Val Demings has a mission

Demings described their lives as “very poor.” (One brother, Gerald, called where they lived “the countryside — we actually lived in the woods.”) But they never realized it because their parents worked tirelessly to provide for the newly desegregated South. James was a janitor, Elouise a housekeeper. They tried to create a sense of normalcy. They told their children to ‘never let those people define you with their mean words. You define yourself by your ability to work hard, your faith in yourself, and your faith in God.” And while they didn’t finish high school, they sowed the importance of education and civic responsibility. They were so loyal to it that Demings thought it was illegal not to vote. They would pay someone to drive them to the polls if their station wagon wouldn’t start.

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

The sense of duty that James and Elouise embodied, working hard to make their children’s lives much better than theirs, has shaped how Demings rules. Her staffers pick her up – for security reasons – because she talks to strangers too often or sometimes takes them back to her MetroWest District office to chat. She does it anyway. When she sees ordinary people, she remembers her parents living in poverty, “about how many people walked past them as if they weren’t even there,” she told me. She speaks to the janitors, the painters, the people pushing the carts in the convention halls, the cafeteria workers preparing food, everyone used to being invisible, “to help them understand that I see you. I know you’re there.”

After that Sunday service in San Marco, over brunch, Jerry recalled how they first met at FSU. He was a great financial and accounting major, and Demings studied criminology, like his twin brother. Occasionally they saw each other through mutual friends. As he told their love story, Demings jabbed frisky at her trout, wrinkling the corners of her eyes. Although they knew each other in college, that wasn’t her version of when they really became friends. It was 1984, and “he was a know-it-all detective, and I was a hard-working patrol rookie,” she said, giving him a playful look. “You mean you were a know-it-all rookie,” Jerry protested. They laughed at their unique climb through the Orlando Police Department.

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

All these years, their parents risked their lives in uniform, the couple’s three adult sons, twins Antoine and Antonio and Austin, never worried that Mom and Dad wouldn’t come home. While death or injury was a constant possibility, Demings said they chose to dedicate their lives to public service and knew the risks. But when they came home every night, “we took off the uniform, and it was like, ‘What are we going to cook for dinner?’ We really tried to be like any other family.”

That changed on January 6.

The evening before the crowd of Trumpists tried to overthrow democracy, some members of the House anxiously texted each other in their group chat. “Don’t underestimate it because many of them will see this as their last point of view,” Demings replied at one point. When she arrived at the Capitol Building that Wednesday morning, she was surprised that there weren’t more police around. During the demonstrations she had participated in during her time in uniform, she had learned that a display of violence often discourages unruly acts. “Like, if you want to take down 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 force – don’t do it.”

Shortly after the proceedings to certify Biden’s election win began, there was a commotion outside the House gallery. Sitting in the front row, Demings flashed back to her days with the police. The instinct kicked in. She got up and stood guard at the door, arms crossed in front of her.

Moments later, the armed sergeant ran down the aisle, repeating, “There’s been a breach!” When Demings heard infringement, her mindset changed. If there’s a demonstration, she told me, there’s an outer perimeter and an inner perimeter, and people can get through the outer perimeter, “but nobody comes through the inner perimeter. I knew that if there had been a break-in in the building, the police would have lost the battle they were in.”

Ruckus followed. Glass started to break. Soon the Capitol was filling with terrifying howls as the platoon charged through the halls. Capitol police officers frantically pushed furniture against doors. Rioters hit harder and tried to break through.

The Capitol Police Department began evacuating the floor of the house. They said to those in the gallery, “Go downstairs! Get your gas mask, ’cause maybe we should put on gas,” Demings said, still flashing back. “And here I am, I’m thinking: hold on, hold on. spent years on the streets of Orlando, I’ve chased people through backyards and alleys, and all those traffic jams – which can be the most dangerous because you often don’t know who’s stopping you – and all those calls for domestic violence, which are extremely dangerous, and I’ I’m in the House of Representatives† — her wide-open eyes stayed on me a beat longer, without blinking — “And I remember looking at my waist.” No gun. “I have never felt more vulnerable than that day, because on the street you have all your weapons, you have your vest on, you are 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 have walked to the GOP side.) Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester and Demings lay side by side on the floor. gas masks on.