Standing in front of the crowd in the dimly lit Hialeah Middle Community School library, Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for governor, enthusiastically announced his running mate.
“She’s caring, loving, empathetic, passionate … that’s what we don’t have in the governor’s office right now,” he said. “You know her, you love her, I love her. Meet the next lieutenant governor of Florida, Karla Hernández-Mats.”
The crowd, comprised of educators, some Miami-Dade County School Board members and local politicians, cheered as Carlos Vives’ Song “Ahi llego yo” played.
The two will face Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez in the November midterm elections.
READ MORE: Charlie Crist picks running mate in his campaign for Florida governor. Here’s who it is
On stage, the United Teachers of Dade president looked comfortable, as if she’d stood in that same room before, speaking to a crowd — and she had. Hernandez-Mats, 42, served as a special education teacher at the middle school for 10 years. It was there where she began her teaching career and where she later was named the school’s Teacher of the Year.
“Mi gente,” she prompted the crowd. “How are you doing today?” In her acceptance speech that would last only about 10 minutes, Hernández-Mats often injected Spanish words and phrases.
“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?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s why we’re here today … to defeat DeSantis and bring decency and respect back to the state of Florida.”
Not long after, the crowd began to chant: “Si se puede.” She responded, “Yes, we can.”
The ‘American dream’
For Hernández-Mats, the role of lieutenant governor is to ensure the public understands the issues challenging the state, to educate residents about what’s happening in their communities and elsewhere and to be a great listener.
“We know people are tired of what’s happening. They want to make sure they can live in the communities they live … and people want their freedoms,” she told the Herald in an interview after the announcement. “We’re going to make sure we educate folks, and as a teacher, that’s my niche. I’m all about educating folks and making sure they have the right information.”
From the stage, while speaking to the Herald and, later, speaking to a group of reporters, Hernández-Mats emphasized her experience in the classroom. Schools, she said, are a “microcosm of the community.” When a child has to move schools because a family can no longer afford that community, for example, she pointed to a housing crisis that’s going unaddressed.
READ MORE: Two DeSantis-backed Miami school board candidates win, one edging out a longtime incumbent
But her time as an educator is just one element she brings to the lieutenant governor position, she argued. She is a mom, a teacher, but she’s also an activist, she told the Herald, and has been “supporting the community for a very long time.”
Hernández-Mats joined UTD’s leadership group in 2013 as the secretary-treasurer and three years later, was elected as president, becoming the organization’s first Hispanic leader. As president, she’s credited with spearheading the school district’s campaign to pass a tax referendum to support teacher pay, advocating to keep healthcare premiums frozen and removing the union from debt.
On Saturday, she spoke of her immigrant parents who came from Honduras and “landed right here, in Hialeah.” Her father’s first job was a farm worker, where he traveled to the Everglades to pick sugarcane. He later became a carpenter, a skilled laborer and a “proud union member,” she emphasized.
As a first-generation American, she is the first in her family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University in emotionally handicapped education and, later, a master’s degree in business management from St. Thomas University.
Campaigning as Crist’s running mate, she said, is a testament to the American dream.
“It’s an extraordinary pick,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. As a first-generation American, she “understands the journey.” Equally as important, he said, is that she is a parent and a teacher, and she understands the importance of education.
“DeSantis has spent his first term demonizing education. This is someone who understands this isn’t a way to build democracy,” he said.
Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar shared similar sentiments. In a statement, Spar said Hernández-Mats is “a mom with two kids in our public schools, a teacher focused on students with special needs, and she cares deeply about children, families and communities. By choosing Karla Hernández, Crist makes clear that he values Florida’s students and respects our educators.”
Opposing sides react to nomination
Despite the accolades touted by Crist and Hernández-Mats’ supporters, her UTD tenure has had some bumps — which critics were quick to raise.
On Friday, following the news that Crist would pick Hernández-Mats as his running mate — first reported by CBS Miami — the Republican Party of Florida issued a release that said the Crist’s choice was “another slap in the face to Florida parents. It confirms how out of touch Crist is with Florida families by picking an extremist like Karla Mats that supported school closures, forced masking …”
READ MORE: How did this middle school teacher stay so long while girls said he was molesting them?
For her part, Hernández-Mats in recent months has been outspoken against new education rules DeSantis signed into law in the spring and early summer that limit discussions of race in the classroom and ban conversations about LGBTQ+ issues in grades three and younger. During the pandemic, she encouraged people to wear masks, hosted a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic and more recently and, according to the candidate, fought for safer classrooms for students and teachers.
Outside Saturday’s event, a truck with a mobile advertisement featured a tweet Hernández-Mats sent in November 2016 that Republicans had already singled out online. It read, “A political figure dies at 90. Most in Miami rejoice, many in Cuba mourn #FidelCastro.” The mobile ad appeared to indicate that Hernández-Mats was a Castro sympathizer.
“I am a tough cookie, because I am a teacher that’s been working in underfunded schools for too long,” she responded when asked about it by reporters. She defended herself by saying she, too, had joined with others in the streets to celebrate Castro’s death and redirected the question to point out that last week, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a Cuban-American, suggested that Cubans who were in Florida “illegally” would be bused to Delaware.
READ MORE: Did Florida’s lieutenant governor say ‘illegal’ Cuban migrants will be sent to Delaware?
In 2020, the Herald published an investigation into how a district teacher who’d been accused of sexual misconduct with students was able to maintain his job and also rise into the union’s inner circle. On Saturday, in response to a question that highlighted concerns at the time that suggested the union allowed the teacher to do so, Hernández-Mats said it was “completely incorrect information,” adding that she was not the president at the time.
A plea to vote
Nevertheless, those who’ve worked with Hernández-Mats say she’s up for the job.
“From a non-partisan perspective, I’ve worked with [Hernández-Mats] for the better part of a decade as a union leader,” former Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Herald, adding together, they negotiated fair contracts. “She was a fair partner, always focusing on what was in the best interest of students and teachers.”
Moreover, Carvalho added, she is “thoughtful, rational and dedicated to public education.”
Molly Winters Diallo, Miami-Dade Schools’ 2019 teacher of the year, agreed, saying Hernández-Mats is “passionate, knowledgeable and empathetic,” and “will fight for public education and for educators.”
Back on stage, Hernández-Mats, wearing a bright yellow blazer, urged the crowd to vote, citing issues such as a woman’s right to choose, individual freedoms and voting rights.
“Everything is on the ballot this November,” she said.