TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP/WSVN) — Democrat Charlie Crist on Saturday tapped Miami-Dade County teachers union president Karla Hernández-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 Hernández-Mats as his lieutenant governor pick at a brief rally held Saturday at Hialeah Middle School.
“I am running for governor of Florida to defeat Ron DeSantis,” said Crist.
Crist described his running mate 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 Hernández-Mats to the crowd as Karla Hernández.
Hernández-Mats was a special needs teacher at Hialeah Middle School for 10 years, even garnering a Teacher of the Year award. Now she hopes to continue her American dream as lieutenant governor.
The selection of Hernández-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, Hernández-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.
Hernández-Mats advocated delaying students’ return to school in the fall of 2020 and continuing mask mandates in 2021, in defiance of DeSantis’ administration.
“We were able to mitigate the spread of COVID, because we did that, not because the governor was out her giving us resources,” she said. “As a matter of fact, he was trying to penalize us for doing that, so the reason that we opened and that we were successful and that we saved kids and that we gave parents the choice to decide whether they were going to be in person or virtual, that was us, baby, so we did that.”
Hernández-Mats 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, Hernández-Mats was the first Hispanic elected to lead the United Teachers of Dade in 2016, the fourth largest teachers union in the country.
“I come from a family of immigrants. I am a first-generation American. My parents came to this country from Honduras, settling right here in Hialeah,” she said.
Hernández-Mats 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.
“Karla really represents to many of us in this community, where 60% of our residents are foreign-born, the American dream,” said Manny Diaz, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.
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 policy-making, 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.
Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association endorsed Crist and Hernández-Mats in a statement that reads in part, “By choosing Karla Hernández, Crist makes clear that he values Florida’s students and respects our educators … Parents and educators can trust Crist to address the real problems that affect kids every day, such as Florida’s massive shortage of teachers and support staff.”
“Our job here is to educate the people in Florida, and the people in Florida have been telling us what their needs are. They want freedom,” said Hernández-Mats.
During the rally, Crist also announced a Freedom to Learn Plan. If he is elected as governor, he said, he will immediately declare a teacher shortage emergency and fight to raise their salaries.
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