18 Local Leaders in an Age of Crisis: Jerry and Val Demings
In a year of health, political and social crises, Jerry and Val Demings have risen to the pinnacle of power.
They met at the scene of a go-kart accident with minor injuries. She was the first officer to respond; he came later as an investigator.
Unlike in the movies, it was not love at first sight, says Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings.
But, Demings recalled, he and the former Valdez Butler quickly “got to be friends. We were involved in many of the same community events with the department.”
At the time—the early 1980s—they were employed by the Orlando Police Department. She was a patrol officer. He was a detective, having joined the force three years before her.
They often spent weekends working with youngsters who aspired to careers in law enforcement. During those outings, they learned they had a lot in common. Both were Florida State University graduates. They came from modest means. They were religious.
Before long, they fell in love, got married in 1988 and had three sons. Now, more than three decades and five grandchildren later, they are Central Florida’s ultimate power couple.
By virtue of their elected positions, Val and Jerry Demings are caught up in some of the most tumultuous times that Metro Orlando and our nation have known. One or the other has been involved in setting and enforcing policy on everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement to the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
“It’s crazy,” Val says. “We’re just juggling a lot of different issues every day. It’s really tough. America has seen a lot of tough times, but we get through them.”
While today they roam the halls of Congress and the Orange County government headquarters in downtown Orlando, they made their names in law enforcement, even though Jerry started his professional career as an accountant and Val as a social worker.
Together, they have compiled an impressive set of firsts: Jerry Demings was the first Black to be elected Orange County mayor (2018), Orange County sheriff (2008) and appointed chief of the Orlando Police Department (1998).
Val Demings eventually followed her husband as Orlando’s police chief, becoming the first woman to hold the job in 2007. She now is a two-term member of Congress and was on the short list to become vice president on the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden.
Though Biden chose Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Cal., to be his running mate, Val Demings has become a mainstay in the national media as she campaigns for the Democratic nominee. She has appeared on late night talk shows, CNN, the traditional networks and has written op-eds for The Washington Post, to name a few of her activities.
She says she was honored just to be among those considered by Biden. The list included former UN ambassador and national security adviser Susan Rice, Congresswoman Karen Bass of California, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Senators Tammy Duckworth and Elizabeth Warren.
“To see a Black woman nominated for the first time reaffirms my faith that in America, there is a place for every person to succeed no matter who they are or where they come from,” she said in a statement.
Val Demings’ rise in politics was almost meteoric. She was defeated by Republican Daniel Webster in her first run for Congress but was successful the second time (2016) when her district was reconfigured in a more Democratic-friendly fashion. She was midway through her second two-year term in the House and relatively unknown nationally when Speaker Nancy Pelosi last January named her one of seven impeachment managers.
Demings shined in the setting, her blunt comments often seen on the nightly news or quoted in major publications.
“The president is engaged in this coverup because he is guilty and he knows it,” she said during the hearings. “And he knows that the evidence he is concealing will only further demonstrate his culpability.”
Her work on impeachment followed a similarly impressive performance during the summer of 2019 House hearings on the investigation by independent counsel Robert Mueller into Russian connections to Trump’s 2016 campaign. Under her questioning, the taciturn Mueller admitted that Trump’s written answers to his team’s questions were “generally” not truthful.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who appointed Val Demings police chief, is not surprised by the way she has conducted herself in Congress.
“I think she has the aptitude for it,” he says. “I think she’s a very capable public servant.”
Dyer is equally impressed with Jerry Demings, saying, “He’s thoughtful. He doesn’t make rash decisions. He takes advice from his staff.”
As a couple, Dyer says, Val and Jerry Demings are “very supportive of each other. I think they have a great relationship. They feed off each other.”
Former longtime Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry has worked for years with Val and Jerry Demings and likes what he sees.
“They are deeply devoted to each other, and both of them are deeply dedicated to serving their community,” Perry says. “They went into politics not for personal gain or ego but to make a difference in the community. They want to leave the community better than they found it.”
Though they were born in different Florida cities, the upbringing of Jerry and Val Demings was remarkably similar.
Val was raised in a two-room home in Jacksonville with her six older siblings. Her mother was a maid and her father was a janitor. She was the first in her family to graduate from college. Her parents are deceased, but they lived to see her become Orlando’s police chief.
Jerry lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath house in Johnson Village, a subdivision built for Blacks only during the 1950s in the Washington Shores neighborhood in west Orlando. His father was a cab driver and his mother cleaned houses. Jerry has a twin brother, Terry, and two older sisters and another brother. His mother died three years ago, but his father still lives in the family home.
The couple have dealt with racism their entire lives—Blacks being redlined into certain neighborhoods, forced to sit in the back of the bus, shuttled off to inferior Black-only schools, discouraged and sometimes physically barred from voting, and myriad other indignities. Now they find themselves at the top of Central Florida’s political landscape.
It was not an easy journey for the couple, who enjoy riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles in their limited spare time.
“There is nothing about the lifestyle of being poor and not having much that I don’t know about,” Jerry Demings says. “I lived it.”
Val Demings can recall the first time she was called the n-word. She was four years old.
“I didn’t really understand what it meant. But I knew the word was not good,” she says.
They agree there is systemic racism in this country and they have chosen to fight it by working within the system, not outside it.
“Racism has always been with the U.S. It is the ghost in the room,” says Val Demings, who is descended from slaves.
Jerry’s parents told him that education would become the equalizer for him and his brothers and sisters. As a youngster, he started reading the newspaper and an encyclopedia every day, trying to improve his vocabulary and ready himself for school.
He immersed himself in scouting and regularly went to religious services at Saint Mark AME Church, which he and Val still attend. Like Val, he closely followed the civil rights leaders of his era and met such luminaries as Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Benjamin Hooks and Ralph Abernathy.
Their decades in policing have helped their political careers by establishing them as moderate Democrats who believe in law and order. But their background has caused problems, too.
The Black Lives Matter movement is built around police mistreatment and excessive force, particularly of Black men suspected of criminal activity. Critics say the Demings are part of the problem, given their long involvement with law enforcement.
Jerry Demings says calls to reform policing tactics have been around since he was a rookie patrol officer. He says he has fought for smarter policing from the start of his career and will not stop.
“We will always be looking at police reform,” he says. “It takes a lifetime commitment.”
In one of her Washington Post op-eds, Val Demings faulted police for their tactics in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The headline was “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?”
She called for improved training and tougher hiring practices to weed out potential troublemakers, as well as more emphasis on de-escalating potentially dangerous situations.
“Everyone wants to live in safer communities and to support law enforcement and the tough job they do every day,” she wrote. “But this can’t go on. The senseless deaths of America’s sons and daughters—particularly African American men—is a stain on our country. Let’s work to remove it.”
During the four years (2007-2011) that Val was Orlando’s police chief, violent crime in the city fell by more than 40 percent. But the department was dogged by excessive force allegations, often against Blacks.
The Orlando Sentinel found that the city paid more than $3 million in damages as the result of some 50 lawsuits claiming excessive force and other misdeeds by the force under Val Demings’ leadership. She consistently defended her officers, saying they followed the correct protocols. But, she told Orlando magazine, “We have not always, as a matter of course, done a good enough job.”
Perry downplays the brutality complaints, saying what he recalls most is Val Demings tackling spiraling crime on Orlando’s west side, first as OPD’s deputy police chief and later as the agency’s leader.
“What I remember was violent crime was up along Mercy Drive and other areas,” Perry says. “And Val came in and turned those areas around. It took a tough cop to turn that around—to make it safe for the residents who lived there. …She was no-nonsense and highly respected.”
Jerry Demings has been castigated by a loose affiliation of progressive voices for approving additional funding for the sheriff’s office instead of redirecting money to social work or crime prevention measures. He also declined their request to declare racism a public health crisis.
“They have a passion to see systemic racism in America addressed,” says Demings, who met personally with some of his detractors. “I understand it and I am unified around that with them.”
But, Demings says, racism is not just a public health issue. It seeps into every facet of life, from housing and employment to education and access to capital. Racism, he says, has to be eradicated on all those fronts.
And, he says, he will not defund or reduce law enforcement in Orange County, especially in neighborhoods and areas where crime remains high. “Those communities demand a certain police presence,” he says.
Jerry Demings also has been in the forefront of the battle against COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. He ordered county residents to wear masks in public places, and he pushed for social distancing. He has closed bars, too. Many people have pushed back, saying masks infringe on their personal freedoms.
“They put their politics over the people,” Demings says. “We have to put the safety of the people first.”
Tom Hurlburt, a retired Orlando police chief and, like Demings, former public safety director for Orange Couty, says the mayor is handling the virus and ensuing economic and political fallout well.
“It takes a guy like Jerry to put the community, Orange County, before politics,” Hurlburt says, noting that Demings has regularly interacted with doctors and medical staff and reviewed their research in prior jobs. “If he says for everyone to wear a mask, he damn well thinks it will help [stop] the spread of the virus.”
Hurlburt says what impresses him most about Demings is not his political acumen or management skills, but his humanity.
On the day that Demings was elected county mayor in 2018, Randall James, a former OPD officer-turned-mayor’s-chief-of-staff-turned-minister, was unconscious and dying at Orlando Regional Medical Center. After a parade of local government officials came to say their goodbyes, Hurlburt phoned Demings and told him if he wanted to visit James, he needed to do so soon. Time was short.
Forty-five minutes later, Demings was there.
“Jerry stood there and held his hand for 30 minutes and talked to him,” Hurlburt says. “Then [I thought] he was leaving and he said, ‘I’m going to go down and get a bite to eat and come back.’ He must have stayed there two hours. He said sweet words and left.”
Left alone with James, Hurlburt opened a Bible and read the 23rd Psalm out loud.
“Randall then squeezed my hand and murmured something I couldn’t understand,” Hurlburt says. “But he knew Jerry Demings was there. And for Jerry Demings to come do that on Election Day, who does that? Everyone loved Randall and Randall loved Jerry.”