Val Demings
Photo by Bill Clark / Getty

The Val Demings Gamble

Can the Florida congresswoman inherit Joe Biden’s Democratic Party?

On a hot D.C. Wednesday in the middle of July, an 11-foot statue honoring Mary McLeod Bethune—carved out of marble extracted from the same Tuscan quarry that Michelangelo used for his David—stood draped in a black cloak in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. A group of distinguished guests had gathered to honor Bethune, the prominent educator and civil-rights activist who founded a college for Black students in Daytona Beach, Florida, and later served as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She is now the first Black American to have a state statue in the hall.

The group, which included several members of Florida’s congressional delegation, smiled as cameras flashed. Two of those present, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Val Demings, are opponents in the race for Rubio’s Senate seat—a race that could secure the Democrats’ control of the Senate. Together, they tugged at the sheet, revealing the white-marble figure clothed in academic regalia, holding a black rose—which, in life, Bethune viewed as a symbol of diversity.

One by one, speakers approached a lectern in front of the statue to offer remarks. “I remember as a little girl listening to my mother and my father talk about a Black woman, a woman who looked like us, who started a college,” Demings told those who had gathered in the amphitheater. “As I listened to my parents tell the story, it seemed impossible. But Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune made what seemed impossible possible.”

Demings hopes to conjure some of Bethune’s magic. The race has for some time been considered a long shot for the 65-year-old former Orlando police chief; to win she’ll need to make what seems impossible possible in a state where the voter rolls have flipped from a more-than-100,000-voter Democratic advantage in 2020 to a Republican lead of nearly the same size in less than two years. And for months the polls reflected that, showing Demings trailing Rubio; but in recent weeks, a new batch of polls has shown Demings pulling into an effective tie, or even a slight lead.

If the race does break her way, the Democrats will have the convergence of two separate story lines to thank. The first is the story of Val Demings herself: a centrist Black woman with a background in law enforcement—just the profile the party has placed its bets on in recent years. It’s no coincidence, after all, that Demings joined then-Senator Kamala Harris and former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who both worked as prosecutors before seeking elected office, on Joe Biden’s shortlist for his running mate two years ago.

Political moderates could admire her centrism; people of color could identify with her race; women could identify with her gender. Demings has converted that appeal into a fundraising advantage, pulling in millions more in donations than Rubio so far this cycle, and spending more than twice as much as him on television ads.

And if the national Democratic Party’s unpopularity had been weighing on her fortunes, the events of recent weeks may have buoyed them. In early August, Democrats in Congress passed a mammoth bill on climate change, health care, and taxes. Though the Inflation Reduction Act is by nature full of compromises, as my colleague Robinson Meyer notes, it “will touch every sector of the economy, subsidizing massive new investments in renewable and geothermal energy, as well as nuclear power and carbon capture and removal, and encouraging new clean-energy manufacturing industries to develop in the United States.” Demings has contrasted her own legislative record with that of Rubio, who has one of the worst attendance records in the Senate. With Congress showing that it can actually function, voters might be more receptive to that argument.

Val Demings
Demings watches the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings in 2019. (Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux)

Demings likes to say she’s living the American dream. In 1957, when she was born, her family lived in a three-room shack in Mandarin, Florida—a rural part of Duval County, just south of Jacksonville. Her father worked as a janitor, and her mother was a housekeeper. A year later, they upgraded to a two-bedroom house, but the roof leaked and for several years it lacked working bathrooms.

In the sixth grade, Demings helped integrate Loretta Elementary School, which she used to ride past to get to the Black elementary school 15 miles away. Shortly after enrolling, Demings was chosen to serve on the school patrol. She loved it. “You had to have good citizenship and good grades—and I was selected. I had my little orange belt, and I just fell in love,” she told me in July. “It was such an honor to be selected, because it was a big deal.”

As soon as she was old enough to get a real job, she did: first washing dishes at a retirement home, and later working fast-food gigs. After high school, she went off to Florida State University to study criminology, with an eye toward becoming a lawyer. “My dad used to say, ‘You’re a pretty good talker. You need to make some money talking,’ and he thought being a lawyer was a pretty cool thing,” she said. But scraping her way through college meant she needed a job—not law school—after graduation. “I was broke broke,” she quipped. So she moved back to Jacksonville, where she became a social worker with the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. But she soon grew disillusioned, doubting how much good she’d ever be able to do with so little power.

“I had this 10-year-old boy on my caseload,” Demings said. “He started having some problems, exhibiting behavior that made him really a threat to himself.” She went to her supervisor to see if she could get a psychological evaluation for him, but was told it would be roughly three weeks before a referral could be made; the panel that made those decisions met only once a month.

Demings was shocked. “This kid would be dead by then,” she recalled telling her boss. So she went around her supervisor to the juvenile judge—waiting outside his chambers until she was able to plead his case. To Demings’s relief, the judge granted an emergency order. She saw it as a small victory in a tough system, until it backfired: Demings was reprimanded by her supervisor for subverting their structure. She felt deflated by the experience, and began to think about what she wanted to do next.

In 1983, Demings got word that the Orlando Police Department was recruiting at Edward Waters College, the historically Black college in Jacksonville, and she figured that she would go down to speak with someone. That ultimately led to a 27-year career at the department, where Demings worked her way through its ranks: patrol officer, juvenile-crime detective, community-relations officer, public-information officer, hostage negotiator, then supervisor of the patrol, investigations, and airport units. (Some aspects of her career were less deliberate: She always told herself that she’d never date a fellow officer—then she ended up marrying one.)

As a police captain, she developed a reputation as a tough-on-crime enforcer on everything from traffic violations to violent infractions. “The message has to be clear for the violators: There are no deals,” she said in 2005 after a string of dangerous-driving incidents.

But that approach, which continued after she was promoted to deputy chief, drew criticism from members of the Black community in the city. She was lambasted after an Orlando Sentinel story examined the department’s overuse of tasers and aggressive traffic stops and she told the paper that her officers were “kicking butt” in the historically Black neighborhood of Parramore. “If that [vehicle or pedestrian] stop results in something greater and leads to drugs or drug paraphernalia, I call that good police work,” she said at the time.

Still, by late 2007, her policing record, and a succession of departures, led to her being selected as Orlando’s chief of police. She was the first woman and second Black person—after her husband, Jerry, who left that role in 2002 to become the county’s public-safety director—to lead the department.

From the start, she took an aggressive approach to the job. “We will be courteous to law-abiding citizens but relentless in our efforts to disrupt violent criminals who have no respect for the police, citizens or their property,” she wrote in a New Year’s Day Orlando Sentinel op-ed in 2008. Later that year, Jerry won his race for county sheriff, making the duo the first Black husband and wife to serve as sheriff and chief of police in the same county at the same time.

Demings often cites the fact that under her leadership, Orlando experienced a 40 percent drop in violent crime. But a string of excessive-force complaints—including a 2010 incident in which an officer broke an 84-year-old man’s neck by flipping him upside down—revealed some of the clear dangers of the aggressive policing tactics that were employed during her tenure. “Apparently it’s perfectly acceptable to break old men’s necks for no reason,” John Kurtz, the founder of the blog Orlando CopWatch, said at the time. Demings initially defended the officer’s actions in the incident, but eventually modified the department’s use of the technique that led to the octogenarian’s fractured vertebrae. In 2011, after 27 years with the department, Demings stepped down and set her sights on a new challenge.

Elected office wasn’t something Demings had initially been interested in. But as she was about to retire, Mayor Buddy Dyer called her to let her know that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thought she would be a good candidate to run for the House seat that represented Orlando. “I just burst out laughing,” she told me. “And the mayor’s like, ‘Chief, are you okay?’” She thought he must have been joking. “You know your police chief. I’m a little rough around the edges,” she recalls telling him. “And I don’t know if I’d make a good politician.” Still, she met with Representative Steve Israel, who was the committee chair at the time—and ultimately decided that running for Congress was a logical next step.

She lost her first campaign and suspended another run for mayor two years later. But her defeats only raised her public profile. By 2016, court-ordered redistricting meant that the Tenth District was significantly more Democratic than it had been when she first ran for office—which meant that her biggest hurdle would be her primary opponent. She won 57 percent of the vote in a four-person primary—and received 15,000 more votes than her nearest competitor. She then won in the general election by nearly 100,000 votes.

Thirty-three years after Demings had packed everything she owned in the trunk of her Oldsmobile Firenza and headed to Orlando for her new job with the police department, she would be taking her tough-on-crime bona fides to Washington.

Across two terms, Demings has sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills that have become law—though a divided Congress means she does not have a signature piece of legislation to hang her hat on. But her most significant moment came when, in January 2020, she served as an impeachment manager during the first Senate trial of then-President Donald Trump. Though the Senate ultimately acquitted Trump—voting along party lines except for the sole defection of Senator Mitt Romney—Demings’s prominence continued to grow. She was profiled by The Washington Post, NPR, and other national outlets. “Was it worth it? Every day it has been worth it,” she said of the trial after its conclusion. “Just like when I was a law enforcement officer, when I saw someone breaking the law, I did not stop and think about, well, my goodness, what will the judge do? ... I did my job to stop that threat and then go to court and plead my case.”

After that, she landed on Biden’s shortlist for vice president—evidence of both her meteoric rise and the Democratic Party’s relentless search for its next phenom who can capture the national imagination the way Barack Obama did.

Val Demings
Demings makes phone calls to constituents from the Pinellas County Democratic headquarters in Florida. (Octavio Jones / Getty)

“Florida, vota por la jefa de la policía, no por el politiquero,” Demings’s first Spanish-language ad, aired in June, said. Vote for the chief of police, not the politician. Demings is trying to define herself for voters she hopes will form her coalition—particularly the Latino voters who have been tilting Republican in recent years She’s on the defensive: The Rubio campaign has tried to pin the Democratic Party’s most left-wing sensibilities on her.

In a campaign ad of his own, Rubio touts his endorsement from Florida’s Fraternal Order of Police and 55 sheriffs, and suggests that Demings supported the “Defund the Police” movement—or, at the very least, did not reject it fiercely enough. “Senator Rubio has not only tried not to defund the police; he’s defended the police,” Al Palacio, the Miami Dade public-schools Fraternal Order of Police president, says in the ad. “And we’re here to defend him.” Rubio’s campaign believes that this is a winning issue; an October 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 47 percent of Americans want to see more spending on police, compared with 15 percent who would like to see budgets reduced.

Demings dismissed the ad out of hand, responding with a brief statement: “I am the police. This is ridiculous.”

Though Florida has not seen the same jumps in crime rates as some other parts of the country over the past two years, the race has focused on policing and crime issues. The irony is, were she running as a Republican, Demings would be seen as emblematic of the tough-on-crime policies some voters say they want.

But because she’s running in a state that is turning redder and redder, Demings has to strike the right balance of being the police enforcer she’s always been while appearing open to reform, and being unrelentingly liberal on issues such as access to abortion while emphasizing her Christian faith so as not to isolate Catholic voters. And she has to highlight her identity—her family’s economic status growing up and, perhaps most important, her race—while not making it the central plank of her campaign. Over the past several years, Florida Republicans have passed laws that limit discussions of identity in classrooms and other public spaces—a bit of a contrast with the political campaign Demings has run, explaining to voters how being a Black woman has shaped her life and informed her policy preferences.

That’s been a difficult sell: How do you convince voters that you’ll be a senator who can get stuff done if the Democrats can manage to keep their Senate majority, when the Democrats had—at least in the public’s view—gotten so little done? But with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the party’s chances look different now, and maybe, just maybe, Demings will be the beneficiary. If Demings pulls off an upset, it will be not solely because she’s a Black woman, but because the Democrats finally figured out how to rack up some wins in D.C. And what could be a greater crowd-pleaser than that?