TALLAHASSEE — Charlie Crist, the Democrat challenging Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, introduced the head of the largest teachers union in the Southeast as his lieutenant governor candidate Saturday morning during a rally at the Hialeah school where she taught for a decade.

Karla Hernández-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, joined her running mate at the rally at Hialeah Middle School where he described her as “empathetic and compassionate” — qualities, Crist added, that “we don’t have in the governor’s office now.”

Hernández acknowledged the cheers in Spanish from “mi gente,” “my people,” in taking the stage and quickly trained her focus on the Republican governor.

“We are here today to defeat Ron DeSantis and bring decency and respect back to the state of Florida,” Hernández said, outlining her support for defending abortion rights, voting access and inclusion which Democrats have made a theme of this year’s contests.

“Everything is on the ballot this November,” concluded Hernández, who is a first-generation Miami native of Honduran descent.

The announcement was livestreamed on Facebook and Twitter.

Before leading the Miami-Dade teachers union, she was named Hialeah Middle School’s teacher of the year in 2010 for her work with children with special needs. She has two children in public school.

With DeSantis advancing conservative policies on schools that limit discussion of race, gender- and sexual-orientation, while also campaigning to oust school board members who have defied him, Hernández’ selection will further elevate the education issue in the governor’s race.

“By choosing Karla Hernández, Crist makes clear that he values Florida students and respects our educators,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Republicans dismissed Hernández for being a union leader who resisted DeSantis’ push for reopening schools during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Julia Friedland called her, “the perfect fit for lockdown lover Crist’s unpopular, anti-parents campaign.”

Like most running mates, Hernández provides a sharp contrast to the 66-year-old Crist, bringing balance in gender, ethnicity and experience to the Democrats’ ticket.

A first-time political candidate, Hernández will be paired with a three-term Democratic member of Congress from St. Petersburg, who was Republican governor from 2007-11, and is now making his seventh statewide run for office.

Hernández , though, did make her first foray into the governor’s race last month, when she was among a handful of supporters the Crist campaign made available to reporters following his lone TV debate with primary opponent Nikki Fried.

Campaign debut came last month

Asked then if Crist was being urged to appoint a running mate who is a person of color, woman or from the LGBTQ community, Hernández said he needed no prodding to include diversity in his campaign and, if he wins in November, his administration.

“He absolutely understands that diversity is key; that it’s important,” she said. “We know that not only is he about unity, but he wants to really represent the people of Florida. He knows that all the people in Florida don’t look like him.”

A source close to the campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hernández was chosen not solely to promote education issues. But rather, the source said, she will be asked to step forward on defending abortion rights, voting access, and LBGTQ equity in the campaign ahead.

Hernández has been head of the Miami-Dade teachers union since 2016. Two years later, she helped lead a county ballot measure that resulted in overwhelming voter support for what is considered the largest pay increase in history for Miami-Dade teachers.

Still, Hernández may not be an eye-catching pick. On the state stage, she was low-profile enough that DeSantis’ War Room social media team initially could only attack her for a couple of Twitter posts.

One was an October 2021 tweet in which she likened some parents attending school board meetings to Halloween monsters trick-or-treating at a door.

“For any of you following the school board meetings, you know that the craziness is real,” she posted.. “God be with us.”

But as the DeSantis attack team continued burrowing into her social media history, it posted more on Twitter attacking her as a “union boss” and for resisting the governor’s demand to open schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Saturday morning, the DeSantis campaign had a lighted sign board outside Hialeah Middle School attempting to link the politics of Crist’s running mate and United Teachers of Dade to Fidel Castro and the old Soviet Union.

But the selection also drew praise from National Education Association President Becky Pringle.

“By picking Karla Hernández as his running mate, Charlie Crist continues to demonstrate his respect for Florida’s educators as the professionals they are,” Pringle said. “And he knows that our teachers and education support professionals…should have a seat at the table when education policy is being crafted.”

While DeSantis is sitting on more than $130 million for his re-election bid – and Crist’s campaign account is almost empty following his primary win, had received $500,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers union.

Fried bypassed

Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, who Crist easily defeated in Tuesday’s primary, had said that she was open to joining the ticket as running mate for the general election. In a primary night interview with NBC-News, she said that defeating DeSantis was the priority.

“So I will do everything in my power, including being on Charlie’s ticket, to make sure that happens in November,” she said.

But Fried, who ran an aggressive campaign against Crist, casting doubt about his support for abortion rights, also may have hurt her chances by losing to the nominee by 25%, and even bigger margins in the Democratic hotbeds of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

In his bid for a second term, DeSantis is sticking with Lieutenant Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami native and former state legislator.

Just last week she drew criticism for saying on Spanish-language radio in Miami that undocumented immigrants arriving in Florida, including Cubans, should be bused to President Biden’s home state of Delaware.

Drawing heat for the comment, Nuñez said Democrats were just trying to enflame the issue in an attempt to win Hispanic votes. DeSantis also pushed back, denying that she meant busing Cuban arrivals, adding that the issue was moot, since he’d shelved plans to bus anyone to Delaware.

Contributed: USA Today Network-Florida Enterprise/Politics Editor Sergio Bustos. Reach him at [email protected]

“By picking Karla Hernández as his running mate, Charlie Crist continues to demonstrate his respect for Florida’s educators as the professionals they are.”

National Education Association President Becky Pringle
© Copyright (c) 2022 The Florida Times-Union

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