ORLANDO — Val Demings is a former police officer and her campaign literature notes that she’s a proud gun owner. Despite her law enforcement background and support for the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association is backing her opponent, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), who has a voting history that also favors gun rights.
There are several ways you could go in an interview with Demings — focus on her almost three decades as a police officer, or the fact that her husband is also on the ballot in some parts of her district. 2chambers discussed those issues, plus how Orlando-area voters are still carefully tracking the nearby shooting of Trayvon Martin. Check out the interview below, edited for length and clarity:
2chambers: Why do you want to become a member of an unpopular, unproductive institution like Congress?
Demings: It’s just another opportunity to work for people. I think they deserve people in appointed and elected positions who are going to put them first and work their butts off in the community. What we’re seeing in Washington, I would not have thought, three or four years ago that I would be in a political race and want to go to Washington.
But when I look at the mess we’re in and with people so busy playing political games and not doing a dang for folks back home, that’s what’s motivated me all my life, the opportunity to work hard and make a difference.
2chambers: What can a former police chief do to make Congress a more productive, more popular institution?
Demings: When I was appointed chief, it was when crime here was at an all-time high and nobody asked me my political persuasion. They just wanted me to have a good sense of the problems here. I ran a 1,000-person agency when crime was at an all-time high and also during some of the worst economic times for the city. I had to reduce our budget by millions of dollars while keeping cops on the street to bring the crime rate down by 40 percent.
I believe that people trust me – they know I worked hard, I took responsibility for the good and the not-so-good and did whatever necessary to protect the community.
So I believe that people are looking for that kind of leadership: I haven’t been defined by my political party, I’ve been defined by my hard work.
2chambers: How have you been able to close up this race?
Demings: I’ve been out in the community talking to voters about what matters and saying I’m not defined by my party, I’m a lifelong Democrat, my parents were Democrats, but this race is bigger than any particular party. It’s about getting things done. The people have kind of defined that agenda – I’ve listened to them, I’m not to busy to get out and listen to people and go to meetings.
They know I’m not a career politician, they know my whole life has been built on honesty and integrity and accountability. I have a tremendous work ethic. I’m not trying to win favoritism with my party, I’m trying to win favoritism with people. I’ll do what I think is right – whether that makes me a one-term congressman or whether I serve several terms, it’s bigger than party.
2chambers: Rhetorically, at least, it sounds as if you’re putting a little distance between yourself and Democrats. Is there a position or policy issue with which you differ with Democrats?
Demings: I haven’t been defined by my party and I think there’s always room for my party too to stop playing political games. Look at the deficit, reach across the aisle and see what it’s going to take to move the needle on the deficit and work with the other party to continue to protect people.
I’m committed to protecting Medicare, for example, that’s all about the millions of people in our country who depend on it. But we do need to have a serious conversation about long-term solutions to keep Medicare solvent and protect it. Democrats need to be serious about that, as opposed to just using political rhetoric.
2chambers: Do you have a specific proposal on how to fix Medicare?
Demings: Number one is focusing on the economy and getting people back to work. We know that there are more people receiving Medicare than people paying into it. So we all need to focus on putting people back to work, let’s focus there. That ought to be an agenda for Democrats and Republicans.
But as we move forward, I think we need to get serious about waste, fraud and abuse. There’s a case in Texas where a doctor billed over $300 million for services he never performed. But then we need to put our political differences aside and look long-term: Medicare appears to be solvent through 2023, so what do we do beyond that?
2chambers: Why shouldn’t Dan Webster go back to Congress?
Demings: Number one, Dan Webster has really not been accountable to the voters in Florida. If you remember last year, we had a town hall meeting, and regardless of what the agenda is, this meeting happened to center on Medicare. He had just voted to end Medicare as we know it – with a voucher system. There were people in his district who were very upset about that.
As a result, Dan Webster cancelled his town halls and also circulated a watch list to other colleagues saying look out for these people because they’re troublemakers. So it’s about being accessible to people in your community and in your district, which we haven’t really seen. Dan Webster will tell you that jobs are the number one concern, but when the president introduced a jobs bill with an idea similar to one of Webster’s, he voted against it, because it had the president’s name on it.
We need people who are going to bring jobs back to Florida and to support bills no matter whose name is on it.
2chambers: Your husband, Jerry Demings, is running for reelection as Orange County, Fla. sheriff. What’s it like being on the ballot with him?
Demings: I have a portion of Orange, Lake and Polk counties. There again, he is running hard, running strong, he doesn’t take anything for granted. He’s earning the right to be reelected. Crime in Orange County continues to go down, but yet he admits that there are some challenges and he’s going to address him. He’s certainly going to get my vote – and I hope I get his.
I remember when his name was on the ballot last cycle, four years ago, and we were just so excited. It was a historical time, because it was a time for Orange County to not only elect a confident and capable man who brings tremendous experience, but also to elect the first African-American sheriff in Orange County. But this opportunity for both of our names to be on the ballot, we don’t take it for granted, we’re humbled by it. We tell the voters, don’t leave a Demings inside: After you vote for one, go help the other.
We’re going to frame it after all of this is done.
2chambers: You’re going to frame the ballot?
Yes we are. We want to just capture the history of both being on the ballot but because we’re committed to this community and we’ve worked hard and people have faith in us.
2chambers: What does it do for the marriage?
Demings: We have a crazy household. Can you imagine the campaign literature and yard signs at our house? We’ve been in very demanding jobs for a few years now and what we decided then that if we’re going to see each other, we have to schedule it on our calendar. I realized that everything that made it on our calendars we would do. So we schedule date night on our calendar, because it’s so important.
2chambers: Do you recommend that other couples consider doing this?
Demings: I have to go back to when I was chief, and when Jerry was running for sheriff the first time, there were people who said it would never work, it would create conflicts of interest. But I remember meeting couples who owned businesses together and how they made it work, they managed to run a business and raise a family and household all at the same time.
I think families are stronger, marriages are stronger when both people can reach their full potential. It’s hectic, but it’s doable, and I think we demonstrated that when he was sheriff and I was police chief and we’re doing it right now. He’s just as supported and committed to my campaign as I am to his. It’s doable, but it’s a lot of work.
2chambers: I know that Sanford, Fla. isn’t in your district, but are folks in your area still talking about the Trayvon Martin shooting?
Demings: I think the focus now has really turned to what’s going on with George Zimmerman as we go through that process. Of course, people still are committed to Trayvon Martin. I know his mother and father are still traveling the country telling his story and their story.
I believe when George Zimmerman was arrested that kind of calmed the fire a little bit. And now people are just saying, OK, how is this going to end up? Is he going to be prosecuted for what happened or not? I think people are just kind of in wait and see mode.
2chambers: But as a former police officer and police chief, did you believe that the “Stand Your Ground” law was necessary?
Demings: There is a panel to take a look at the law and my husband is a member of the panel, so I’m interested to see what they come up with. But the death of a young man with a lot of promise is a tragedy.
We have to be careful not to have knee-jerk reactions where we automatically change laws, but we do owe the family – both families – we owe to them that we will do a thorough investigation of what happened, review the facts to make sure that whatever we come out with is in the best interest of protecting people and making sure that the innocents are protected.
2chambers: I read that you carry a 9mm handgun. True?
Demings: Yes, it’s a 9. When you retire from the police department, part of the honor you receive is that you’re given your service revolver, which is very special. But the men and women at OPD also gave me another weapon, so I carry both on occasion.
I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but I’m also a strong proponent of responsible gun ownership. When I was the chief, I participated in an initiative called Mayors Against Illegal Guns and we should keep guns out of the hands of habitual criminals and mentally ill people. We have a responsibility to do that – it’s not about taking guns out of the hands of responsible people who want to protect their families or for sporting purposes, but as a country, we have an obligation to ensure that convicted felons and mentally ill people don’t have access to handguns.
2chambers: But would you ever sponsor legislation limiting that access? Democrats don’t talk about this issue much anymore.
Demings: But Ed, this is one of those issues that shouldn’t be politicized. I stood up in Orlando with the mayors against illegal guns – but listen — illegal guns. Virginia Tech, what happened in Colorado, those images are still very alive in our minds. I think that every person in this country who’s responsible would say that those things shouldn’t happen, so how do we work together as a nation to prevent them?