Florida’s largest teachers union throws their support behind Charlie Crist for Governor

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Charlie Crist for Governor press conference with the Florida Education Association (FEA). May 31, 2022.

Florida’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, has thrown their support behind U.S. House Representative Charlie Crist, who’s running to become the Democratic nominee for Florida Governor. With several endorsements from labor already under his belt, the FEA is the latest labor organization to back Crist, who hopes to unseat the incumbent Republican Governor Ron DeSantis this fall.

“The current governor has gone around the state vilifying teachers and staff and encouraging others to do the same,” said FEA President, Andrew Spar, at a Tuesday press conference in support of Crist in Miami Springs.

“We need a governor who will support the teachers and staff in our public schools, and the students who attend Florida public schools. We need someone who has been there before, who has stood and continues to stand with teachers, staff and students in our public schools. Someone who not only understands the importance of public education for our children’s future, but understands that public schools are central to our communities, our state and our democracy.”

A not-quite endorsement from the teachers union

Yet, Tuesday’s show of support for Crist wasn’t a formal endorsement from the union. In lieu of that, the teachers union is bringing its recommendation of Crist for Governor to the Florida AFL-CIO — the state’s largest federation of labor unions — which is holding a convention to vote on statewide endorsements in Orlando at the end of the month.

The FEA is the largest state affiliate of the Florida AFL-CIO, representing roughly 150,000 teachers, educational support staff, higher-ed faculty, and graduate assistants in Florida. 

The Florida AFL-CIO has a comprehensive screening and endorsement process that’s baked into its affiliates’ constitution and bylaws. That process is meant to ensure all union affiliates have a say in which candidates formally get the labor federation’s backing. Later this month, about 350 to 400 delegates of the Florida AFL-CIO will gather for a convention to vote on formal endorsements for statewide 2022 races, according to Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin.

But early endorsements of candidates, like Crist, can be requested. “According to our rules and process, any statewide affiliate can request an early endorsement for a statewide candidate before the convention,” Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO told WMNF on Wednesday.

Such was the case in the federation’s early endorsement of Democratic U.S. House Representative Val Demings, who’s currently running for Marco Rubio’s seat in the U.S. Senate. 

Templin told WMNF that the FEA had sought an early endorsement of Crist, prior to the Tuesday press conference. A motion was made by the FEA and labor federation’s 60-member Committee on Political Education (COPE) committee, which conducts the screening and questionnaire process for statewide Congressional seats and cabinet races, took up it for a vote. 

But unlike Demings, Templin says Crist did not get a supermajority two-thirds vote of support from the committee members, who are drawn from the federation’s executive board. “There was robust discussion, and a vote was taken,” Templin said. “There was not a two-thirds supermajority to make that [the early endorsement] happen. So the motion failed.”

All three frontrunners in the Democratic primary for Florida Governor – Rep. Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and State Senator Annette Taddeo – are vying for labor’s endorsement, Templin confirmed. With that endorsement comes the Florida AFL-CIO’s resources, infrastructure, and people power that’s “what’s truly meaningful in a successful campaign,” according to Templin.

In order to get that formal backing from the federation, a candidate must get at least 66% of support from the labor delegates at the Orlando convention later this month. If no single candidate does, then there is no endorsement, at least in the primary.

The latest in labor to back Crist, formally or informally

The Florida Education Association is one of three affiliates of the Florida AFL-CIO that has gone “completely outside of the [standard endorsement] process,” in announcing their support for the Congressman, per Templin. 

In recent months, Crist has also been endorsed by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1625, as well as various local, state, and national politicians.

From fighting for a $15 minimum wage in Washington to his long-standing support of union workers across Florida, particularly during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, Charlie Crist has always put our workers first, not last,” UFCW Local 1625 President, Ed Chambers, said in a news release.

Still, Templin admitted that the decision by the FEA to come out and support Crist prior to the federation’s convention later this month was “extraordinary.”

Over email, a spokesperson for the FEA told WMNF that while waiting for the Florida AFL-CIO’s endorsement is “preferred” under FEA guidelines, it’s not required.

As it is, the FEA’s recommendation of Crist will be brought to the Florida AFL-CIO during the federation’s convention in Orlando, lasting June 23 to June 26.

What the teachers had to say

On Tuesday, several Florida educators spoke out in support of Crist, who formerly served as Florida’s Education Commissioner in the early 2000’s, and who previously sat in the Governor’s office as a Republican from 2007 to 2011.

“In 2010, Congressman Crist was Governor Crist, and there was barely a teacher shortage in the state of Florida,” said Spar, an elementary music teacher and FEA president.

Now, Spar says, the teacher shortage “is one of the worst we’ve ever seen. Florida’s colleges and universities were graduating about 8000 new teachers in 2010. This year, we expect under 3000, maybe as low as 2000 new teachers to graduate. Average teacher pay in Florida ranked 36th in the nation, and today, it ranks 48th in the nation.”

Nancy Velardi of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association said Crist has a track record that proves he’s the right person to advocate for Florida’s educators as Governor. “I was an educator in Pinellas in 2010 when then-Governor Crist, with the stroke of a pen, stopped a juggernaut of a bill that was going to destroy education, vetoing a bill that he knew would derail his own career.”

In 2010, Crist vetoed a bill, known as Senate Bill 6, as Governor that would have tied teachers’ pay raises to student performance on standardized tests. In doing so, he acted against party lines. “I had never witnessed integrity like that in a politician or in anyone else to be honest,” Velardi said.

Karla Hernandez-Mats of the United Teachers of Dade also recalled being impressed by Crist’s Senate Bill (SB) 6 veto. “Governor Charlie Crist then had the common sense, [he] had the ear, understood, heard the people — heard educators cry when we said that [the bill] was not going to be good for public education. It was not going to be good for students, and it was not going to be good for the people who are working with children,” said Hernandez-Mats. 

Today, Hernandez-Mats says, Florida needs leadership that will unite, not divide Floridians. “We need to get past this gamesmanship of politics, stop politicizing our classrooms,” she said on Tuesday.

“We are living in a state where we have state lawmakers that are censoring what teachers can teach, that are banning books, instead of banning assault weapons. We are tired of having to live with this anxiety every single day, where we have to do drills with children, where we have to tell them how they’re going to duck and how we are going to protect them,” said Hernandez-Mats. “We’re going to do what’s right because that is what teachers do.”

Following a wave of mass shootings, including a shooting last week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and two teachers, Crist reaffirmed on Tuesday that he supports banning assault weapons, as well as ensuring fair pay for teachers.

“We’re the third-largest state in America, and we’re 48 or 49th in what we pay our teachers. That’s embarrassing, my friends. Florida deserves better. You deserve better. All of us deserve better,” Crist said.

Answering on charters

Much to FEA’s chagrin, Florida’s public education system has been chronically underfunded. That’s long been a point of contention between the union, Gov. DeSantis, and state lawmakers. Crist, for his part, is campaigning on ensuring a fully-funded public education system.

Still, on Tuesday, Crist was questioned about his record when it comes to charter schools, which are largely operated by private entities. As the Citrus County Chronicle reports, Crist co-sponsored legislation in 1996 as a Republican State Senator that allowed for Florida’s first charter schools to open. 

“Yeah, I sponsored the charter school bill in Florida in the 90s,” Crist conceded. “It was a completely different animal. Had to have the approval of the local school board on every move they made. Accountability did exist. It doesn’t anymore, at least not to the degree that it should,” said Crist.

He added, “What I know is this: You know, if we can have other schools that help students, that’s fine. You know, I don’t want to reduce any educational opportunity. But I want to make sure first and foremost we fund our public schools the way they deserve to have it. We have to fight for our teachers.”

Hernandez-Mats of the UTD in Miami Dade said 90% of Florida students attend public schools, and that hasn’t changed much over the last 25 years. “There’s a place for private schools, there is a place for charter schools, but of course, there has to be support for public schools,” she said. “We know that all of these competing factors are going to exist. We’re okay with that. We just want to make sure that we have that accountability, that we have the funding.”

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