By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist on Saturday formally announced Karla Hernandez, the teachers union president in Florida’s largest school district, as his running mate in the November election.
Crist described the Miami native and daughter of Honduran immigrants as “caring, loving, empathetic, 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 while at Hialeah Middle School, where Hernandez spent a decade teaching special-needs students.
After asking supporters if they are “tired of the culture wars and the extremists that are dictating what we can say and do,” Hernandez said, “everything is on the ballot this November.”
“If you care about freedoms, and you care about women’s freedom to choose to have autonomy over their body, I need you to vote,” Hernandez said. “If you care about protecting people’s freedoms and making sure that they have access to vote, I need you to take a friend to go out and vote. We are here because also on the ballot is our opportunity to bring sunshine back into the state.”
While abortion was a key issue in the Democratic primary campaign, the selection of Hernandez ensures education will remain a top topic as Democrats try to defeat Gov. Ron DeSantis in the general election. The Republican incumbent also has made education issues a priority, including taking the unusual step this year of helping elect county school-board candidates who share his conservative positions.
Hernandez, 42, has been president of the United Teachers of Dade since 2016 but has never held public office.
Republicans quickly went after Hernandez, whose selection was first reported Friday by CBS Miami reporter Jim DeFede.
The Republican National Committee called Hernandez “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 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) 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 state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in Tuesday’s primary.
The FEA said in a news release that Crist’s selection of Hernandez 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 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 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 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 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 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 described the goals of teaching as a microcosm of the community.
“That’s the beauty of public education,” Hernandez 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.”