Val Demings and the policing question that won't go away

Can Democrats get over their Florida hump in a 2022 Senate race?

Val Demings and Marco Rubio.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Asked in January about the lack of Black female representation in the Senate in the aftermath of Kamala Harris' ascension to the vice presidency and whether she would consider a run to help fill the void, Florida Congresswoman Val Demings told The Washington Post, "I am keeping the door open."

Demings has since dropped any pretense about whether or not she is planning for a political future beyond the House, notably in an aptly-titled interview with The 19th's Errin Haines, "Val Demings makes the case for a statewide run." While the 64-year-old three-term congresswoman would not acknowledge which position she would seek (it has since been reported she plans to challenge for Marco Rubio's Senate seat), it was evident that a new campaign lies ahead. For a politician who was seen as a promising star as early as 2015, this makes sense; last year she both served as an impeachment manager and was shortlisted for vice president.

And while many might dismiss Florida as "Trump country," as Demings explained to Haines, it is not irrational to think Republicans in the state can be defeated in statewide elections.

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"Let's go back to 2010 to Alex Sink, who lost by one percentage point," Demings noted. "Let's go to 2014 with Charlie Crist; when he was a Democrat, he lost by one percentage point. Andrew Gillum, a Black man from small-town Tallahassee, the majority of the state did not know him, came within 32,000 votes of winning as governor. Bill Nelson came within 10,000 votes [in the Senate race]."

In the case of 2018, exit polls suggested race might have played a role in Gillum's loss to Ron DeSantis, with Nelson securing two percentage points more among white independent voters. This was especially disappointing to those who had hoped that the prospect of the first Black governor of Florida, and a politician with natural talents like Gillum, would galvanize enough Black voters to make up for such losses. But Demings' larger point is valid and should be stressed to Democrats in doubt. Florida can be won.

The question is whether or not Democrats will do enough to motivate the base of voters needed to win. (In addition to trying to fight back against the GOP's long-running efforts to make it as hard as possible for anyone Black and potentially Democratic-leaning in the state to vote.)

When pressed about this — notably Biden's relative weakness with Latino voters in Florida, Demings blamed Democrats for allowing Trump to frame Democrats as the party that loves socialism and loathes law enforcement. "One thing I know about Latinx communities, they do care about the safety of their communities, they care about the future," Demings said. "You know, when we talk about socialism, it matters to them. And we allowed our message to be silent and a crazy, untrue message to really be the only message out there."

"It's not like we're down by double digits," she added. "We can see the horizon. This is not something that is out of reach. This is right in front of us... We're just trying to get one percentage point. I think we can do it if we get started early enough and we have a strategic plan."

With respect to Latino voters being bombarded by ads branding Democrats as lovers of socialism, it's time for Democrats in every state to get real about the right's manipulation of people through media ownership and unregulated tech companies. Democrats were warned last fall about Latino voters being inundated with right-wing propaganda online, and Latino support for Trump in Florida remains high. Demings may not want to align herself with the politics of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in a state like Florida, but she ought to take her advice on taking digital advertising seriously and spend a lot of money on Facebook ads.

Ultimately, as Democrats so often do, a Demings win will lean on a lot of Black support. With Demings there is the opportunity to make her the first Black woman to represent the state of Florida in the Senate and only the third Black woman from any state to do so. That feat alone should be enough to draw widespread media attention and fundraising. On the other hand, in order for Demings to make history, she has to deal with her history-making past as the first Black female police chief in Orlando, Florida from 2007-2011.

The Orlando police department's history is well established: According to WFTV, from 2010 to 2014, the Orlando police department paid out more than $3.3 million in damages following at least 47 lawsuits. This is also not a challenge unfamiliar to Demings, who faced questions about her tenure during her initial run for Congress in 2016. Yet her past defenses of OPD only seem to play worse and worse with time. "Looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church," she wrote in a 2008 Orlando Sentinel op-ed. "It won't take long to find one."

The issue of policing has also come even more to the fore since then. In 2019, Harris was not adequately prepared for criticism from Black voters about her prosecutor background when she ran for president. It was one of many things that did her campaign in.

These days, Demings sounds far more conciliatory about the need for reform, and to her credit, has pushed for it in Congress. But she still uses cliches when discussing the matter, telling Haines, "Good cops don't like bad cops." The problem is no matter how "good" a person is, they're entering a system rotten to its core. So talk like this is not reassuring.

When Demings was under consideration for the vice presidential nomination, Vanessa Keverenge, an organizer in Orange County, Florida, told Vox: "We really need to read the room on this one. Symbolically, it's a slap in the face to the thousands of protesters who are protesting in the state."

Keverenge's opinion may not be the predominant one in Florida, but in a race won on the margins, Demings will need every vote she can get. I'd like to think someone who worked in law enforcement can speak a bit more forcefully about an issue of grave importance to her potential core supporters. Yes, worry about those precious white "moderates" so often obsessed over in mainstream political media, but focus on the voters that actually hand Democrats power, and focus on what upsets them like police brutality. As the headlines continue to highlight, the problem is not going away.

In one part of her 19th interview, Demings says "I started off as a social worker before I became a law enforcement officer, and I worked with families who needed emergency services." As Joe Biden rests his presidency on the notion that government can be a useful force in people's lives, now more than ever should a Democrat want to sound more like a social worker and less like a cheerleader for law enforcement.

Like it or not, no amount of tales about "good cops" will inspire those voters Demings will need to remove Marco Rubio from the Senate.

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