• Democrat Charlie Crist tapped teachers' union boss Karla Hernández-Mats as his running mate. 
  • Crist is running against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made education one of his top issues.
  • The fights will be over curriculum and school policies. 

HIALEAH, Florida — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist has selected a teacher's union boss as his running mate to defeat Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida, a decision that puts education issues front and center in one of the nation's most closely watched races. 

Crist announced Saturday that he'd selected Karla Hernández-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade since 2016, to run on his ticket. Hernández-Mats is a former middle school special education teacher who was named Florida's "Teacher of the Year" in 2010 and is the daughter of Honduran immigrants. 

As for DeSantis, he views his education policies as one of his strongest cases for reelection. The governor defied federal health officials and teachers' unions in the fall of 2020 when he decided to reopen schools during the pandemic.

Though he was met with backlash for months, many blue states eventually followed suit as they concluded school closures did more harm than good. The coverage over the school reopenings clash, and DeSantis' ability to regularly generate national headlines, have plenty of people speculating he'll be running for president in 2024. 

Hernández-Mats has previously clashed with DeSantis and defied him by implementing mask mandates in schools. She resisted school reopenings and said schools should have remained virtual. Asked about her position on Saturday, Hernández-Mats said during a press conference with reporters that she had not been wrong, and took credit for the fact that school reopenings weren't linked with increased COVID-19 deaths. 

"We've always been in favor of opening our schools," she said. "We just wanted to make sure our schools opened with the right measures so that we could protect our kids and protect the people that work with children every single day." 

In his speech Saturday, Crist described Hernández-Mats as "empathetic and compassionate," qualities that he said couldn't be found in his Republican opponent. Throughout his campaign, Crist has cast himself as an experienced legislator and unifier. 

Anna Fusco, who heads the Broward Teacher's Union, told Insider that Hernández-Mats "the best choice he could have made," calling her a "strong, strong woman for everyone's rights."

"It sends a message to DeSantis that you're wrong and we are going to make it right again," she said, "that you don't know what you're talking about. And that education is the foundation, the core of our country, and our Florida, so it's a message of get out of the way. We're coming in and we're winning, and we're gonna make Florida what it once was.

In a statement, the Republican National Committee compared Hernandez to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who lobbied to delay school reopenings.

Julia Friedland, RNC spokeswoman, called Hernández-Mats "the perfect fit for lockdown lover Crist's unpopular, anti-parents campaign."

The RNC also called Crist a "lockdown lover" in an email to reporters. 

DeSantis is keeping his current lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez, on his ticket for reelection. Nuñez is a former state lawmaker also bilingual in Spanish and English.

During his time in office, DeSantis has fanned culture-war issues by moving to restrict school curriculum or practices on race, gender, and sexual orientation. He has touted the phrase "parental rights" in advocating for parents having more insight into how schools select textbooks and curriculum.

"He has focused on cultural wars and banning books, that doesn't do anything for our children," Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz told Insider in an interview. 

But there are some signs DeSantis' positions on education have support. This year DeSantis took the unprecedented step of endorsing 30 candidates for school board, and 25 of them were either elected or advanced during Tuesday's primary — a sign that the campaign views as evidence that people embrace the governor's education agenda

Hernández-Mats told reporters Saturday that voters who supported DeSantis' school board candidates "need more education" about what the real issues are in Florida's schools.

Rep. Charlie Crist and Gov. Ron DeSantis. Foto: Octavio Jones/Getty Images and Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Hernández-Mats promises to 'bring decency and respect back'

If elected, Crist has pledged to make the position of education commissioner an elected position, to increase teacher pay, and to declare a teacher shortage emergency at a time when the state has a 9,000-person teacher shortage, among other pledges

Florida is No. 48 in the nation for average teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association, even though state lawmakers and DeSantis increased their pay this past year and gave teachers bonuses.  

On Saturday during her acceptance speech, Hernández-Mats wasted no time bashing DeSantis. 

"Are you tired of the culture wars and the extremists that are dictating what we can say and do?" she asked her rally of supporters, oscillating between English and Spanish. "Are you sick of politicians who act like authoritarians trying to tear apart our democracy? That's why we are here today: to defeat Ron DeSantis and bring decency and respect back to the state of Florida."

Crist made his running mate announcement at Hialeah Middle School, where Hernández-Mats taught. Hialeah is a city in Miami-Dade County with a majority Hispanic population and has the highest percentage of Cuban and Cuban-American residents of any other US city. 

Hernández-Mats, 42, hasn't previously held elected office. She has faced criticism for a 2016 tweet in which she said many people in Cuba were mourning the death of Fidel Castro, Cuba's communist dictator. 

Asked to explain the statement on Saturday, Hernández-Mats called out Nuñez for recent comments she made about how Florida should send immigrants to Delaware. 

"The reality is that when Fidel Castro died, I was out in the streets with pots and pans, banging them and celebrating with the rest of my colleagues and my neighbors," Hernández-Mats. 

Crist, a congressman whose district includes St. Petersburg, is bidding for his old job. He previously was governor of Florida, as a Republican, from 2007 to 2011, and was Florida's education commissioner in 2000. 

"We want actual freedom for the people of Florida because under DeSantis he talks about, 'We're the freest state in the country," Crist said. "Well evidently not if you're a woman and want to choose, or an African American who want access to vote, or a senior citizen who wants to be able to vote by mail."  

Hernández-Mats told reporters she was "proud" and "humbled" Crist picked her, and said she was "ready to work." 

"This is part of the American dream," she said. "I am a first generation American. You know, my parents are immigrants and to think that these opportunities could be offered to me, a middle school teacher, this is what the United States is about."

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