“And let me tell you something,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “When they gave me that badge and my belt, I was trying to tell everybody what to do.”
Demings spoke while sitting in a stately Washington office, the hub of her current position of authority: U.S. representative of Florida’s 10th Congressional District.
The former grade school safety officer had turned telling people what to do into a calling, becoming a police officer and then Orlando’s chief of police — the first woman to hold that job. Now, three years after being sworn into Congress, Demings, 62, had been chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as one of seven House members to manage the impeachment trial of President Trump, the only nonlawyer selected for the task.
The Senate trial marks a test both for the congresswoman and the country, and Demings sees their stories as closely intertwined. In December, when the House Judiciary Committee debated the articles of impeachment against the president, Demings began her turn at the mic by talking about herself. “I believe that only in America can a little black girl, the daughter of a maid and a janitor, growing up in the South in the ’60s, have such an amazing opportunity,” she said then, talking about her election to Congress. “No one,” she added, “can make me give up on America.”
It was a star turn, and a month later Demings found herself marching the articles of impeachment through the halls of the Capitol with Pelosi’s other handpicked lieutenants. Once again, she had managed to make a strong impression and land a coveted role.
But making an argument for impeachment — a political process as much as a legal one — is different from enforcing the law on the streets of Orlando or in the hallways of a grade school. In the America Demings envisions, Trump simply cannot get away with the conduct in question. And yet the Florida congresswoman, at the apex of a career spent giving and enforcing commands, cannot order everybody to do what she wants.
She can only try to make a persuasive case — then wait for the Senate jurors to let her know whether America really is what she thinks it is.
Valdez Venita Butler, the seventh child of James and Elouise, has the kind of bootstrapping origin story that conservatives might exalt as a sign of high character if she weren’t a Democrat who wants to impeach Donald Trump.
Her parents raised Val and her six older siblings in a two-room shack in the woods. They struggled to get by, but Demings remembers her childhood as “the perfect life.” She and her siblings were fed a diet of old-fashioned American optimism: Occasionally, the future congresswoman would tag along with her mother to clean the magnificent-looking houses of white people, and she’d listen as her mom would “be on her soapbox” telling her and her siblings that they could do anything they wanted.
It didn’t make sense to Demings, at least not at first. “How do we get here?” she remembers arguing, looking around at the mansions they were cleaning. Having a life “like this [white] family, like these children? It’s impossible.” But her mom “would not at all entertain that kind of talk,” she says. Stay focused, Demings’s mother would say. Study hard.
Those admonitions made an impression on her youngest daughter. Demings arrived at Florida State University in 1976 with $50 and no clear plan for how to pay that semester’s tuition. No one in her family had made it that far. She worked at McDonald’s and helped pay her way through, majoring in criminal justice. After a brief post-college stint as a social worker, she was recruited to work for the Orlando Police Department.
In person, Demings has piercing brown eyes and a tendency to embark on spirited monologues. A pair of dimples appear and disappear on her cheeks as she talks at length about her 27 years on the force. She did midnight patrols. She did hostage negotiations. She met and married a fellow officer, Jerry Demings. She had three sons. She learned to ride motorcycles and horses.
In 2007, she was named chief, the first woman and the second African American to run the department. (Jerry, her husband, was the first.) “She had the talent,” says Buddy Dyer, the mayor who appointed her. “She had the credibility.”
That credibility was tested when Demings took an unusual approach to reducing crime at a housing complex that was the source of relentless emergency calls and the site of a triple murder during her first year as chief. Instead of simply stepping up patrols, Demings assigned officers to fix playgrounds, plant trees, help residents get into health-care programs and earn their high school equivalency degrees.
Was that police work? Demings wasn’t sure. Several former chiefs (though not her husband) questioned her use of department resources. But the police chief stuck to her strategy. The emergency calls waned.
Over the course of her 3 12-year tenure, so did violent crime. The marathon-running, motorcycle-riding police chief cut a distinct figure among her fellow public servants. The Orlando Sentinel called her “a modern-day Wonder Woman.” When she retired from the force, Dyer encouraged her to consider getting into politics.
It didn’t make sense to Demings, at least not at first.
“I laughed and said, ‘Mayor, no offense to you, but there’s no way I’m running for public office,’ ” she says. “I’m a little rough around the edges. That wouldn’t work for me. I kind of mean what I say and say what I mean.”
Demings won on her second try, after a court-ordered redistricting made the 10th District and many more Democrat-friendly. When she moved into her congressional office, she asked to have her family’s name, “Butler,” added to the plaque outside her congressional door.
“I’m here because the Butlers got me here,” she said in an interview, three years to the month after she moved in.
Thinking of them, she sat up tall in a leather chair. And just at that moment, a television screen above her showed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. being led into the Senate to preside over the impeachment trial in which Demings would soon play her role: speaking to jurors, more than half of them Republicans, who had sworn an oath to listen with open minds.
Congresswoman Demings has a thing about oaths.
In January 2017, two weeks after she held her hand on a Bible and swore to protect and defend the Constitution, she showed up on the Mall to watch Donald Trump do the same.
“Regardless of politics, the U.S. president is my president,” she says of the inauguration. “I felt it was my duty to watch the peaceful transfer of power.”
It’s what burns her now — thinking about how seriously she takes her oath, and feeling that Trump betrayed his.
“She’s a stickler for the law,” says Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, the first committee on which Demings served. “She understands, without being a lawyer, right and wrong.”
In her office on Capitol Hill, surrounded by pictures of her five grandchildren and medals for her police service, Demings recalls the many oaths she’s taken, starting as a young police officer. She thinks about the moments that oath was first tested: when it was just her and an alleged criminal, or just her and the jewelry from a jewelry store that had been robbed — situations where she could have abused her power, but didn’t. Upholding those oaths, she says, has defined her: “Having that desire to always do the right thing. And knowing that when I do the wrong thing, with the power that has been entrusted in me, people can die, people can be hurt, people can suffer.”
In the years after they swore their respective oaths, Demings and the president embarked on a collision course: She was invited to join the Intelligence and Judiciary committees (the congressional versions of safety patrol), which wound up with the task of determining whether Trump’s behavior merited impeachment.
“George Washington was particularly concerned about unprincipled men finding their way into the White House,” she told her fellow Judiciary Committee members during a debate in December. “Well, those times have found us. And we only have one option.”
On the first day of the trial, Demings, standing at the lectern in a dark suit, burnished her law-and-order bona fides. “As a career law enforcement officer,” she told the senators, “I have never seen anyone take such extreme steps to hide evidence allegedly proving his innocence.”
The stakes felt historic, Demings said this week. Of all the times she has tried to enforce the rules since grade school, she said, this is the only time when American democracy seemed to hang in the balance.
This time is different for another reason. As the Senate moves through the question-and-answer portion of the impeachment trial, Demings will be reminded again that in this role, she cannot simply give directives. She’s not Chief Demings anymore. She’s a politician — and polished enough, by the way, to sidestep a question about how it feels to have her control over the situation be so limited.
“I would rather look at it this way,” she says, pivoting back to her favorite topic. “I’ve taken four oaths. When I raised my hand as a 26-year-old person and was sworn in as a police officer, I took that oath extremely seriously. I believed every word of it, and I was just so proud to be chosen to protect and serve my community. To protect the innocent.”
Old-fashioned American optimism. Demings held on to the vision of the country her mother insisted upon — the one that didn’t make sense at first, standing in the mansion-like houses of white Southerners, but which she eventually embraced as her own.
For Demings, this trial is not just about convicting Trump. It’s about upholding that vision of the country, which is central to how she understands her own life: one where opportunity comes when people follow the rules, do their jobs and keep their promises.
“When I look at my own story, you know — only in America,” Demings says. “So I am trying to protect that for every little girl and every little boy.”