaccurate and a disservice to New Mexico kids and teachers.
Morales got a bill through the Legislature last winter to revise the grading formula while keeping the A-F format. Martinez vetoed it.
He said Martinez's approach on schools was one that strangled intellectual curiosity because of too much reliance on standardized testing.
"We will take back our schools and end the unfair reforms that limit our children by teaching to the test instead of giving kids the freedom to dream," he said.
Morales would not be New Mexico's youngest governor, but he would among them. David Cargo was 37 when he won the state's highest office in 1966 and Edwin Mechem was 38 when he was elected governor in 1950. Both were Republicans.