Aramis Ayala’s political brand reemerging with criminal justice reform movement

The controversial State Attorney is stepping out politically again.

For much of the past couple of years Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s political stock appeared to almost disappear, much as she had from policy limelight after the Florida Supreme Court’s 2017 harsh repudiation of her one-woman effort to end the death penalty.

Now, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the related street protests calling for criminal justice reform, Ayala is emerging from something of a self-imposed political isolation with a series of elections endorsements. And the beneficiaries of her endorsements appear thrilled.

“Honored to have earned the endorsement of State Attorney Aramis D. Ayala. State Attorney Ayala has been a champion for everyday Floridians and I am thrilled to have her support as I run to be your Orange County Property Appraiser,” declared Democratic Rep. Amy Mercado in a Facebook post.

“I am Humbled by State Attorney Aramis D. Ayala’s Endorsement for Reform & Progress. Thank You State Attorney for Fighting for Justice and paving the way as the First African American State Attorney in the State of Florida….Well Done Queen,” wrote Democratic House District 28 candidate Pasha Baker.

“State Attorney Aramis Ayala is an extraordinary leader who has led the Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office with conviction and courage. Those of us in Florida trying to bring real change to the way our communities prosecute are standing on her shoulders. I’m so honored to have her endorsement,” wrote Democrat Joe Kimok, who is running for State Attorney in Broward County.

Ayala also has made endorsements in other State Attorney and judicial elections.

In 2016 Ayala was a little-known former assistant state attorney running a long shot bid for the top job, as a criminal justice reform crusader. With a little (or a lot) outside help, she won. And almost before anyone quite knew who she was or what she was about, she rocked the state with her first big, bold criminal justice reform measure: banning the death penalty in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, serving Orange and Osceola counties.

That led to one of the biggest political and legal fights of 2017 in Florida. It made Ayala a national champion for death abolitionists and for a broader criminal justice reform movement. It also made her an arch-opponent of then Gov. Rick Scott and other conservatives, who sought to stop her, arguing she was way overstepping. But it also drained her of political capital, particularly after she lost her crusade to Scott in the courts.

Her profile crashed, and many of her allies fled. Almost no one was surprised when she announced in the spring of 2019 that she would not bother running for another term. When she endorsed her chief assistant, Deborah Barra, to succeed her, the blessing barely was acknowledged.

In 2018 she made some endorsements and did some campaigning, including for Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial bid. But that effort also showed she was controversial enough that just her blessing could be construed toxic.

Now that Ayala has switched her endorsement from Barra to another criminal justice reform crusader running for the office, Monique Worrell, suddenly Ayala’s political opinion is news again, and again drawing fire.

The endorsement switch was not without controversy, and has led some of her former executives to charge that it reflects what they contend has been a lack of reliability and commitment from Ayala.

Former public information officer Eryka Washington, and former assistant state attorneys JoJo Colón and Harold Virgil Bennett, posted a statement on Facebook Friday decrying Ayala’s endorsement switch as unfair. They insisted Barra has been the architect of any criminal justice reforms that took place under Ayala, dealing with bail reforms, drug crime diversion programs, and juvenile justice reforms. They wrote “it is nonsensical for Ayala to now claim that Deb Barra is not the right person for the position.

“While working at The State Attorney’s Office, it became clear to all of us, and everyone else in the office, that Deb Barra was the De Facto State Attorney,” Washington, Colón, and Bennett wrote.

Worrell and Barra  are among four Democrats vying for the August 18 Democratic primary, along with former Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr. and Assistant State Attorney Ryan Williams, who was with JC 9 and then moved to Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit in protest of Ayala’s death penalty stance.

Ayala did not respond to requests from Florida Politics for an interview.

Now, however, George Floyd‘s death in Minneapolis has lit national fires under the criminal justice reform movement. Street protests have energized a whole wing of progressive politics that had always been there but lacked popular attention.

Ayala has given no indication that she intends to return to politics anytime soon. But she is testing her power through endorsements. She also has found a new forum in the street protests. Last week she appeared and spoke at an Orlando gathering organized with the African American Christian Clergy Council.

“It’s kind of like, her not running has kind of liberated her, in a sense. She’s not as constrained by what downtown groups think… because there’s not a stake for her in November,” said Vanessa Keverenge, one of the organizers. “I think people are listening.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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