TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — 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.