ST. PETERSBURG — As the race for one of Florida’s U.S. Senate seats kicks into gear, Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings is emphasizing one particular part of her life story.
A Tuesday rally for Demings at Coastal Creatives in the Grand Central neighborhood was called “Meet the Chief.” About 200 supporters came out, many of them holding signs that read “CHIEF” on one side. Her first television advertisement highlights her prior tenure as the chief of the Orlando Police Department.
Ask Demings about claims that she wants to defund law enforcement, and she gets frustrated.
“When he says I want to defund the police — I am the police!” Demings told reporters after the event, referring to claims from her opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. “Does that make any sense? I mean, come on.”
Demings — and the Florida Democratic Party — going all-in on her law enforcement background is striking during a political cycle just two years removed from a summer of protests calling for police reform. Although Demings has a few primary opponents — Brian Rush, William Sanchez, Ricardo De La Fuente — she’s destroying all of them in fundraising. The party seems to be behind Demings.
Whether she can garner the support of the establishment while harnessing the grassroots energy of the people who marched in the George Floyd protests remains to be seen.
When asked how she plans to toe the line between being pro-law enforcement and anti-police brutality, Demings said she would push for policies that put officers in a position to succeed. She said too often, society depends on officers to handle difficult mental health or substance abuse situations. Officers need more training and more support, not less, she said.
She also noted police departments need to take action against officers abusing their positions.
“When police officers do not do the right thing, they need to be held accountable,” Demings said.
Despite Demings’ nearly three decades in law enforcement, Rubio has won the endorsement of the National Association of Police Organizations, Florida Police Chiefs Association, Florida Police Benevolent Association, Florida Fraternal Order of Police, and 55 county sheriffs.
“Despite what Val Demings wants you to believe, she is no longer ‘the police,’ and that is crystal clear to Florida’s law enforcement community who watched her remain silent while her fellow Democrats in Congress called for defunding the police in 2020 as violent riots raged,” Elizabeth Gregory, a Rubio campaign spokeswoman, wrote in a Wednesday statement.
Rubio’s team put out a release Tuesday in which several police union officials criticized Demings for a statement she made about the Minneapolis city council’s plan to dismantle and rebuild its police department following the murder of George Floyd.
“The council is being very thoughtful in terms of looking at all of the services that police provide,” Demings said at the time without taking a position on the specific proposal offered by the council.
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Rubio’s campaign said that statement was tantamount to an endorsement of defunding the police.
“In 2020, when Minneapolis had the plan to defund their police department, Val Demings called that ‘thoughtful,’ and that’s very disturbing,” Steve Zona, the Florida Fraternal Order of Police president, said in the Rubio campaign release.
Demings said Tuesday the idea that she is pro-defunding the police is “the biggest lie.”
“I’m not going to lie to win,” Demings said.