Before Karla Hernández-Mats was tapped, seemingly overnight, to become Democrat Charlie Crist’s lieutenant governor, I had watched her become a sought-after guest on local television news programs.
In fact, when I wrote about her becoming Crist’s running mate, I said she was “charismatic,” my points of reference — besides sources in education who admires her gumption and accomplishments — being appearances in which she articulated well the predicament of Florida teachers.
And so, when Gov. DeSantis’ camp attacked her with predictably false claims of showing Fidel Castro’s sympathies, I defended her.
Yet, I’m here now to set Hernández-Mats and the Democratic Party straight on another issue — perfected by DeSantis as a campaign strategy and becoming a trend in Florida: attacking journalists for asking politicians tough questions.
On Sunday’s popular”This Week in South Florida,” veteran political reporter Michael Putney asked Hernandez-Mats about her alleged friendship with a Brownsville Middle School teacher and union steward convicted of and serving eight years in prison for sexual assault on students.
“What about your relationship with Mr. [Wendell] Nibbs?” Putney asked.
A valid question the Crist campaign should have prepared her to answer by now.
Or, perhaps, they have, and this is all they’ve got:
“First of all, I know you have to ask these questions,” Hernández-Mats said, and Putney retorted “I do” as she talked over him continuing her thought: “But I hope you’re not a sounding board for the Republican Party.”
I wanted to vomit.
Then she added: “These are false attacks that have already been debunked,” citing an Orlando Sentinel story.
The inference being: How dare you bring it up again?
She underestimates journalism and its purpose in a free society. Having been a frequent TV-show guest as a union leader, she should know better. Being nominated to govern if Crist can’t is not for neophytes.
Putney and co-host Glenna Milberg are two of Miami’s most respected journalists, devoted to being fair and balanced even as they ask hard questions.
They handle our volatile world of Florida politics with poise and attention to accuracy, calling out half-truths and lies when they hear them.
Putney didn’t let Hernández-Mats off the hook.
“How well did you know him?” he asked again.
“I absolutely had no idea [what Nibbs was doing to children],” she finally half-answered, adding that neither did others in the school system.
That wasn’t so hard, was it? Oh, but it apparently was.
Throughout the interview, Hernández-Mats chastised Putney and Milberg one time too many when she didn’t like a question: “I’m a teacher and I’m going to educate you.”
A condescending and inadequate response, as if the media should ignore issues brought up about her that most voters didn’t know at all before her nomination.
“I was momentarily stunned by Karla’s pushback and absurd suggestion that Glenna and I were somehow out to get her in league with the Republican Party,” Putney told me. “Preposterous and she knows it. But this is the sad and disturbing place we’ve sunk to in our political discourse. I’ll keep trying to raise the bar.”
Unfortunately, Hernández-Mats isn’t the only Democrat to smear journalists.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried also did so when she falsely accused Palm Beach Post journalistswho wrote about her controversial sugar policies and ties to Florida Power & Light money, as having been paid by environmental activists.
Her claim was easily proven wrong.
These are desperate moves by desperate candidates — members of a party that has lost ground in the years since Florida Democrats twice helped elect President Obama, a party that hasn’t built another winning coalition of voters or been able to recruit high-quality candidates.
Journalists aren’t to blame for the party’s predicament or for its inadequate response to electoral challenges.
Why, for example, isn’t the Crist-Hernández-Mats ticket busy reframing the abortion debate in Florida when we’re facing the prospect of a total ban if DeSantis wins?
This is a party that isn’t present or engaged year-round in communities the way Republicans are, courting voters at every level. The party has failed to articulate a vision of a better Florida, providing solutions instead of adding to the fighting and hostile political atmosphere.
Doing our jobs as journalists, whether we’re reporters or opinion writers, doesn’t make us beholden to anyone or any party. But when a candidate doesn’t answer a question, instead wiggling out of it by accusing us, like DeSantis does, of being partisans, it only makes you more suspicious of hiding something.
Whether Hernández-Mats rises to the challenge or not, that’s her problem to address, not ours to ignore.
Crist, a veteran politician, and his campaign manager made the risky decision to name Hernández-Mats, who has no experience governing or lawmaking beyond union organizing and teaching. And against the advice of party operatives who knew better, sources tell me.
The ticket wanted a Hispanic woman, and they went shopping for one just like DeSantis wanted, for political reasons, to nominate a Black woman in the Florida Supreme Court, ultimately choosing an unqualified one.
There’s a difference between seeking to represent a diverse population and political pandering, which never leads to the right choices.
If attacking journalists is all you’ve got, Florida Democrats, democracy is doomed.