The following profile, the second of three of the candidates for Indiana secretary of state, was written by Indiana journalists Barb Berggoetz and Steve Hinnefeld for The Indiana Citizen.
October 17, 2022
Diego Morales (above) calls himself a living example of the American dream, a conservative Christian guided by his faith and a proud, successful naturalized citizen. As the Republican candidate for Indiana secretary of state – an office his party has held for nearly three decades – he ordinarily would seem well positioned to become the first Hispanic candidate ever elected to statewide office in Indiana.
But he’s battling self-inflicted wounds, some would say, as he fights to become the state’s chief election officer in a race attracting more attention than in the past due to a national focus on election officials in a splintered political climate.
Morales, who defeated an incumbent to become the Republican nominee, has gained the support of significant party regulars for his energy and stances on election security. But his campaign has been rocky, and his vision for the office unclear. Morales has not shown up at either of two candidate debates, leaving criticisms of him leveled by his two opponents to go unchallenged. At times before and after winning the nomination at a party convention in June, he has made conflicting statements as to how he would operate as chief election officer and has said little or nothing about how, if at all, he would try to improve voter turnout ranked among the nation’s lowest.
Morales’ refusal to debate, said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, and to answer the candidate survey distributed by her organization make it difficult to know where he stands on election issues.
“He’s walked back several of the more extreme positions he took before the Republican convention and that, in and of itself, is concerning,’’ she said. “We really don’t know what he would advocate for as secretary of state.”
In interviews and answers to a candidate questionnaire distributed to Morales, Democratic candidate Destiny Wells, and Libertarian Jeff Maurer by The Indiana Citizen, Morales dismisses reforms such as automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting. He maintains that “the measures that have been adopted with the goal to increase voter turnout have seldom worked.’’
His answers suggest he would do little if anything to change measures already in place except to urge expanding the state’s photo-ID requirement to include absentee voting. On his website, Morales says he will “be vigilant in defending the sanctity of each ballot and election integrity.”
Early in the campaign, he called for cutting the state’s 28-day early voting period in half and putting strict limits on who can vote by mail. He has since walked back those ideas, saying local election officials persuaded him that current absentee rules and the early voting period are appropriate.
“We have lots of opportunities for everybody to get out there and vote,” he told The Indiana Citizen in an interview.
His stance against efforts making it easier to register and vote is based on his claim – disputed by results in some other states – they haven’t increased turnout.
“History has seen voter turnout is largely candidate and issue driven,” he said.
Democratic opponent Wells, however, cited evidence from the National Conference of State Legislatures that links automatic and same-day registration with higher turnout. States that adopted same-day registration saw a boost in turnout while evidence for automatic registration was mixed, the organization said.
“In an ideal scenario,” she said in an interview, “I’d say we should move to automatic voter registration, then no-excuse absentee voting – unless I see counter evidence.”
On questions about campaign finance laws, redistricting of election maps and whether certain offices should be appointed, not elected, Morales deferred to the Indiana General Assembly.
He said he would stand firm against any effort to “federalize” Indiana elections, an apparent reference to efforts by congressional Democrats to expand voting rights and limit partisan gerrymandering through measures like the We the People and John Lewis Voting Rights acts.
“I would like to go to Washington, D.C., and tell the federal government to let us deal with our elections here,” Morales said.
Before the Republican state convention, Morales posted a column on the conservative news site Hoosier State Today arguing the 2020 presidential election was “a scam” and the outcome was “questionable.”
He wrote that it was “stunning and incredibly regrettable” that Holli Sullivan, the incumbent Republican secretary of state, didn’t want to revisit the results of the election.
That and other statements got Morales labeled an election denier by his critics. Later, he walked back the claims. He now says Joe Biden is the “legitimate president” but quickly adds that “he’s doing a horrible job.”
But Morales is still listed as an endorsed candidate by the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a group organized by Nevada candidate Jim Marchant and aligned with former President Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
At a recent Trump rally, Marchant name-checked Morales and other candidates and said, “If we get all our secretary of states elected across the country right now, we take our country back.”
Yet issues of policy have been overshadowed by the controversies and character issues surrounding Morales. He has been dogged by criticism of his work record, his military service and recent allegations of sexual misconduct some 15 years ago from two young female colleagues.
Morales won the nomination over incumbent Sullivan, an ally of Gov. Eric Holcomb. This result may have alienated the more moderate, establishment Republicans who support the governor.
Morales, though, has attracted some significant support, including long-time Republican fundraiser Bob Grand. He sees Morales as a hard-working and honest party loyalist who’s needed to help broaden the GOP’s base.
“I think he’s a very genuine person. He has a lot of integrity. He works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Grand, Barnes & Thornburg’s managing partner. He chairs Morales’ executive committee and supported him in an unsuccessful U.S. Congress primary bid in 2018.
“I’m energized to help him because I believe the Republican Party has got to embrace Hispanics,” added Grand, who met him 10 years ago when Morales worked as an advisor to then-Gov. Mike Pence.
“We have to diversify our party. I think he adds a lot and can help us in growing our base. We have to adjust and be more welcoming and more helpful to those folks.”
William Ellis, a former Monroe County GOP chairman, agreed. He said Morales is “one of the most perfect candidates” for a Republican party trying to appeal to a diverse electorate.
“Diego’s talking points and policies are something Republicans have asked for,” he said.
Other Republicans have mixed feelings about him. They worry about negative perceptions of Morales, who was once fired from the secretary of state’s office and another time left under criticism of his job performance. He’s attributed those circumstances to office politics.
Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who formerly served as state legislator and chairman of the Marion County Republican Party, said he agrees Morales is “a ball of energy – like an energizer bunny.”
“I think he’s in (the race) for the right reasons,’’ he added. “And I think the fact that he’s never run for a state office before is not against him, but in his favor.”
Still, Murphy says he can’t back him now. He thinks Morales should be more transparent about lingering questions regarding his military service and the sexual misconduct allegations.
“Because of the sexual misconduct allegations, I have not decided who I’m voting for,’’ Murphy said. “However, I expect Morales will win.”
The women who made the allegations, both colleagues of Morales and Republicans at the time who say they now support Wells, said he initiated unwanted sexual advances, one incident occurring in 2007 and another in 2009, when they were in their 20s. They both said he repeatedly kissed and touched them while they tried to resist.
The Indy Politics online news site first reported their stories, but the women were not named.
In a prepared statement, Morales denied the allegations and called them “politically motivated,” coming out soon before the election. He won’t answer questions about the accusations publicly.
Both he and his accusers, though, say they would be willing to answer questions under oath about the alleged incidents.
Wells and Maurer responded immediately to the allegations – Wells saying the women “need to be heard and believed” and Maurer calling them “very serious allegations” that Morales needs to address in a public debate.
Republican Murphy expressed concern.
Morales needs to take these allegations seriously, he added, and “has an absolute obligation to respond in a very forthright and honest way.”
Grand attributes the accusations to political mud-slinging. He doesn’t fault Morales for not responding any further than his denial statement.
“Why would you say anything?’’ he said. “How do you respond to anonymous sources, about something that happened 15 years ago? It doesn’t matter. There are going to be some people who believe it and a heck of a lot more people who don’t.”
Yet Murphy said political parties have the “role of vetting candidates who are presented to the public and should take that role seriously. Both parties fall flat on their face sometimes when it comes to vetting,” adding “I hope we have not failed this time.”
While the truth may not be known before Election Day, Murphy said, voters will have to weigh Morales’ statements versus the accusers’ stories and decide what is “reasonably believable.”
Despite the controversies, Morales has been trying to stay focused on his message while criss-crossing the state. He’s campaigned at Republican Party events and local fairs and parades.
But he has declined to share a stage with his opponents, turning down or disregarding invitations for a panel discussion sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Bar Association and a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Maurer and Wells participated in both, as well as in many town hall events sponsored by the Democratic Party and open to all candidates in numerous races. Other Republican candidates have not appeared at them either.
“I said from Day One, I’m a grassroots candidate,” Morales stressed. “I like to be out there talking day-to-day with the voters.”
But his opponents have rebuked him for not facing questions in public with them. At the recent League of Women Voters debate, Maurer compared Morales to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has refused to debate in the past, declaring, “For candidates that refuse to debate, the company you keep is Vladimir Putin.”
Some supporters say Morales does a commendable job making his case and presenting himself on the campaign trail.
“This guy is really good out in the streets,” said Grand. “He’s a likable person and can relate well to people.”
Murphy recognized Morales is good at “retail politics” and has a good story to tell. But he added, “He’s sometimes inartful or incomplete in the way he tells it.”
Morales, of Indianapolis, leans heavily on his immigrant experience to tell his story. He is a business executive, consultant and entrepreneur, according to his LinkedIn profile. He is co-owner of Ventures USA, a property management services and staffing company. When he was a high school senior, he immigrated with his parents and two older sisters.
The family settled in Sellersburg, a town of 9,000 in Clark County, near the Ohio River. He is vague about the circumstances that brought his family to the United States, but he said he was embraced by the small Southern Indiana community and experienced no discrimination.
“Sellersburg is the best small town in America for me,” he said during a mid-October interview accompanied by two campaign staffers at a co-working office space in Indianapolis. “They opened their arms to me and my family.”
Morales, who arrived without knowing English, said he worked two or three jobs at the same time, sometimes in factories. He said he often went without enough sleep and worked tirelessly to become fluent in English and pay for his own college education.
“People need to know, through hard work and determination, perhaps I have accomplished something,” he said. “You can tell I have an accent, and I am not ashamed of my accent, because there’s a story behind my accent.”
Morales said his father was a “small entrepreneur” who traveled back and forth between Guatemala and the U.S. on business before bringing his family to Indiana. He drew a hard line between immigrants like his family and those who cross the border without proper documentation.
“You need to understand,” he said, “we respect the rule of law. We want to do everything legally, the right way.”
Morales attended Indiana University Southeast, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, majoring in communication, in 2004. Later, he earned an MBA from Purdue University. He received the IU Alumni Association President’s Award in 2007.
Morales and his wife, Sidonia, an Eastern European immigrant whom he met while studying in Europe, married in 2013. He also has one daughter, Nikoletta, 23.
He said he always gravitated to the Republican Party for its “pro-family, pro-Second Amendment, pro-economy” positions. He got involved in politics as a campaign volunteer for Mike Sodrel, a businessman who was elected to Congress from southern Indiana’s Ninth District in 2004.
“He’s a great man. Mike has always been a great mentor to me,” said Morales,
Morales became a paid member of Sodrel’s staff and worked in other Republican election campaigns. Later, he was a senior aide to then- Gov. Pence in 2015-17. Pence headlined a $500-per-ticket fundraiser for Morales earlier this month in Carmel.
Morales’ employment history – specifically his previous service in the office of secretary of state for which he is now running – has been another source of controversy..
In 2009, under then-Secretary of State Todd Rokita, he was fired after being cited for “incomplete” and “inefficient” work and a “lack of focus.” Two years later, he was rehired by Rokita’s successor but resigned after refusing to sign a work improvement plan.
The Associated Press revealed the work history in 2018, when Morales was seeking a Republican nomination for Congress. Rokita has endorsed Morales and joined him at a fundraiser in September.
Morales also faced questions when his campaign spent nearly $45,000 for a new Toyota RAV4 before he had secured the secretary of state nomination.
Critics also have suggested he had inflated his military record by calling himself a veteran and using a Twitter photo of himself in fatigues.
His campaign provided records showing he served two stints in the Indiana National Guard, from 2007-10 and 2011-13, and was released to finish his eight-year commitment on what the Army calls Individual Ready Reserve.
He served three months and 18 days of active service in basic training but was not deployed to active duty during his five years in the National Guard.
“The bottom line is, I was ready,” Morales said. “I signed a blank check to be ready to go if needed.”
Ball State University economist Michael J. Hicks, a retired Army reserve lieutenant colonel, said Morales deserves credit for enlisting but his record pales alongside Wells’ 20 years in the military and multiple promotions. He said Morales invited scrutiny by highlighting his service in campaign materials.
“If you’re going to raise your service as an important aspect of your preparation for public office,” Hicks said, “it’s very appropriate that you’re transparent about that service as well.”
Amid the controversy, Morales’ work cultivating grassroots GOP support over the years also has served him well.
He also earned the endorsement of the one-year-old Indiana chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Association, according to its state chairwoman, Victoria Gresham, of South Bend. The group is independent of the GOP but works in tandem with it, she said.
“Diego has gone to every county in the state, listening to constituents,” said Gresham. “I believe he will fact-find and make decisions based on information he has.” She said the group supports his views on requiring voter ID for absentee voting and maintaining election security, and members are not concerned he changed his views on some election issues when he received more feedback.
Morales got an early start in fundraising as well as campaigning.
He raised over $200,000 in 2020, two years before the election. His fundraising lagged after this year’s party convention but picked up again in the fall, when his campaign reported getting $10,000 from several automobile dealers, who are licensed by the secretary of state’s office. The Indiana Republican Party has contributed more than $100,000 in in-kind services, including $80,000 for TV ads.
Candidates’ campaign finance reports for the third quarter of 2022 are due this week.
Some prominent Republicans may be lukewarm on Morales, but the state party appears strongly in his corner.
He’s particularly well-known and popular among rank-and-file party members, says Jerriann Burroughs, a retired bookkeeper and former three-term Spencer County Republican chairwoman who has known Morales for about 20 years. He has come to Spencer and surrounding counties often, first as Sodrel’s representative and now for this race.
“People here were happy that he was running and said it was about time,” said Burroughs, of Rockport. “He really doesn’t need any introduction – everybody knows him. He can talk to everyone from the kids to the old people.”
Burroughs says she believes he has the intellect and character to make a good secretary of state. She also praised his kind nature. He calls her every Thanksgiving to say he’s thankful for their friendship, and they always exchange birthday calls.
As for the sexual misconduct allegations against him, Burroughs said she simply cannot believe he would do anything like that.
“I have not seen one inkling of that behavior out of him. I have never seen him make a sideways glance at a woman. He’s just a gentleman.”
Morales chalks up the controversies to calculated attacks by his political opponents.
“Unfortunately, dirty politics,” he said. “The people who have no ideas, no vision, they have no story to tell, they have to rely on a smear campaign.”
For the final weeks of the campaign, he says he is going to stay the course.
“I’m going to continue to focus,” Morales said, “on sharing my story, my American dream story, with Hoosiers all across the state of Indiana. And I’ll let them be the judge.”
Barb Berggoetz is a freelance writer based in Bloomington. She was a longtime government, education and health reporter for The Indianapolis Star and other Midwest daily newspapers and formerly an adjunct instructor at The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.
Steve Hinnefeld is a freelance writer based in Bloomington. He formerly was an adjunct instructor at the Media School at Indiana University, a media specialist at Indiana University and reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Times.