Skip to main content
opinion

Congresswoman Val Demings, 63, seen here on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 22, 2020, served 27 years as a police officer, was Orlando’s first female police chief and is one of the top two or three contenders to be Biden’s vice-presidential pick.ERIN SCHAFF/The New York Times News Service

In politics, you’re often at the mercy of random, unanticipated occurrences. As Jean Chrétien often said, it’s a game played on thin ice. Fate favours. Fate destroys.

To start the year, not many had heard of Congresswoman Val Demings, a descendant of slaves who grew up with six siblings in a two-room shack in the backwoods of Florida.

Now, as a consequence of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the 63-year-old Ms. Demings, who rides horses and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and who served 27 years as a police officer, is one of the top two or three contenders to be the vice-presidential pick of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

From a descendant of slaves, all the way to the White House? Should it happen, what an illustration of the American dream she would be.

Ms. Demings ended her police career as the top cop in Orlando, as the city’s first female police chief. She was then elected to Congress in 2016 from the 10th District of Florida.

She’s a moral force. She speaks with down-to-earth conviction. To start the year, Democrats chose her as one of their impeachment managers in the Senate trial of President Donald Trump. Mr. Biden, who is committed to choosing a woman as his running mate, took note of her performance and put her on his list of candidates.

Ms. Demings was far down that list. But when the murder of Mr. Floyd happened, it became very likely that Mr. Biden, who won the nomination by virtue of the Black vote, would select a Black person as his running mate.

And with racism, police brutality and law and order suddenly becoming paramount issues, who is more uniquely qualified than Ms. Demings, a Black woman with a successful background in policing? Additionally, her political base is in Florida, a critical election swing state.

Many think the race now comes down to her and California Senator Kamala Harris. Ms. Harris is a much more seasoned politician. But her record as a prosecutor in California has come under criticism with the argument that she did not stand up strongly enough for Black Americans. Her quest for the Democratic nomination flamed out before the primaries even began, and her relations with Mr. Biden have not always been warm.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is on the list, but she has no Washington experience at all. Nor does Keisha Lance Bottoms, the impressive mayor of Atlanta who is one of many Black women whose voices are rising in these tumultuous times.

Ms. Demings has her own drawbacks, as only a two-term Congresswoman she is short on Washington experience. She is also badly lacking in national name recognition.

Intense national-media scrutiny of her has just begun, and who knows what it will turn up. Her record as police chief was criticized in a 2015 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel. It showed that her department’s use of force during arrests was more than double the rate of similarly sized police departments.

But Ms. Demings gets good reviews from civil-rights lawyers in the state. Over the course of her 3 1/2-year tenure as chief, violent crime in the city went down. She accomplished things for Black people, such as disbanding the department’s drug-enforcement unit, which had targeted Black neighbourhoods.

As she noted this week, Ms. Demings understands law enforcement’s race problems inside and out. That’s a big plus. With Mr. Trump looking as though he might run as the law-and-order candidate, Mr. Biden would have a strong response with Ms. Demings as his running mate.

On confronting Republicans, she’s been fearless.

After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was in full agreement with the White House on its impeachment hearing strategy, she nailed him, saying “He has effectively promised to let President Trump manage his own impeachment trial. The Senator must withdraw.”

From her shack in Florida, she could see the other side of the tracks as she worked as a cleaning person in mansions owned by white people. “I am a descendant of slaves, who knew that they would not make it, but dreamed and prayed that one day I would make it,” she told the Senate trial, speaking of her realization of the American dream. “When I look at my own story, you know – only in America.”

“Only in America" is nonsense, of course. Most every other country on the planet furnishes examples of citizens rising from destitute circumstances early in life to reach the top. There’s nothing singularly American about it.

But Ms. Demings’s story is inspirational and it may be far from complete. A greater destiny could be in the works. She appears made for this moment.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.