Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is in her third House term, but her decades of experience in law enforcement come through whatever the topic. It not only peppers her language but also provides her with a perspective that differs starkly from that of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose seat she’s seeking in November. Her opponent has achieved little while in the Senate, other than shape-shifting from a critic of former president Donald Trump into one of his most frequently mocked sycophants.
In a phone interview, I asked Demings about the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade. She says she learned an expression in police work: “Don’t relax too soon.”
Unfortunately, Democrats did just that, failing for decades to codify Roe. Now, she says, with abortion rights being restricted, “people cannot believe it.” Channeling her law-enforcement background, she says, “It’s about taking away constitutional rights. Abortion may not be your issue, but if it’s on one street, it will be on your street,” making the point that a host of other constitutional rights that a wide array of Americans care about may be on the chopping block. “Justice Clarence Thomas telegraphed” where the court is heading on contraception, same-sex marriage and other fundamental rights, she says.
On guns, she tells me that violent crime was her No. 1 issue as a police officer. “My second priority was getting guns off the street.” While she praises the Democratic-led recent passage of gun legislation (the first in 30 years), she says it did not go far enough.
In Florida, she says, “we’ve had 8,000 red-flag incidents,” referring to laws that allow a judge to take a weapon out of the hands of people who are a risk to themselves or others. “It’s made a difference.” Now, she argues, Americans need a nationwide red-flag law. And “we need to close the Charleston AME loophole,” referring to the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. The killer should have failed a background check and been prevented from purchasing his weapon, but because of a clerical error the sale was allowed after a mandatory three-day waiting period had elapsed.
Demings points to Rubio’s track record in voting no on virtually every Democratic initiative, even the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will pour billions into the state. “Politics is an interesting game,” she says ruefully. “He doesn’t want what will appear to give a win to Democrats and President Biden.”
On the law-enforcement front, Rubio voted not only against the bipartisan gun legislation but also against the American Rescue Plan, which would have helped keep first responders on the job. Demings also notes that Rubio “voted against a bipartisan commission to investigate Jan. 6.” Finding the truth about the armed assault on the Capitol apparently “didn’t advance his agenda,” she says.
Demings makes no bones about her view of so many Republicans’ unhinged attacks on the FBI following the warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago. As a captain, deputy chief and chief of police, she tells me, “Not a day went by when I didn’t worry about the safety of the men and women under me.” She warns, “Somebody’s going to get hurt.”
She praises Attorney General Merrick Garland for defending the FBI and Justice Department personnel from criticism of a search that was conducted “by the book.” But what did Rubio do? He was “quick to get to a microphone” to criticize the search, she says caustically. “Whatever happened to ‘protecting the blue’?” She adds that Republicans “will ‘back the blue’ so long as they do what you want.” That’s not how the rule of law works, she says.
Defying expectations in a state trending red, Demings is mounting a strong challenge to Rubio — the polling is tight. She laughs. “I grew up poor, Black and female in the South. I’ve learned to overcome what people think.”
She emphasizes the candidates’ contrasting public styles: Rubio, she says, prefers settings that are “very scripted, controlled,” while she will “talk to anyone.” She adds, “It’s a privilege for me to be in the presence of voters. Marco Rubio thinks they’re privileged to be in his presence.”
Florida remains an uphill climb for any Democrat. But Demings’s working-class background, law-and-order credentials and feisty demeanor may be more than Rubio anticipated. In a cycle when GOP Senate candidates are struggling, Rubio would be smart to follow Demings’s advice: Don’t relax too soon.