50 Most Powerful in Orlando 2022: Val Demings
U.S. Representative, District 10
It’s a humid July morning, what we southerners call “close,” meaning the air is sticky and oppressive. Val Demings wants to take a walk.
Demings isn’t trying to get in her 10,000 steps or escape her MetroWest office. It’s because she is conscientious about doing things the right way.
“We can talk about the campaign,” she explains from behind her desk. “I just can’t talk about that from my office. We’ll step outside and take a walk.”
Deming’s combination of integrity, intelligence, and charisma, the big three for any successful politician, makes her a strong contender for the Senate. She also genuinely enjoys talking with people.
“My father said, ‘You’re a pretty good talker. You need to go to law school, you know, make some money talking.’ I’m not sure that was necessarily a compliment,” she says with a laugh.
No longer up-and-coming, Val Demings is a bona fide, homegrown star. The movie “The Queen” comes to mind as we venture out on our walk. Queen Elizabeth says to Tony Blair, “I always think these meetings have a far greater chance of success if the Prime Minister is a walker.”
“Val Demings! I saw you on TV,” shouts the UPS man as he starts for the elevator.
“How are you? What did I do this time?” she jokes.
“Well, you had a police uniform on.”
“I’m a Jackie of all trades. You take care of yourself and have a good one.”
Every politician needs a good backstory.
Lincoln had the log cabin; Clinton had the photo of shaking hands with then-President Kennedy as a teen. Then you have Reagan’s story of growing up in the Midwest, the quintessential lifeguard.
“I grew up the daughter of a maid and a janitor. I grew up in a two-bedroom, wood-frame house in Jacksonville, Florida. My mother and father taught me to work hard and play by the rules. I’ve dedicated my life to public service as a social worker, a career law enforcement officer, now serving in the House of Representatives.”
Demings was the youngest of James and Elouise Butler’s seven children and the first to attend college.
“When I attended Florida State University, I majored in criminology. I wanted to go to law school.”
James Butler was right when he said his daughter was a pretty good talker. That love of people and connection made her ideally suited to life as a public servant. But before Demings took that step, she began her career as a social worker.
Because of her financial struggles after graduating from Florida State, “My mother was a maid and my father a janitor, so we didn’t have much.” Demings joined the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and began her career as a social worker.
“Many people will ask; how did you go from being a social worker to a law enforcement officer and working with foster youth? We were working with kids that were abused, abandoned, and neglected. Law enforcement is tough, but you talk about a job that will break your heart; working with abused children.”
It’s a job that has never left her; her work as a social worker informs her life and choices, even to this day.
Demings recalls one case involving a 10-year-old boy.
“I was really worried about him, and my supervisor said, ‘We have this council that comes together once a month to go through the children’s cases. In three weeks, they’d be able to look at his case.’ I said he’ll be dead in three weeks.”
The next day, Demings parked herself outside the juvenile judge’s chambers all day long. When he finished his docket, she met with him and pleaded his case, resulting in an emergency order for evaluation.
“After that experience, I was so disenchanted with an organization that was there to help kids, but in this case, was failing this one child who desperately needed help.”
That’s when fate stepped in, as an advertisement on the radio. The Orlando Police Department (OPD) was recruiting new police officers in Jacksonville.
“I went over to hear what they had to say. I believed maybe I could prevent kids from being abused, abandoned, and neglected as a law enforcement officer instead of waiting until they’re in the system and then trying to help them.”
“Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility.”
– Gary Snyder
“Val Demings!” shouts a fan. “How’re you doing?”
Even in a hallway in an out-of-the-way office park, Demings fans come out of the woodwork.
“Hello! What’s your name?” she flashes her famous dimples.
Much has been written about Deming’s career; social worker, serving 27 years as the first woman chief of police at the OPD, Congresswoman representing Florida’s 10th Congressional District, who sits on several committees, vetted as a potential Vice-Presidential candidate, and now a Senate candidate. And that’s the shortlist.
Despite all of her accomplishments, some things will always stay with her.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those children as a social worker. That 10-year-old little boy, years later, I had one of our missing persons detectives find him for me. He wasn’t doing his best, but he was still alive.” Her voice trails off with emotion.
Orlando wants to know, who are Val Demings’ favorite politicians and the people who inspire her?
“Jerry Demings, of course,” Demings smiles. “I have several, but John Lewis would be at the top of the list.”
She admires John Kennedy. “I was in the first grade when President Kennedy was assassinated. I vividly remember we were glued to this black-and-white TV, watching the images from Dallas.”
Bobby Kennedy. “Bobby Kennedy said, ‘Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.’ As a poor black girl growing up in the South, who was told you can’t be this, and you can’t be that, and you’re probably never going to do this and do that; I look at things that never were and ask why not.”
Barack Obama. “He was the first Black president. Having served as the first female police chief in Orlando, I think people don’t understand the added weight that comes with being a ‘first.’”
Then there are the non-politicians.
Rosa Parks. “What made that woman sit down in her seat? Why didn’t fear keep her from doing that?”
Sandra Day O’Connor. “Another first, the first women Supreme Court Justice. Despite earning a coveted law degree, she wasn’t recognized for that initially and had to press her way, eventually making it to the Supreme Court.”
“There’s a lady nobody knows her name, but my mother Elouise Butler, who always could see past her own life, who had gone through all the injustices and the discrimination, yet never taught her seven children to hate or to look down on other people. She taught us to stay focused and live up to our God-given potential. I had a mother and father who pushed me not to be defined by the world but by my ability to work hard.”
“For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and waiting is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“I was honored to serve with Mr. John Lewis in the House of Representatives. I used to sit next to him on the floor so I could suck up just the awesomeness from him. He was a man who was larger than life but so humble.”
Demings reflects on the famous walk John Lewis took in Selma, Alabama, and how he was fully aware of the risk he took that fateful day. It’s a risk she understands all too well.
“I had the honor of going to Selma with him. I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with him. When we think about young John Lewis when he walked across that bridge on Bloody Sunday, John knew he was going to get beat down, but he still took that walk because he believed in something greater than him.”
“I believe we live in the greatest nation in the world, but membership should have its privileges, whether you live in a rural part of Florida or you live in Miami or Orlando or my hometown of Jacksonville. You and your family deserve a chance, a chance to succeed, a chance to live up to your God-given potential, just like I have had.”
And for those undecided voters? Demings says that the best indicator of future performance is to look at past performance.“I have
a record of standing up and fighting for people regardless of their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or how much money they have. I will continue to fight for you from the U.S. Senate. Everybody counts, but everybody is accountable.”