January 19, 2019

Morales adds visibility to lieutenant governor’s role

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Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales on the first day of the 54th New Mexico legislative session on Tuesday, January 15, 2019.

A bell on a desk greeted visitors to the lieutenant governor’s office during Howie Morales’ first couple weeks on the job.

Ring for service, a sign said.

Not particularly glamorous, it seemed to sum up the office of lieutenant governor, which comes with few official duties and even fewer prospects for higher office.

But Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her early days in office has handed Morales a more expansive profile than many of his predecessors. She asked the former state senator, teacher and high school baseball coach to oversee the Public Education Department until she names a cabinet secretary.

Following a lieutenant governor who kept a low profile outside the Capitol, Morales and the flurry that surrounds him in his fourth floor Capitol office could you leave you wondering whether the job might just matter again.

For the last two weeks, at least, Morales has had the job of re-setting the relationship between educators and the Public Education Department.

He says the department should be a support and resource for districts.

“Many school districts have not viewed the department in that way,” he said in what might be an understatement in describing the often intense battles between the reform-minded administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and teachers unions as well as some districts.

Morales has a doctorate in education from New Mexico State University. He has taught special education and coached winning teams at Cobre High School in Bayard. A father of two children, ages 6 and 9, he got into politics when was elected Grant County clerk.

Later appointed to a seat in the state Senate representing part of Southwestern New Mexico, he became a reliably liberal voice on issues ranging from education to tobacco taxes to health insurance. And when Sen. Michael Padilla dropped out of the race for lieutenant governor at the end of 2017, leaving the contest up for grabs, Morales jumped in and emerged as the front-runner. Morales had good name recognition, having run for governor in 2014.

Now the Public Education Department will have a big role to play as the Lujan Grisham administration proposes putting another $500 million into public schools. The state faces a judge’s order to devise a plan for improving the quality of education for groups of students most at risk of failing.

The new administration’s approach was clear when Morales sat alongside the governor in the Cabinet room on Jan. 2 as she signed an executive order that ended PARCC standardized testing and an unpopular system of evaluating teachers.

Lujan Grisham also announced Morales would take a supervisory role at the Public Education Department.

Scrapping the old testing and evaluation system rankled some, particularly Republican lawmakers who say such measures are crucial as the state plans to pour hundreds of millions of dollars more into schools. How else, the reasoning goes, will the state know whether the money is going to the right place or making a difference?

Morales, though, has argued that the department needs to take a different approach to schools.

And his rise in the new administration is novel in recent New Mexico history.

The last lieutenant governor, Republican John Sanchez, kept a low profile. That was probably easy enough. He had a strained relationship with Martinez, kept only a few staff around and rarely sought out headlines.

Technically, the lieutenant governor’s duties include presiding over the state Senate when it is in session, acting as governor when she is out of state, sitting on various boards and commissions and handling constituent services as a sort of government ombudsman.

The job is no springboard to higher office. The only times a lieutenant governor has risen to the state’s highest office have been after the sitting governor died or resigned.

But Morales has quickly become a prominent surrogate for Lujan Grisham.

“I think this shows the working relationship we have is based on trust and her seeing my passion and my expertise in the field as a resource for her to help move things along,” Morales said.

He said he intends to stay involved at the Public Education Department once a secretary is in place, too. Legislative aides say they expect an announcement soon.

It may be worth watching to see how long all of this lasts.

Relationships between the state’s top two elected officials are often strained. Lt. Gov. Casey Luna ran against Gov. Bruce King in the 1994 Democratic primary, for example. And one of King’s previous running mates, Roberto Mondragon, ran against him in the general election that same year as the Green Party candidate.

Maybe this duo works out. Morales is, after all, unassuming and soft-spoken, accustomed to the grunt work of retail politicking.

And now he is on the move.

For one thing, the lieutenant governor says he’s getting rid of the bell and bringing in an assistant.

As of last year, the lieutenant governor’s office was budgeted for just a couple aides. The governor’s 2020 budget requests a 10 percent increase in his office’s budget, or about $51,000.

So, there may be a receptionist if visitors happen to stop by.

Still, Morales says: “Just call me Howie.”