Val Demings Is on a Mission

Demings described their life as “really poor.” (One brother, Gerald, called where they lived “country-country—we actually lived back in the woods.”) But they never realized it because their parents worked tirelessly to provide in the newly desegregated South. James was a janitor, Elouise a housekeeper. They tried to create a sense of normalcy. They’d tell their kids to never “let those people define you by their vicious words. You define yourself by your ability to work hard, and belief in yourself, and belief in God.” And though they didn’t finish high school, they sowed the importance of education and civic responsibility. They were so faithful to it, Demings thought it was illegal not to vote. They’d pay someone to drive them to the polls when their station wagon wouldn’t start.

Her parents couldn’t afford to pay tuition when Demings went to college at Florida State University—the first in the Butler home to do so—so she took out loans, enrolled in federal work-study with campus police, and picked up shifts at McDonald’s, working four nights a week. After graduating, she considered law school but couldn’t foot the bill. She moved back home and worked as a social worker for 18 months before joining the Orlando Police Academy in 1983.

The sense of duty James and Elouise embodied, grinding to make their children’s lives vastly better than theirs, has shaped how Demings governs. Her staffers get on her—for security reasons—for speaking too often to strangers or, at times, bringing them back to her MetroWest District office to chat. She does it anyway. When she sees everyday folks, she remembers her parents living in poverty, “about how many people walked by them like they weren’t even there,” she told me. She speaks to the janitors, the painters, the people pushing the carts in the halls of Congress, the cafeteria workers preparing food, everyone accustomed to being invisible, “to help them understand I see you. I know you’re there.”

After that Sunday service at Saint Mark, over brunch, Jerry recalled how they first met at FSU. He was a finance and accounting major, and Demings studied criminology, same as his twin brother. They would occasionally see one another through mutual friends. As he retold their love story, Demings poked her trout friskily, crinkling the corners of her eyes. Though they had known each other in college, that wasn’t her version of when they really got friendly. It was 1984, and “he was a know-it-all detective, and I was a hardworking patrol rookie,” she said, playfully gazing him down. “You mean you were a know-it-all rookie,” Jerry protested. They laughed down their two-of-a-kind climb through the Orlando police department.

Jerry became the first Black chief, at 39, in 1998. This made Demings ineligible for any promotion because of Florida’s anti-nepotism law. So in 2002, he retired early to become Orange County’s director of public safety and, in 2008, its first Black sheriff. The 63-year-old now serves as the first Black mayor of Orange County. Demings quickly rose to deputy chief within a year and was appointed chief in 2007. They were well on their way to becoming an Orlando power couple.

All those years their parents spent risking their lives in uniform, the couple’s three adult sons, twins Antoine and Antonio, and Austin, never worried about Mom and Dad not coming home. Though death or injury were a constant possibility, Demings said they chose to dedicate their lives to public service and knew the risks. But, when they got home every night, “we took the uniform off, and then it’s like, ‘What we gon cook for dinner?’ We really tried to be just like any other family.”

January 6 changed all of that.

The night before the mob of Trumpists tried to overthrow democracy, some House members texted one another in their group chat, concerned. “Don’t underestimate, because many of them will see this as their last stand,” Demings replied at one point. As she arrived at the Capitol that Wednesday morning, she was surprised there wasn’t more law enforcement present. In the demonstrations she had worked during her time in uniform, she’d learned that a show of force often discourages unruly acts. “Like, if you wanna cut the fool here, don’t do it because we’re here with our helmets and riot gear on,” she said. “We’ve increased our authorized strength—don’t do it.”

Shortly after proceedings to certify Biden’s election win began, there was commotion outside the House gallery. Demings, sitting in the front row, flashed back to her days on the force. Instinct kicked in. She got up and stood guard by the door, arms crossed in front of her body.

Moments later, the sergeant at arms ran down the center aisle, repeating, “There’s been a breach!” When Demings heard breach, her mindset shifted. When there’s a demonstration, she told me, there’s an outer perimeter and an inner perimeter, and people might get through the outer perimeter, “but nobody gets through the inner perimeter. I knew if there had been a breach of the building, that the police had lost whatever battle they were in.”

Ruckus ensued. Glass started to break. Soon, the Capitol filled with eerie howls as the pack bounded down the halls. Capitol Police officers frantically pushed furniture against doors. Rioters pounded harder, trying to break through.

Capitol Police began evacuating the House floor. They told those in the gallery to “get down! Get your gas mask, because we might need to deploy gas,” Demings said, still flashing back. “And here I am, I’m thinking, Wait a minute, wait a minute. I spent 27 years on the streets of Orlando. I have chased people through backyards and alleys, and all those traffic stops—which can be the most dangerous because many times you don’t know who you’re stopping—and all those domestic violence calls, which are extremely dangerous, and I’m in the House of Representatives?”—her widened eyes stayed on me a beat longer, no blinks—“And I remember looking down at my waist.” No gun. “I never felt as vulnerable as I did that day, because on the street, you have all your weapons, you have your vest on, you’re prepared for that. I’m in the Capitol in my suit and my high heels.”

As the attack escalated, Representative Jason Crow—a fellow impeachment manager alongside Demings during Trump’s first trial—told everyone to take off their congressional pins. (He later told Demings they should’ve walked over to the GOP side.) Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester and Demings spread out on the floor next to each other. Gas masks on.

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