Florida Rep. Charlie Crist, second from right, stands with United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernández-Mats, center, at an event in Miami Springs on May 31, 2022.
CNN  — 

Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for Florida governor, has picked as his running mate Karla Hernández-Mats, the head of the teachers union in Miami-Dade County, in a clear sign that he intends to put education at the center of his campaign against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Crist announced Hernández-Mats as his nominee for lieutenant governor on Saturday at a middle school in Hialeah, capping a week that saw him win the party’s nomination to take on DeSantis in November.

Born to Honduran immigrants, Hernández-Mats worked for 10 years as a teacher in South Florida and was named teacher of the year in 2010. She has served as president of the United Teachers of Dade since 2016. She is also a vice president for the American Federation of Teachers, which donated $500,000 to Crist’s campaign earlier this month.

“She wasn’t just a teacher, she was a teacher of special needs children. That’s a heart,” said Crist, who won the governorship as a Republican in 2006 and was the losing Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2014. “That’s a heart, caring, loving, empathetic, compassionate – that’s what we don’t have in the governor’s office right now.”

Democrats have bristled at how DeSantis has reshaped public schools in Florida – pushing through a massive expansion of vouchers for students to attend private schools; restricting certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation, gender identity and race; and giving parents avenues to challenge school materials and take legal action against teachers they say aren’t following state guidelines.

“Are you tired of the culture wars and the extremists that are dictating what we can say and do?” Hernández-Mats said moments after Crist announced her as his running mate. “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.”

It’s a fight that DeSantis is eager to have. The governor has touted his administration’s battle to reopen schools faster than most states and to block mask and vaccination requirements, despite opposition from teachers unions. He often boasts that he eliminated high-stakes end-of-the-year tests for students in favor of more regular monitoring of student progress. DeSantis has also accused teachers of indoctrinating students with “woke ideology.” This election cycle, DeSantis has waded into nonpartisan school board races, endorsing about 30 candidates who have vowed to support his education agenda at the local level. Most of them were successful in Tuesday’s elections.

As news of Crist’s choice began to leak Friday afternoon, DeSantis’ campaign criticized Hernández-Mats on Twitter as an “anti-parents rights extremist.”

“If it were up to Charlie and Karla, kids would have been locked out of school for 18 months,” the campaign said on Twitter. “And parents would be put on an FBI watchlist for raising concerns about indoctrination at school board meetings.”