Long before young Trayvon Martin‘s tragic death sent destabilizing shockwaves from Central Florida throughout America, long before Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter turned into a standoff, and certainly long before the divisive election campaigns of 2016, Democrat Val Demings was calling for unity in Orlando and in America.
Now, thanks to her resounding victory last Tuesday, she’s Congresswoman-elect Demings, a former big-city police chief who worked her way up from street cop, a former social worker, an African-American daughter of a janitor and a maid who grew up the way they wanted, and someone who still sees herself as a bridge between those who are angry, fearful, and distrustful on various sides of various divides.
She calls healing her top priority.
“I was painfully, painfully — did I say I was ‘painfully?’ — painfully disappointed in the morning after Hillary Clinton did not win,” Demings said in a lengthy interview with FloridaPolitics.com. “But the truth of the matter is my agenda really has not changed. … Our country was divided before Donald Trump was elected. You know, we’ve dealt with some tough issues, whether it was criminal justice reform, police-community relations, or income inequality.
“We’re one country and one United States of America, and it is more important than any partisan politics,” she added. “The healing and uniting of our nation was before Trump and will continue to be my No. 1 priority because this is a nation that needs healing. And we can do it if we all focus on it.”
And for her that starts with trying to build unity coalitions she can work with in Congress.
“I’m going to take the first 60 days to really try to build relationships, strong relationships on both sides of the aisle, pick out people whom I feel we have shared agendas, shared backgrounds, shared visions for this country,” Demings said.
Who are her trusted confidants?
“It starts with Jerry,” she said, referring to her husband of 28 years, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, who was just re-elected to his third term.
“You know, we both grew up in law enforcement. We both share the same philosophy about how to serve our communities,” she said. “We both believe that trust, and fairness, and justice matter. And having both grown up poor in African-American families, we just have a really good understanding of the issues on the ground, and similar philosophies of how to deal with issues.”
They met when she was a patrol officer working the midnight shift, and he was a detective with the Orlando Police Department. She took a report on a crime, and the next day the case was assigned to him. He made it known he thought she had overstepped her bounds as a simple street cop, doing too much of the investigatory work that should have awaited the detective’s experienced and trained response. She thought: what the heck? Or something like that.
“I said, ‘I’m going up there to give him a piece of my mind!’ And I did,” she recalled. “He just walked away. I’m sure that’s when he fell in love with me.”
They have three adult sons and grandchildren.
Among the other trusted confidants she mentioned are Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, whom she calls a mentor; her pastor, the Rev. Terrence Gray of Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church; Orlando lawyers Greg Francis and Dan Newlin, and U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, the Democrat from Boca Raton.
And Demings says she’s developed a strong relationship with Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who helped recruit her to run for Congress, and has campaigned for her several times, both in her close-but-failed first attempt in 2012, and this year.
“I think regardless of the politics — some people think she’s an angel, some people think she’s not — she has a great love for this country,” Demings said. “Every time I’ve been in her presence, or when I heard her address the Democratic caucus, she always talked about economic fairness, you know, leveling the playing field, protecting the Affordable Care Act, because it’s something that everybody should be entitled to, and, I think, her great, great love for this country.
“I’ll find my own way. I’ll blaze my own path. But it was very helpful for me to hear her talk about the bigger picture, that the work we do in Congress matters because we belong to the nation, and we’ll be serving the least among us, but also not offending, or hurting, or jeopardizing those who have made it,” she said.
Demings is committed to many of the basic Democratic causes, including finding ways to reform gun laws; investing in infrastructure improvements; alternative transportation systems in Florida, particularly in Central Florida; and protecting the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. She adds to that the issues of her own background: criminal justice reform, safety, and security in the community; and safety and security for the nation.
But in 2011, when trying to convince the career cop to run for Congress, Pelosi got to her with another issue, when she talked about poverty and income inequality, and especially the ramifications for children. That drew out the old Val Demings, the one who had been a social worker for the state before she decided to become a police officer.
“She talked about in the country that we call the greatest country in the world, one in four children go to bed hungry every night. Of all the things we talked about, it was that one thing that made me really decide to do it,” Demings said.
Through the 2015 congressional redistricting in Florida and last week’s elections, Orlando has lost its Congressional experience, seniority, leadership, and presumably clout. Demings replaces Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, who moved to another district. Democratic state Rep. Darren Soto succeeds Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in Florida’s 9th Congressional District when Grayson chose to not seek re-election. Democrat Stephanie Murphy pulled one of the nation’s most surprising upsets when she defeated Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica in Florida’s 7th Congressional District.
Of the three freshmen who will represent Orlando, Soto is the only one with legislative experience, but few would be surprised to see Demings become the leader, with her more dynamic style and outgoing personality, and her experience as the leader of Orlando’s police department. She avoids the topic directly, however, preferring to talk about them as a team.
“Stephanie, Darren, and myself, we have been involved in jobs that have been involved in public service. We have dealt either firsthand or indirectly with many of the issues that we will face in Congress,” she said. “We’ll bring that background in public service and the passion, and having seen our community at its best and at its worst, up front.”