The life journey of Val Demings is probably what historian James Truslow Adams had in mind when he originated the concept of The American Dream.
"...that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement," Adams wrote in his 1931 best-selling manuscript Epic of America.
A screenwriter could easily make her story into an Academy Award-winning feature-length film if Demings wasn't busy living the most intriguing part of the plot.
Her ascension from the daughter of a maid and plumber, to college graduate, to a police officer, to the police chief, to Congresswoman, to US Senate candidate is both systematic and meteoric. But, the trajectory of that meteor is still active.
After months of emails and phone calls with her staff, I secured an interview with Demings at the Fran Carlton Center on the morning the 60th Annual Apopka Art & Foliage Festival began. She arrived on time and said hello to everyone in her path. Demings' modest entourage included an Apopka police officer, a security person, a photographer, an advance person who was there to meet me, and an additional staff member.
If you've lived in Apopka for more than five minutes, you are familiar with the Fran Carlton Center. It's an iconic venue next to Kit Land Nelson Park that doubles as a meeting place for the community and a senior center.
But what you might not know is the back story of its creation or about Fran Carlton herself.
In the 80s, Carlton was a member of the Florida Legislature and later the Orange County Clerk of Courts. In 1989, Carlton, a Democrat, and Apopka Mayor John Land, a Republican, worked together to secure a grant from the Legislature to build the community center. According to an article in the Orlando Sentinel, the City Council asked for $125,000, but because of Carlton's influence, they received $200,000.
Carlton's diligence impressed Land.
"We just decided to name the center after her because she was so helpful in getting the grants for us," said Land.
And like Carlton and Land 33 years ago, Rep. Demings, a Democrat, and Mayor Bryan Nelson, a Republican, worked together in November 2021. The unlikely duo stood side-by-side at the Golden Gem Landfill to talk about the bipartisan infrastructure bill and how it would help Apopka.
Demings explained how it took place.
"We talked to Mayor Nelson's office about that project and some of the needs in Apopka," she said. "And one of the requests that he made involved a water storage tank that was going to cost about $1.5 million. We were able to get that approved when we submitted that on our list of requests. We're very proud of that. It feels good to see the fruits of collaboration and the fruits of our labor work in a very direct way. I think that's what service is all about. Mayor Nelson has been a great partner, and we will continue to work together to get Apopka the resources it needs. If Mayor Nelson and I and other people like us can put community over individual agendas... if we could see more of that, I really do believe that the sky is the limit."
Despite her attempts to work across the aisle in Washington DC, Demings is still surprised at the level of contempt the two parties hold for one another. And in many cases, to the detriment of legislation that could pass with bipartisan support.
"As a police officer or police chief, I could not tell you the political party of the overwhelming majority of men and women I served with," Demings said. "It didn't matter. We had a mission to protect and serve. And we were laser-focused on that mission. I took that same spirit and attitude to Washington DC. Yes, I am a member of the Democratic Party. But I wanted to get some things done because, in law enforcement, we respond, and people expect us to solve problems. I was trying to think of a good bipartisan area that we could work on in 2017. I thought infrastructure would have been great because our highways, bridges, roadways, broadband, protecting the Everglades, expanding the capacity of our ports... all of those things are good for every community."
Unfortunately, that's not how things transpired.
"It was like being hit in the face with the partisan politics where I thought good projects and good legislation were impeded by political games," said Demings. "That was shocking to me."
Demings recalls a time when both parties worked together to pass monumental, historical legislation.
"I've seen Republicans and Democrats come together and get some big things done in this nation. We were able to pass a woman's right to vote, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. We were still able to get all of those things done, which I think were pretty major pieces of legislation. But somewhere, there was a shift. And it certainly was before my time in politics... where one party has to win at any cost. And what has happened is it took us six years, well, even longer than that, because they've been working on infrastructure long before I got there. But when I went into Congress, I thought infrastructure is what we need to do. We finally got the bipartisan infrastructure deal done, and we see millions of dollars rolling into Central Florida and other parts of Florida. Now. And that's such a good thing. Isn't that what we were elected to do?"
It's hard to believe, but if Demings is elected to the US Senate, she will be the first black Senator from Florida and only the second female. But, she has mixed feelings at that realization.
"I hope that the people of Florida will look at my record of service," said Demings. "And they will see that I've dedicated my life to public service. And that I will continue to serve them well in the Senate... that I will continue to be responsive, that I will continue to collaborate with the community. I'm hoping that they will give me that chance because of my credentials and my record of service. The fact that I will be the first... sometimes that makes me smile because it shows progress. But sometimes it makes me cry because it's also an indication that we should have been here before. As the first female police chief in Orlando, it took 132 years. So it makes me smile, but it also makes me sad. I know that Florida will get a person who's courageous, committed, and responsible. And I'm hoping they'll give me a chance to represent them in that way."
There was a lot of traffic coming and going in the Fran Carlton building. Members of the Apopka Women's Club were staging their plans for the 60th Art & Foliage Festival in a large room on the right side of the building. Demings, her staff, and I settled into a room on the left side with the door open. I was surprised at the relative quiet in our space, but finally, the inevitable happened.
"Val Demings!?" a passerby asked kind of rhetorically with both excitement and surprise... as if she knew who it was but did not understand why she was seeing her in the building.
"How are you?" Demings asked.
"It's great to see you," the lady said to Demings.
"Oh, thank you so much. Thank you," Demings said.
"I'd like to see you as the President," the lady said, now gaining a little confidence in her voice.
"Oh, Lord, one job at a time," Demings said. "I'll be there working."
"Okay, I'll hold you to that," said the lady. "I'm good at finding people. My mother had me handing out flyers for Adlai Stevenson in New York."
After the lady referenced Stevenson, my first thought was to wonder if she was not a bad-luck charm for campaigns. After all, this lady hands out flyers in support of Stevenson, and he goes on to be the last candidate in US history to be nominated twice by a major political party only to lose two straight presidential elections (to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956).
I would never survive in politics.
Demings, apparently not as rattled by the potential bad luck as I, thanked her for her service.
"I love, love, love your mother," Demings said as she walked away from the door smiling.
It should also be noted that Stevenson went on to confront the Soviets in 1962 as the US Ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When asked by Stevenson if there were missiles in Cuba aimed at the US, Soviet Ambassador Valerian A. Zorin said, "I am not in an American courtroom, sir. . . . You will have your answer in due course."
Stevenson, not willing to let him off the hook so easily, responded with a quote for the ages...
"I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over if that is your decision," Stevenson shot back. "I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room."
Stevenson unveiled a series of poster-size black-and-white photographs putting the lie to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's claim that the Soviet Union did not have offensive weapons deployed in Cuba. Stevenson's backbone against Russian aggression in 1962 is an example that the UN could probably use in 2022.
In Apopka, an issue that could use a Stevensonian-like backbone is bringing the unincorporated South Apopka community out of its decades-long struggle with poverty, crime, unemployment, and access to fresh food. It's a struggle that should be on the minds of elected officials in Apopka, Orange County, Tallahassee, and Washington DC.
Demings is well aware of the plight of this community.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done in South Apopka," she said. "That is for sure. During my time on the campaign trail and in Congress, I've had an opportunity to meet with many of the residents of South Apopka. We had one of our caseworkers go there because we wanted to make sure that we were properly servicing the Apopka area, and she spent a couple of days working out of Apopka. And so there's definitely a lot of work that needs to be done."
But if South Apopka is going to be annexed into Apopka, Demings believes the City Council will have to make certain it's ready to service the community.
"That's a decision that the mayor and the commission are going to need to look at very carefully," Demings said. "Because with annexation comes services. And is the City of Apopka really prepared? Because that's what they need. They need a service level comparable to any other level, and is Apopka ready to absorb that and do it proficiently and effectively? That's the question for the mayor and the commissioners."
Whether South Apopka remains in unincorporated Orange County or annexed into Apopka, Demings believes the fundamentals of a prosperous community should exist there.
"We should always make sure, in any community, you've got to have affordable housing," she said. "You've got to have a way to make a decent living. You've got to have access to goods and services and transportation. Schools that service South Apopka must have a level where they can receive a quality education like any other community would want. Is there a grocery store or a fresh vegetable and fruit market that's easily accessible? Is there a pharmacy where seniors can easily get their medication? Those are the kinds of things that make communities great. And South Apopka, for it to be a thriving area, has to have those services."
Unfortunately, a lot of the answers to Demings' questions are no. South Apopka lacks many of the fundamental building blocks a community needs to thrive. But Demings believes that there are federal grants, funding, and legislation that can contribute to solving the issues facing this community.
"We are always dealing with housing services, mental health or drug addiction... whatever social ills that plague a community," Demings said. "I'm currently working on legislation called the Victim Act that would help smaller police departments solve violent crimes, gun crimes, homicides, or prevent them. Certainly, there are funds. There's grant funding available out there. But also, we're always looking at legislation that will help with affordable housing. We know there's an affordable housing crisis in Central Florida. But there's an affordable housing crisis throughout the state and the nation. So people who live in South Apopka should be able to afford their homes. And I think owning your home is the greatest symbol of the American dream."
Most people will remember 2020 as the year of COVID-19 and a very contentious Presidential election. And while Demings struggled through the year like everyone else, she does have one memory not too many people can imagine - being on the shortlist of vice-presidential nominees chosen by then-candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden.
"That was pretty cool," Demings said. "You've got to invite me back because I need to write a book about what I went through and what my family went through."
Demings remembers receiving the call from Biden, but then the surreal shock of the moment set in.
"When I received the phone call, I spoke with then-Vice President Biden and then with people from his team," Demings said. "My ego is healthy enough to run for office or be the police chief, but I'm still a very humble person because I'm the daughter of a maid and a janitor, who were just good, decent people and worked hard. But I was like, did he just... what?"
After regaining her composure, Demings told Biden she was ready to go through the process.
"I talked to Jerry and my family about it," she said. "Because as a woman of faith, I'm always asking, 'is this the way God wants me to serve at this present time'? And then, you start going through the, 'I don't know if I'm ready to do that,' but then I figured out I don't know what that means. If your mind is sharp enough and your heart is good enough, you're ready... and I came back with the yes."
And although it was an honor for Demings to be put on the VP shortlist, the process was grueling.
"I had to go back in my life as far as I could remember. I was asked questions like, 'What are your first memories? Tell me about those. Where did you live?' I had to provide an address for every place I've ever lived. Some of the places have been torn down. 'What can you tell me about your elementary school days? Tell me about growing up? What kind of child were you?' I mean, really, all of that - high school, junior high, 'then tell me about college. Let's look at your grades.' I'm like, oh, Lord."
Then they asked Demings a question that probably originated from the 2008 election cycle.
'Tell me about your place of worship and your pastor's sermons.'
"I couldn't help but laugh," said Demings. "I wonder where they got that one from?"
The interviewers then turned their attention to Demings' time in the Orlando Police Department, and the process occurred at a time when America was struggling with the death of George Floyd.
"I remember talking about the police department. And I think it took like four days. And these interviews were hours long. That was probably my biggest up and down. It was during the George Floyd situation because his death was in May. And the vetting process started around then. I just kept telling myself 'you're a cop.' And being a cop, there are joys and pains of being a police officer. And that's who you are. That's why you're sitting here being vetted today."
Finally, after every personal question was asked, involving not only her but also friends and family, Demings got a topic that signaled the end was in sight.
"I remember when the team said, 'let's talk about China'. And I was like, YES!" Demings said, and then stretched back in her chair to laugh as if she was reliving the process all over again. "Any other day, I would have been... 'Oh, God, we got to talk about China?'"
Ultimately, Demings did not join Biden on the ticket as the VP nominee, but she will never forget the experience.
"I remember the day that I got the call from Vice President Biden to tell me that I didn't get the position," Demings said. "I said 'thank you for the opportunity. It has been an honor. I look forward to working with you to make our nation greater.' But, you know, this girl from North Florida, the daughter of a maid and a janitor. Being police chief... what an honor for that little girl to be elected to the House of Representatives. What an honor for that little girl to be considered for vice president. What an honor, and I hope other girls of all races and young women are looking and saying 'it is possible. I can do this. I can be this because that lady with her bio was able to do it'. There were days I thought I was not going to get through this, but it was an honor. It really was."
It's been my honor to write about politicians and elected officials for The Apopka Voice these past six years. I've asked them hundreds of questions, but my final question to Demings would be one I had never asked before. It's a question I've seen asked many times on network and cable television. It's a question I've seen poorly answered, dodged, and otherwise dreaded by candidates all across the political spectrum.
You may have guessed it...
"Would you ever consider running for President?"
I knew it's probably not what Demings wanted to discuss. She's running for the Senate, and to even answer the question may seem presumptuous. But a moderate Democrat with law enforcement credentials from Florida, with Congressional experience, that was on the shortlist for VP, and good name recognition certainly will be talked about by political pundits when the presidential horse race begins.
Besides, the Adlai Stevenson lady already asked her!
Demings took on the question with gusto.
"Look, I'll tell you this about me. I want to go where I'm most needed. When I was appointed Chief, I was the most junior deputy chief in the police department. And when Mayor Dyer called and wanted me to come over and talk to him, I wasn't sure what it was about. I tried to get it out of the current Chief at the time, but he said 'I don't know, but you deserve it.' And I'm thinking, What the hell is that? I went over, and he said, 'I want you to be Chief,' and my mouth dropped open. But crime was at an all-time high at that time. And I'm thinking, okay, Orlando gets its first female Chief, and crime is at an all-time high. If I'm not successful, people will never remember that crime was at an all-time high. But instead of focusing on the crisis, I chose to focus on the opportunity for service. So what I'm saying is, we all work together to build and mold this nation into a great nation. We're still trying to form that more perfect union. The founders knew it would be a work in progress. I want to serve where I am most needed. If we're having this conversation, to answer your question... if the people want me to represent them in the most powerful position in the nation, I'd give that a run. I would. I'm not going to say, 'oh, no, I just want to be a Senator'. Yes. I want to be a Senator. I'm running for the US Senate. But, if people want me to serve, we'll see what happens."
After the interview concluded, Demings made a final statement that resonated with my feelings about the morning.
"I'm sitting here and would have never dreamed I would be sitting here having this interview... the daughter of a maid and a janitor. So in America, only in this country, is my story possible. And I'm committed to making that story possible for other people."
And after interviewing a Congresswoman and a candidate for the US Senate, I feel much the same way.
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