The past year has seen Democratic U.S. Rep Val Demings‘ profile go national as she became a leader in efforts to impeach President Donald Trump and now her Republican election opponent, Vennia Francois, thinks the congresswoman has left Orlando behind.
“People feel that Rep. Demings has pretty much ‘gone Washington’ on us. There is a sense that she’s gotten so caught up in the politics of Washington that she spends all her time kissing the establishment’s ring — and this is what I’m hearing from people on the ground — rather than fighting for our district,” Francois said.
Francois, an Orlando lawyer and former aide to U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez and George LeMieux, has a tall order ahead of her to convince voters to let her replace Demings, a well-known two-term Congresswoman who was widely reported as a serious candidate to run for Vice President this year as Joe Biden‘s running mate.
Yet Francois is seeking to characterize the incumbent as someone who has invested so much in national Democratic politics that she has lost interest in representing her district, and at the worst possible time.
Demings declined to be interviewed for this article.
“People are suffering right now. Job losses and opportunity losses are taking their toll on families and real people, and they really need leadership, not just another press release slamming President Trump,” Francois added.
The district may make reelection easy for Demings, though Francois provides what Republicans have not had in a while: a credible candidate. In 2018, Demings faced no Republican or independent opponents and won reelection in an easy Democratic primary. In 2016, she defeated an underfunded Thuy Lowe to win the seat.
The western Orange County district covers the west end of Orlando, several predominantly African American communities including Pine Hills, all of Orange County’s western suburbs from Apopka to Windermere, and Orlando’s tourism corridor, from Universal Orlando to Walt Disney World, plus half of Orlando International Airport. CD 10 has some of Orange County’s most affluent communities and some of its most impoverished. It also has some of the most congested streets and highways and overcrowded schools in Central Florida.
Democrats enjoy a 20-point lead in voter registration, according to the most recent book closing reports from the Florida Division of Elections.
Through the most recent campaign finance reports posted by the Federal Election Commission, Demings had raised about $1.3 million toward her reelection and had about $650,000 of that left in the bank. Francois had raised a little more than $200,000 and had about $80,000 still in the bank.
Most of Demings’ two terms in Congress saw her take leadership roles mainly on her strengths, particularly in legislation dealing with law enforcement, airport security, and anti-terrorism as well as health care legislation, including passage of a bill to support Alzheimer’s disease research. She also pushed an anti-Russian interference bill, dubbed the Vladimir Putin Transparency Act, through the House, though it was never heard in the Senate. She’s also a member of the fairly moderate New Democrat Coalition.
That focus began to change in the summer of 2019 when her seats on two critical House committees, Intelligence and Judiciary, put her on the front lines of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry against Trump. She was the only non-lawyer to play the most critical role of all, as a House manager in Trump’s impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. And then she spent much of the spring and summer being discussed as a possible vice presidential candidate for Biden.
She is the daughter of a janitor and a maid in Jacksonville, and she grew up the way they wanted. After earning a degree in criminology from Florida State University in 1979, she became a social worker, and then a street cop in Orlando in 1983. She worked her way up through the ranks, and became the Orlando Police Department’s first female African-American chief in 2007. She is married to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings.
Francois’s back story is similar, someone who rose from a strong, but initially impoverished family to professional success and political ambitions. She was born in Orlando, one of nine children to parents who had emigrated from the Bahamas. At the University of Florida she got involved with the ollCege Republicans. That led her to work for former Rep. John Mica of Winter Park and for Martinez and LeMieux. Along the way she earned a law degree from Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, and a position at The Maher Law Firm.
In 2016, she ran in Florida’s 7th Congressional District but lost in the Republican primary. This time, she again started in CD 7 but left a crowded field there to run in CD 10 instead. In August she easily defeated Willie Montague in the Republican primary.
Francois and Demings may offer strong philosophical differences and differences in emphasis, but perhaps not much daylight between the details, on issue such as recovery from the coronavirus crisis, law and order, racial relations, and health care.
Demings, a retired Orlando police chief who spent 26 years wearing a badge, has been outspoken about the needs for America to confront systematic racism and demand more accountability from police departments. Francois calls for serious conversation and common-sense police reforms, while stopping at, “I support our men and women in blue.”
Two issues that draw strong differences: Francois is adamant about opposition to abortion and support for gun rights and the Second Amendment. Demings takes a more pro-abortion rights stance and has advocated for several gun law reforms.
Francois says, “I do support the President,” but she couches that some. She insists she does not agree with everything Trump says and does. Francois also says she does not believe Trump will be a major factor in the election, though she has been sharply critical of Demings and Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy for impeachment efforts. Francois also charges that Biden “has sold out to the radical left.”
“She’s spent close to three and a half to four years trying to impeach the President. I think that’s where a lot of people are sour on her,” Francois said of Demings.
“I want to get things done for our district and our country. I don’t want to play political games or have our congressional clout hijacked by partisan issues. I will put people over politics and principle over power,” Francois said.