Miami Teachers Union President Running for Lieutenant Governor of Florida

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist chooses president of United Teachers of Dade as running mate

Charlie Crist chooses Karla Hernandez-Mats as his choice for lieutenant governor (Karla Hernandez/Facebook)

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Charlie Crist, Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, named Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, as his choice for lieutenant governor.

This is either a bold move or a foolish one, depending on which political side you’re on.

“By picking Karla Hernández as his running mate, Charlie Crist continues to demonstrate his respect for Florida’s educators as the professionals they are,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, in a press statement.

Supporters of incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis were quick to react. “If it were up to Charlie and Karla, kids would have been locked out of school for 18 months. And parents would be put on an FBI watchlist for raising concerns about indoctrination at school board meetings,” tweeted the DeSantis War Room.

As a practical matter, Florida’s lieutenant governor doesn’t have much to do. The office exists mostly to provide an immediate successor should something happen to the governor. Politically, the choice is usually made in order to balance the ticket geographically, or by race or gender.

Crist has an additional reason to name Hernandez-Mats: Money. DeSantis has amassed a huge campaign war chest, estimated at more than $132 million. Crist drained his reserves to win the Democratic primary and had less than $1 million on hand at last report.

Crist’s largest donor so far is the American Federation of Teachers, which contributed $500,000 to his campaign last month. Having a teachers union officer on the ticket should open the purse strings even further. Outside of direct contributions, Crist can also expect significant independent expenditures from affiliates of both NEA and AFT on his behalf.

Florida’s gubernatorial races are traditionally very close, but a Democrat hasn’t held the office since 1998. Crist is a former Florida governor, but he was a Republican at the time.

Whether the presence of Hernandez-Mats on the ticket will sway the result one way or the other is an open question, but her actions and statements as union president are already being debated.

She opposed reopening Miami’s public schools in fall 2020. “Lives are going to be lost,” she said during a news conference. But a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report later revealed, “resumption of in-person education was not associated with a proportionate increase in COVID-19 among school-aged children.” The CDC concluded that its findings “add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that COVID-19 transmission does not appear to be demonstrably more frequent in schools than in noneducational settings.”

A second issue involves Wendell Nibbs, a middle school teacher who pleaded guilty to engaging in sexual activity with a child. Nibbs was a union building steward and active member of United Teachers of Dade.

Questioned by reporters, Hernandez-Mats distanced herself from Nibbs, and called his actions “horrific, evil and vile.”

We should take Hernandez-Mats at her word when it comes to Nibbs’s crimes, but the Dade union’s executives did benefit from his presence at meetings: Several union stewards told the Miami Herald that union officers used Nibbs to intimidate other stewards who would question the leadership.

“He was their attack dog,” said one steward. “Any time someone opposed the leadership, stood up and said something. He was one of the loudest voices who said, ‘Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

Since being selected, Hernandez-Mats has highlighted her achievements as a union official. One of these requires additional context: Several news outlets have reported that she claimed she had cleared United Teachers of Dade of all debt when she was the union’s secretary-treasurer.

It may come as a surprise to many current members that the union ever was in debt, but that story goes back decades, to the tenure of the late Pat Tornillo. Tornillo ran the union as his personal fiefdom and piggy bank for more than 40 years, until an FBI raid put an end to his reign. He pleaded guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud in 2003.

Tornillo’s crimes left the Miami union’s finances in a shambles. The AFT established a trusteeship over the local and lent it millions of dollars to keep it operating. This is the debt to which Hernandez-Mats referred, and it is true that the Dade union came out of arrears during her term as secretary-treasurer. But it wasn’t really her doing.

The union’s budget for 2014-15 showed it owed AFT $2.4 million in loan repayments and more than $3.6 million to AFT and the Florida Education Association in back dues.

As I reported at the time, the Miami union was able to make good on its repayments only by dumping property it owned. First, the union sold its headquarters building and rented space in it instead. It sold an apartment tower for seniors that it owned. At AFT’s insistence, it sold an empty lot behind its headquarters.

All these real estate deals helped, but it didn’t vanquish the debt. Despite abnormally high dues (currently $978.40 a year), the union continued to make unrealistic membership projections, making it difficult to meet its repayment obligations. Although Miami-Dade Public Schools have about 17,000 teachers and another 18,000 support employees, fewer than 12,000 are union members.

Ultimately, AFT forgave the last $1,126,426 the Dade union owed.

Hernandez-Mats’s advancement from secretary-treasurer to president led to a hefty personal benefit. In 2016-17, her first full year as president, she earned $143,698. In 2020-21, she made $197,225 — a 37% increase over four years.

She’s clearly not joining Crist’s ticket for the money. Florida’s lieutenant governor makes about $125,000, and the governor a little over $130,000.

Crist is gambling that Hernandez-Mats’s record and the funds she can potentially bring will be a net positive in a race against a governor as polarizing as DeSantis. But teachers unions are polarizing as well. His lieutenant governor pick may have the opposite effect. Either way, it will be an interesting test case for future union candidates for higher office.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

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