Shortly after Gov. Charlie Crist announced his veto of a controversial teacher pay bill, Leena Hasbini thanked him:
The 20-year-old aspiring guidance counselor who works at Tampa's Wharton High School became a Republican.
"I want to pay him back," said Hasbini, a Democrat since she registered to vote in 2008.
Crist's politically risky move bucking his party's staunch support of Senate Bill 6 mobilized teachers, and some pledged to switch parties to support him in his U.S. Senate primary bid against Marco Rubio.
But with Crist expected today to announce that he will run without a party affiliation, teachers like Hasbini are weighing how far they should go as new Republican voters.
"I don't think I'll be able to stay a Republican," she said.
But Hasbini, a graduate student at the University of Florida, said she will stick to it through the primary to support gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery. The Republican state senator also voted against SB 6.
There's no way to know exactly how many teachers have switched parties. But numbers from supervisor of elections offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties indicate that since Crist's April 15 veto, the majority of the 1,144 voters in those counties who changed parties through April 26 became Republicans.
Almost 55 percent of them came from the Democratic Party.
Todd Byars, 40, creator of the 48-member Facebook group "Changing my Voter Registration to Republican to support Charlie Crist!!" said he worries Crist will be less effective as an independent.
The former Leon County teacher of the year and former Democrat said he is supporting the campaigns of both Crist and Democratic Senate challenger Kendrick Meek, a key proponent of the class-size amendment and a longtime favorite of teachers.
And from the Crist campaign's perspective, that's the question.
Will Democratic teachers' enthusiastic campaign for Crist continue through the general election when they have to choose among Rubio, Crist and Meek?
"On that last day, you can only support one person," Byars said. "I'm hoping that person will be Charlie Crist as a Republican."
Kimberly Henriquez, 48, a first-grade teacher at Lowry Elementary in Tampa and a staunch Democrat, already has contributed financially to both the Meek and Crist campaigns.
Once married to former state Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, Henriquez said she understands the cliff Crist stepped out on when he nixed SB 6. The bill would have tied teacher salaries to student test scores and eliminated continuing contracts. "At this point, I'm leaning more toward Charlie," she said. "I admire the courage it took him to stand up to his party and listen to parents and teachers … Just the fact that he listened — that's the person you want to represent you."
Democrat and teacher Nina DiSalvo, 58, said she will change parties if Crist sticks with the GOP. But the eighth-grade American history teacher said no matter what the scenario — independent, Republican, whatever — she's made up her mind about the general election.
After 37 years of voting Democrat, she'll vote Crist.
"This was the issue that did it," DiSalvo said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or email@example.com.