One of the ugliest manifestations of the conservative assault on public education has been the open disdain that Republican politicians and their media allies have shown for teachers. In their smear campaign, right-wing politicians and pundits are painting educators as agents of anti-American indoctrination, groomers of children for sexual abuse, and shiftless burdens on the taxpayers. It’s gotten so bad that in Wisconsin, the Republican challenger to Democratic Governor Tony Evers is bashing the incumbent—a former science teacher and elementary school teacher—for “working in the education establishment all his life.”
The message from GOP heavyweights is clear: Teachers are not to be trusted, respected, or even liked. No wonder so many districts across the country are struggling to fill teaching positions as the 2022 school year begins.
But Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee against arguably the nastiest teacher-basher of the bunch, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is pushing back.
Crist, a former governor and current Democratic representative, is not just embracing teachers as essential contributors to public schools and communities. He has chosen to make one of Florida’s most outspoken and activist teachers his running mate for lieutenant governor.
After winning the August 23 Democratic gubernatorial primary by a landslide, Crist’s first task was to name someone to run with him on the party’s fall ticket. He turned to Karla Hernández-Mats, a former special education teacher and Hialeah Community Middle School “Teacher of the Year,” who currently serves as president of United Teachers of Dade. Hernández-Mats’s union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association and is the largest teachers union in the Southeastern United States. It’s also one of the most influential local labor organizations in the country.
“She wasn’t just a teacher. She was a teacher of special needs children. That’s a heart. That’s a heart: caring, loving, empathetic, compassionate—that’s what we don’t have in the governor’s office right now,” said Crist at an announcement rally at the Miami-area middle school where his running mate taught. “You know her, you love her, I love her. Meet the next lieutenant governor of Florida, Karla Hernández-Mats.”
Hernández-Mats, an energetic leader who won her second term as leader of United Teachers of Dade with 73 percent of the vote, hit the statewide campaign trail running.
“Are you fired up and ready to take back Florida? Are you tired of the culture wars and the extremists dictating what we can’t say and do?” Hernández-Mats asked the crowd at the announcement event. “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.”
The crowd of educators holding “Teachers for Crist” signs, school board members, and parents chanted, “¡Si se puede!”—echoing the historic United Farm Workers union call to action that was translated into to the “Yes, we can!” message of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
Crist is staking his political future on a bet that Floridians are, indeed, tired of DeSantis’s constant haranguing of teachers and local school districts for providing honest instruction about the history of the United States, respecting transgender youth, embracing science, and following public-health mandates during the coronavirus pandemic. The incumbent, who is hoping that his culture-warrior stance will make him the choice of Republicans as their 2024 presidential nominee, has proposed to solve the teacher shortage by rewriting the rules so that people without education degrees can teach in public schools. He has also championed legislation to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” and recently signed a law that prohibits public schools from providing instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity.
Crist is prepared to push back, as is Hernández-Mats, a 42-year-old parent of two public-school students and the daughter of immigrants from Honduras. Like other leaders of teachers unions in the state and nationally, Hernández-Mats has been an ardent critic of DeSantis, declaring, “I’m appalled when I see our current governor bully students, attack teachers, and use schools as a battleground for his own personal political agenda.” She is also a seasoned campaigner. Though she has never held public office, she has for the better part of a decade been a top-elected leader of her union, which serves more than 30,000 employees in the Miami-Dade County School System. And she has emerged as a respected figure in local, state, and national political circles because of the leadership she brought to fights like a successful 2018 referendum campaign to raise pay for teachers and improve school safety.
While Republicans often turn to business leaders to recruit candidates for high office, Democrats only rarely turn to union leaders. That’s a mistake because union leaders, by the nature of their work, develop organizing and communications skills that can translate to partisan election campaigns. And that is particularly true with Hernández-Mats, who gets high marks from AFT National President Randi Weingarten, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a savvy political counselor to presidents and presidential contenders.
“Today, the state of Florida gains a candidate for lieutenant governor whose passion for and dedication to children, families and communities are unmatched,” said Weingarten, a longtime observer of Florida politics who relishes the stark contrast between a Republican ticket led by the teacher-bashing governor and a Democratic ticket that features a teacher as the nominee for lieutenant governor. “The contrast couldn’t be more clear,” said Weingarten. “DeSantis wants to fight culture wars and politicize schools. While [Hernández-Mats] wants to make sure teachers have the support and resources to focus on #WhatKidsNeed.”