MIAMI — In choosing the head of the largest teachers union in the Southeast as his running mate, Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for Florida governor, said he found a partner to embody the caring and empathy that he argues Gov. Ron DeSantis sorely lacks.

Crist named Karla Hernández-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade, as his lieutenant governor pick Saturday, casting the former middle school special education science teacher — who is unknown to the vast majority of Florida voters — as a passionate parent and advocate ready to govern at his side, despite her lack of experience in elective office.

Hernández-Mats has “a good heart,” Crist said in a brief interview, the first after making his decision. “That moves me more than anything, always.”

The daughter of Honduran immigrants, Hernández-Mats taught for a decade in Hialeah, a working class, heavily Cuban American and heavily Republican city northwest of Miami. In 2010, she was named Florida’s teacher of the year. Her mother was a secretary, she said, and her father a farmworker who cut sugar cane and picked tomatoes until he landed a union job as a carpenter.

“It epitomizes the American dream,” Hernández-Mats said of her life in a separate interview, her first since becoming Crist’s running mate.

Crist said he would continue to emphasize how unaffordable the state has become under DeSantis and how the governor has restricted people’s rights, including by opposing abortion, which is now illegal in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

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But in selecting a teachers union leader, Crist has ensured, for better or worse, that the governor’s race will remain focused at least in part on matters of education, a topic that DeSantis, a Republican, has seized as an electoral strength in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

DeSantis, who gained a national following for bucking public health experts and reopening Florida businesses and schools sooner than other states, has made “parents’ rights” a centerpiece of his message. He has waged cultural battles against teaching about gender identity and racism in schools. And he campaigned for 30 school board candidates, almost all of whom won or made it into runoffs in Tuesday’s primary election. Two of the winners were in Miami-Dade County.

The Republican Party of Florida wasted no time in criticizing Crist’s pick, saying before the campaign officially named Hernández-Mats that she represented “another slap in the face to Florida’s parents.”

“It confirms how out of touch Crist is with Florida families,” the party said in a statement Friday.

Crist dismissed the notion that voters would agree with the criticism that sharing the ticket with a teachers union chief would somehow put him in opposition to parents.

“I believe that parents being involved is incredibly important, and teachers should also be respected for their expertise,” he said. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

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Democrats argued that Hernández-Mats could relate to voters as a working mother who understands the challenges inside classrooms. And, as a Spanish speaker, she can reach Hispanic voters whom the party has struggled to win.

“Hispanic voters are obviously immensely critical to building a winning coalition for Democrats,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant in Miami who is Nicaraguan American. “The best way to go toe-to-toe is if you have someone in the community to fight back.”

In the interview, the energetic Hernández-Mats seemed eager to fulfill a running mate’s frequent role in attacking the opposing candidate.

“The state is stripping away freedoms,” she said. “Gov. DeSantis doesn’t want women to choose or have autonomy over their bodies or health care. They take away one freedom and then they take away more freedom.”

“Just a few months ago, people were like, ‘Teachers are amazing!’” she added, recalling how teachers were praised for teaching online early in the pandemic. “And now we have a governor that attacks teachers and public education. To what end? This is what dictators do.”