Crist picks Miami teachers union leader as running mate as he challenges DeSantis

Karla Hernandez-Mats (WPLG)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Democrat Charlie Crist on Saturday tapped Miami-Dade County teachers union president Karla Hernandez-Mats as his running mate as he challenges Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.

Crist, a congressman who served as the state's Republican governor a decade ago, announced United Teachers of Dade President Hernandez-Mats as his lieutenant governor pick at a brief rally in South Florida, describing her as a compassionate former teacher of special needs children with the “heart” necessary to govern.

“Caring, loving, empathic, compassionate — that's what we don't have in the governor's office right now and that's what you deserve to have in the governor's office,” Crist said before introducing Hernandez-Mats to the crowd.

The selection of Hernandez-Mats ensures a campaign focus on education, an arena where DeSantis has had success in animating his conservative base through his hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic and policies limiting classroom discussions of race and LGBTQ issues.

Crist secured the Democratic nomination this week after a campaign that focused heavily on criticizing DeSantis as a “bully” who gained political prominence through his willingness to exploit cultural divides on gender, sexuality and race.

On Saturday, Hernandez-Mats framed the Democratic ticket as a way to “bring decency and respect back to the state of Florida" and preserve abortion access and voting rights.

“It has been dark in here but we're going to bring the sunshine back,” she said.

Hernandez-Mats advocated delaying students’ return to school in the fall of 2020 and continuing mask mandates in 2021, in defiance of DeSantis’ administration. She has also previously been critical of a new law critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” which bars classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as well as material that is not deemed age-appropriate.

The daughter of two Honduran immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1970s, Hernandez-Mats was the first Hispanic elected to lead the United Teachers of Dade in 2016. She was born in Miami and her father picked tomatoes in the Everglades before becoming a carpenter and labor leader, according to a statement from Crist's campaign.

Crist defeated state agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried in the Democratic primary in a race that increasingly centered on abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade and a new Florida law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. Fried often questioned Crist's Democratic bonafides, highlighting his appointment of conservative state Supreme Court justices while he was a GOP governor. The state's high court is soon expected to decide the constitutionality of the GOP-backed 15-week ban.

Crist on Saturday reiterated a pledge to sign an executive order protecting a woman's right to choose, upon the first day of his new administration.

DeSantis as governor has become one of the most popular Republicans in America, with his frequent and vocal opposition to Democratic President Joe Biden and liberal policies on abortion and gender issues winning him large sums from wealthy GOP donors and fueling speculation of a 2024 presidential bid.

In Florida, with the help of the GOP-controlled Legislature, DeSantis has carried out a brash approach to policymaking, exerting unusual control over the state's congressional redistricting process, suspending an elected prosecutor who pledged not to enforce the 15-week abortion ban and punishing Disney for opposing the law that bars lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3.

The governor this week, in a speech after Crist’s primary win, did not mention Crist by name, instead casting the general election as a battle against Biden and “woke” ideology.

Republicans quickly went after Hernandez-Mats, whose selection was first reported Friday by CBS Miami reporter Jim DeFede.

The Republican National Committee called Hernandez-Mats “the perfect fit for lockdown lover Crist’s unpopular, anti-parents campaign.” DeSantis’ campaign tweeted Saturday that Crist’s choice is a “sympathizer” of the Castro regime in Cuba.

The Republican Party of Florida on Friday night called Hernandez-Mats an “extremist” and “a slap in the face to Florida parents.” It also took aim at her over COVID-19 issues, saying she supported “school closures, forced masking and, if given the opportunity, would allow the indoctrination of Florida students.”

The state GOP also pointed to wins in Tuesday’s primaries by two DeSantis-backed candidates for the Miami-Dade County School Board, Monica Colucci and Roberto Alonso. Among 30 candidates who DeSantis endorsed across the state, 19 won races outright and six advanced to the November general election.

“(Hernandez-Mats) must be puzzled that Charlie chose her given that she, as president of the Miami-Dade teachers union, delivered a big defeat to Democrats right in her own backyard of Miami-Dade County, where candidates endorsed by Gov. DeSantis flipped the school board to prioritize students and parents,” the state GOP said.

Teachers unions have long been a key backer of Florida Democrats in gubernatorial elections and other races. The Florida Education Association statewide union endorsed Crist before he defeated Fried in Tuesday’s primary.

The FEA said in a news release that Crist’s selection of Hernandez-Mats shows he “values Florida’s students and respects our educators.”

“Karla Hernandez will be a great lieutenant governor for all the people of Florida,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in a prepared statement. “She’s a mom with two kids in our public schools, a teacher focused on students with special needs, and cares deeply about children, families and communities.”

The candidates and parties have a gulf of differences on education issues, including more than two decades of battles about vouchers and school choice.

DeSantis has fought school boards that he’s accused of not respecting parental rights on issues such as mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic and the contents of books. He and the Republican-controlled Legislature also, for example, have restricted what can be taught in schools about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Democrats have countered that classroom instruction has suffered as Republicans made schools political battlegrounds.

If Crist, a St. Petersburg congressman, defeats DeSantis in November, Hernandez-Mats would become Florida’s second Hispanic female lieutenant governor. The first is current Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a former Miami-Dade legislator who was elected with DeSantis in 2018.

Hernandez-Mats was on a list of 18 potential running mates floated by the Crist campaign in June. The majority of the people on the list were elected officials. When Crist unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014 against then-Gov. Rick Scott, his running mate was a Hispanic woman from Miami-Dade, now-state Sen. Annette Taddeo.

Hernandez-Mats credited her father with teaching her the importance of labor advocacy as he took jobs on farms in South Florida after immigrating from Honduras, where he had been an accountant.

“Every day he would travel to the Everglades to cut sugarcane and pick tomatoes,” Hernandez-Mats said. “Later, he became a carpenter. A skilled laborer. And a proud union member. You see, my mom and dad taught me the value of hard work and the opportunity that it brings. He worked hard his whole life and taught me to do the same. And I follow his example, it’s called the American dream.”

Hernandez-Mats attended Miami-Dade public schools before earning a bachelor’s degree at Florida International University and a master’s degree in business administration from St. Thomas University.

Hernandez-Mats described the goals of teaching as a microcosm of the community.

“That’s the beauty of public education,” Hernandez-Mats said. “Every teacher and every student in our classroom comes from the community. So, we have kids that are children of electrical workers, bus drivers sitting next to children of parents who are lawyers or engineers.”