ORLANDO, Fla. — As major priorities for the incoming administration, Val Demings pointed to stopping the coronavirus pandemic and thwarting domestic terrorism.
What You Need To Know
- U.S. Rep. Val Demings, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings attending inauguration
- In interview with Spectrum News, he emphasized MLK, social justice, wife’s influence
- Rep. Demings discusses vetting for VP, role as House manager in impeachment hearings
- Mayor Demings: “We’re each other’s biggest confidants, biggest critics, biggest supporters”
“After January 6,” she said, referring to the right-wing mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, “the new administration is going to have to balance those two things and give them equal time and attention.”
Jerry Demings pointed to national unity amid the coronavirus and the economic struggles that it has brought to so many.
“Just how much worse it will get will depend upon the leadership from Washington, D.C. right down to the local level,” he said.
Val Demings represents western Orange County as the U.S. representative for Florida’s 10th congressional district. Jerry Demings represents all of Orange County as its mayor.
Together they stand as Central Florida’s unrivaled power couple, and together they will attend Wednesday’s inauguration of incoming president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris in Washington — Mayor Demings as a guest, as he put it, of his wife, Congresswoman Demings.
“For three decades, we have been married with children, and we have come to respect the intellect of the other through our public service, our elected offices, running political campaigns,” Mayor Demings said. “We’re each other’s biggest confidants, biggest critics, biggest supporters.”
The mayor and congresswoman spoke Monday in a 55-minute video call with Spectrum News 13. They discussed, among other things, the inauguration, their service to Orange County, how they met, and how they live and thrive.
She shared her experiences as an increasingly influential congresswoman and lawmaker who found herself caught inside the House gallery on the day that the mob attacked the Capitol. He talked about the work and vision of Martin Luther King Jr. and about his work as Orlando’s first African American police chief and Orange County’s first African American sheriff and mayor.
As he spoke, Jerry Demings noted the MLK Jr. holiday. He also pointed out the coronavirus pandemic, political and societal divisions throughout the country, and the police shootings that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Fifty-three years after Dr. King’s death,” the mayor said, “we find ourselves as a nation once again in the throes of a call for social justice, criminal justice reform, and equality for all people.”
The congresswoman said the inauguration signifies — with Harris sworn in as the first female, Black, and Asian American vice president — “that with all of the challenges that we have as a nation, America is still inching sometimes but moving closer to who we say we are.”
She said she attended President Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration out of obligation as a newly elected member of Congress. Previously, she'd attended with her husband an inauguration of two-term President Barack Obama.
“To see the first African American president sworn in is an image, an occurrence, an event that I will never, ever forget,” she said, “because it really signals that America was living up to its promise that everyone, regardless of the color of your skin, will have an opportunity to reach your full potential.”
Who are Jerry and Val Demings?
Both were born of working-class parents into poverty, him in Orlando and her in Jacksonville.
Both earned their bachelor’s degrees at Florida State University, where they kept mutual friends but didn’t know each other. Their professional work began in law enforcement, where they met and fell in love.
They have emerged as polished public servants and politicians who continue to represent many of the same constituents.
Jerry Demings remains among Orange County’s most prominent law enforcement and political figures over more than two decades, starting in 1998 when he became Orlando’s first African American police chief. He became Orange County’s first African American sheriff in 2009, and then, in 2018, Orange County’s first African American mayor.
He regularly trumpets those milestones, plus a desire for economic equality, social justice, and to serve particularly the county’s most vulnerable. He emphasizes a need for strong leadership within government and for advocacy and volunteerism outside of it.
“This is a battle that is not over with one moment in time,” he said. “It is something in my four decades (of public service) that continues.” The process evolves “as laws change, as the people of our nation change, as the circumstances change, as we become a more diverse America,” he said.
Over the past year, Mayor Demings has drawn applause and scorn for his dogged pandemic policies, including a countywide mask-wearing mandate and, since early December, a crackdown on businesses that fail to maintain coronavirus safety standards.
Val Demings followed Jerry Demings as Orlando’s police chief in 2007 – the first woman to land that role. She got elected to Congress in 2016 and rose to national prominence last year as a House manager during the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
After Biden won the Democratic nomination for president, the Biden transition team vetted Demings for vice president. News reports at the time highlighted complaints against the police department for excessive force but also a more than 40% drop in the crime rate during her time as chief.
“It was such an honor to be seriously considered to serve in such a critical position during such a critical time,” the congresswoman said. “I will never forget that process. It made me think about every little boy and little girl who may have grown up like me, and I want to somehow use that experience to help them understand, and see the potential that they have in themselves.”
She said she sees safety and security of people as the “foundation on which we build the American dream.”
On the day that rioters attacked the Capitol, she said, she found herself among about 30 people seated and then trapped in the House gallery. After “a few nerve-racking minutes,” she said, everybody got out safely.
“Of course, we've spent every minute since then, really, trying to look at how it happened and what we need to do to improve the hardening, if you will, of the Capitol building, Capitol grounds, the Capitol complex, as well as increase our safety and security,” the congresswoman said.
How They Met
Valdez “Val” Butler was a self-described Orlando Police Department rookie in 1984 when she responded to a case in which a teenager rode a go-cart into a young girl, who sustained a broken leg. As a detective, Jerry Demings had questions about the case and got caught in a squabble, as he put it, between two sergeants and the rookie officer, who took her case directly to man in the middle.
“This was a young officer storming up to talk to a detective,” he said. “I just looked at this young officer … and I said, ‘Wow, this is a rookie,’ but I thought, ‘Wow, who is that?’”
“I'm sure he fell in love with me at that point,” she said with a laugh.
They married in 1988 and had three sons, all graduates of Florida A&M University. They now have five grandchildren.
Both hold youthful looks in their early 60s. Together they tout faith, family, and public service.
In their spare time, they say, they put a special emphasis on family, including Jerry Demings’s 98-year-old father.
They say they play the piano and ride their Harleys together when they can. Her time in Washington puts serious limits on both.
“We talk a lot to each other, and he will tell you that I talk more than he does, but we also laugh a lot,” Rep. Demings said. “We've had some really challenging, tough jobs for a lot of years, and we've been involved in life-and-death situations. We know that decisions that we make can literally affect a person's life, but we laugh a lot. We enjoy each other's company.”
An audio recording on the website of radio station WMFE underscores their mutual playfulness. And as the mayor talked about their lives and trumpeted her accomplishments on the video call Monday with Spectrum News 13, the congresswoman would smile, close her eyes, and nod softly.
“When you have the opportunity to go from being poor … and you have the opportunity to meet kings and queens and presidents, governors, members of Congress, it is critical to have the relationships in place to be able to leverage those relationships for the good of the people that we serve,” the mayor said. “So, because of Val's relationships in Congress, this poor girl from Jacksonville, Florida, was vetted potentially to be the vice president of the United States of America. That is pretty phenomenal.”
Jerry Demings also touted his wife’s role as an impeachment manager, which he said has created influence for her in Congress.
“So, as the mayor of Orange County, what a blessing it is for me …” he said. “Because of her relationships in Washington, I have relationships in Washington. Because of her relationships throughout the state (and) my relationships throughout the state, we have influence.”
“It’s not about the power,” he added. “It's about the influence to get the things that our residents need the most, and that is the beauty of where we are.”