Karla Hernandez-Mats: Five things to know about Charlie Crist’s pick for Lieutenant Governor

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With the Primary Election in the rearview and Gov. Ron DeSantis squarely in his sights, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is picking Miami-born teachers’ union leader Karla Hernandez-Mats to be his running mate.

Crist is scheduled to officially announce his pick of Hernandez-Mats at a Saturday morning press conference in South Florida.

As the thrice-elected president of United Teachers of Dade (UTD), Hernandez-Mats oversees the operations of the largest labor union in the Southeast United States in the fourth-largest school district nationwide.

It’s a pivotal time for education, with most conservatives and progressive split on where the power should rest when it comes to school safety, education on sex and gender identity, and how racism and slavery should be taught.

DeSantis’ influence on that front is undeniable. Most of the GOP-aligned School Board candidates he endorsed either won their seats outright Aug. 23 or are headed to runoffs. Democrats are looking to stop the bleeding, and Hernandez-Mats’ voice rings loud among UTD’s 30,000 members and the 1.7 million members of its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, of which she is vice president.

So, who exactly is Karla Hernandez-Mats? Let’s take a look.

She’s the first Hispanic leader of UTD and has a family background in unionizing.

A first-generation American born to Honduran immigrants, Hernandez-Mats learned to appreciate the power of collective bargaining as a young girl.

Her father, an accountant in his native country, first worked as a farmhand after arriving stateside, cutting sugar cane and picking tomatoes, among other rote agricultural tasks. One day, he was offered a job as a carpenter. The associated union offered training, advocacy and collective bargaining.

“My dad, having worked in the fields for so long, knowing what it was like not to have rights or a good paycheck, said, ‘Absolutely,’” she told this reporter in 2019. “From a very early age, my parents, especially my dad, taught me the importance of being in the labor movement, advocating for people’s rights.”

She grew up educated in the Miami-Dade County Public School system, where she eventually got a job after graduating from Florida International University with a degree in emotionally handicapped education. In 2007, she earned a master in business administration from St. Thomas University.

Six years later, she ran successfully to be UTD Treasurer. Three years after that, she won the group’s presidency, succeeding Fedrick Ingram, the organization’s first Black leader, whom she has described as “a great mentor.”

She fought for teacher pay raises — and won.

In the leadup to the 2018 Midterms, Hernandez-Mats was among the vocal leaders advocating for Referendum 362, a county ballot measure raising property taxes by $142 yearly for the average Miami-Dade homeowner to increase teacher and school staff pay and hire a school police officer for every campus.

Former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration had allotted Miami-Dade the third-lowest base student pay increase, which could go to teacher raises, among Florida’s 67 counties. To better compensate their educators, Miami-Dade residents joined voters in other counties, including Broward and Palm Beach, in overwhelmingly approving the self-imposed tax hike.

“Our schools are underfunded. Our teachers are underpaid, and they deserve the best because they are giving us the best. We are an A-rated district. We have zero failing schools,” Hernandez-Mats told NBC 6 ahead of the vote, which passed with more than 70% support.

She isn’t a huge fan of public school money going to charter schools.

The victory got an asterisk six months later, when state lawmakers passed legislation in April 2019 requiring school districts to share referendum money with charter schools, including funds allocated through previous referendums.

The measure, which DeSantis signed a month later, has since been tied up in legal challenges. It most recently got an OK in March from the 3rd District Court of Appeals, which reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled charter schools are eligible for public school referendum funding.

Speaking on the issue with Miami Today, Hernandez-Mats described the issue as a symptom of “the overreaching powers of Tallahassee.”

“They want to privatize public education,” she said. “There’s no problem with private schools. They were established for a reason. And there’s no problem with charter schools or charter school teachers either. But they shouldn’t be funded with public tax dollars because they do not have any public oversight. They are not accountable to the public. Public schools are.”

She continued, “At the end of the day, they’re hurting our children. … Why would you do that when the public school system helps and educates 90% of every community? Unfortunately, like our country, it’s going a bit backwards, trying to give to the haves and take from the have-nots.”

She protested for “Dreamers” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol — and was arrested.

Hernandez-Mats in December 2017 joined U.S. Rep. Judy Chu of California and former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois in getting arrested while demonstrating alongside hundreds of protesters in Washington.

They were there to oppose former President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program be phased out and replaced. At the time, the program covered some 800,000 people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, allowing them to work and go to school.

“A lot of these people that came at a very young age felt American in every aspect of their life, went to our public schools, and then they (reached an impasse) until they became ‘DACA-mented,’ because (former President Barack) Obama’s administration allowed them to be DACA recipients so they can go to school and work here,” she told Miami Today roughly a year and a half later.

“We have children we teach in school, and we’re telling them, ‘The sky’s the limit. Don’t hold back. Go to school. Get an education.’ Then they realize they can’t because they’re undocumented. Or we have teachers who are fearful they might be deported because they’re DACA-mented. They’re not sure what’s going to happen to them and their legal status. That’s when we have to speak up for them.”

Hernandez-Mats described the protest as nonviolent.

“Sometimes you have to make bold statements,” she said. “That’s protesting peacefully, which it was. Sometimes that’s part of the job.”

She was among 17 other potential running mates Crist’s campaign floated months ago.

In June, Crist’s campaign released a list of 18 people it said he was weighing as a possible running mate. Twelve are current, publicly elected officials. The remainder, including Hernandez-Mats, are not.

The elected officials Crist considered included incoming Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, state Sens. Shevrin Jones, Tina Polsky and Bobby Powell, state Reps. Anna Eskamani, Al Lawson and Marie Woodson, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, Palm Beach Tax Collector Anne Gannon, Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins and Orange County Property Appraiser Amy Mercado.

He also named Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, former state Rep. Sean Shaw, former Telemundo anchor Maria Celeste Arrarás and Miami lawyer Mary Ann Ruiz as candidates for the Lieutenant Governor position.

After Primary Election Day and with the Sept. 1 deadline for Crist to pick a running mate fast approaching, speculation mounted as to who it would be.

Public opinion analyst Fernand Amandi suggested Crist should sidestep the group entirely and choose Andrew Warren, the Hillsborough County State Attorney whom DeSantis suspended for saying he would not enforce Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban.

NBC News NOW host Chuck Todd and Kristen Welker forwent mentioning any of the candidates Tuesday and instead asked Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Crist’s opponent in the Democratic Primary, if she would accept an offer. She would.

In an guest opinion column for Florida Politics, government law attorney Chris Hand, a seasoned former congressional Press Secretary, singled out Driskell, Eskamani and Mercado as being able to “provide the political acumen and governing experience Crist needs as a running mate.” The catch, he said, is that they would have to either forgo their re-election bids or resign from office to join Crist in his run at the Governor’s Mansion.

To avoid such a tradeoff, Hand recommended that Crist pick between Mucarsel-Powell, former gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, former state Rep. Mia Jones, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose term ends in November, or Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, who is retiring in December.

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