When I walked into Foundation, The Rolling Stones’ 1971 album “Sticky Fingers” was playing in the background. Peter and Alex Cohen, brothers and owners of the shop, lounged on chairs as they chatted with two customers who were flipping through their newest shipment. “We started to sell records on Instagram to fund the other stuff we […]
It was both inspiring and AWE-inspiring to sit for a relaxed conversation at a local restaurant with newly elected public officials Val and Jerry Demings. Jerry, re-elected to his third term as Orange County sheriff, has spent his career in law enforcement, having also served as the city of Orlando’s first African-American chief of police from 1998 to 2002 during his 21-year OPD career. His wife, Valdez Butler Demings, an OPD officer for 27 years, made history when appointed as OPD’s first female chief of police from 2007 to 2011. She is Florida’s newest congresswoman representing the 10th Congressional District covering parts of Orlando. The Demings, both Democrats, raised their three sons in Orlando and now have five grandchildren. They laugh often together and are dynamic, articulate and transparent while readily demonstrating humility and a true drive to serve their community. Their humble beginnings, hard work and vow to treat all people with respect and dignity make them genuinely approachable and kind — even with their high-profile positions and being recognized around the globe. It was an honor to interview them.
I heard that you went to new member orientation for Congress.
Jerry: I went to the spouse program. They didn’t make it sound like I had an option, either! All the rules and this and that affect the spouse as well. Because I’m an elected official … I’m not the typical spouse, I guess, of members of Congress. I have my own ethics and rules and whatever that I have to follow.
Val: He was a great sport; he went to a tea with the spouses! I don’t want to ruin his sheriff image or anything, but they were raving about him! I loved it! I loved it!
Let’s start at the beginning. I know you both went to FSU. Did you meet in college?
Jerry: We met. She was in the school of criminology.
Val: I don’t remember that.
Jerry: And my twin brother was in the school of criminology.
Jerry, your degree was in finance. What was the segue into public service?
Jerry: I was an accountant here in Orlando. While working as an accountant, I always had a fascination with law enforcement, but I always had wanted to serve at the federal level. I applied with the FBI and applied to be a bank examiner with the FDIC. They had a long, arduous process to get through. One of the background investigators shared with me, “You know, you have the accounting, and they’re looking for accountants. However, it would be great if you had some law enforcement in your background.”
At the time I was making application, they went into a hiring freeze. A friend had made application for the Orlando Police Department, and I ran into an old OPD recruiter who suggested I apply, and I did. After a year, I got a call and thought I’d stay a year or two and move on to the federal service.
But I loved my job and got immersed in local public safety and stayed a full career. I was able to advance relatively quickly in my career. I was moving up, met Val, got married.
Val: Just a little detail there.
Jerry: So my parents are here, and I decided to stay in my hometown. Otherwise, I would have moved if I accepted a federal job.
Val: So the freeze was actually a blessing.
You, Val, had sights on a criminal justice job.
Val: At that time, I wanted to go to law school. My dad wanted me to go to law school, and that was my dream, my plan. I graduated from Florida State with a degree and absolutely no money and had to go to work.
My very first job out of college, I went to work for a security company as a dispatcher for a short period of time. And was hired by what was then the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and went to work as a social worker. This was in Jacksonville. You talk about a job that will really break your heart. I had a case involving a 10-year-old little boy whose mom would pick and choose when she wanted to be a mom.
After that case, I said, “This just isn’t for me.” I was sitting at my desk one day, and an advertisement came over the radio that the Orlando Police Department was in town recruiting. I went over on my lunch break expecting to take some information to review, and they had me take a couple of exams, fill out some paperwork, and I was supposed to go back that afternoon to take the mile and half run you’re supposed to do. I got back to work and said, “That means I have to move to Orlando and all that,” so I said, “I’m not going back.”
Well, one of the guys we went to college with was a recruiter with OPD. But he was not there when I first went; he came later that day. So when the recruiter said to him there was this really sharp, black female who we processed earlier but she didn’t show back up, he said, “What’s her name?” and he says, “Valdez Butler.”
He said, “There can only be one black female with that name,” and he knew me from college, and he pleaded his case to me why it would be a great career, and that I would do well.
I said, “I’ll meet you guys in the morning and take the mile and a half run.” And that began the process. And obviously that was it.
I never wanted to be farther away than driving distance from my parents, so Orlando was perfect for that reason. Every time I passed another step I said, “OK, let’s see what happens.” Then when I got the letter that said, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to attend the J.C. Stone Memorial Police Academy,” I said, “It’s real.” And I’ve never regretted it.
When I told my parents — “I’m not going to law school; as a matter of fact, I’m moving to Orlando to become a police officer” — I’ll never forget the look on their faces, and they said, “Are you serious?!”
Family has come up in both of your conversations; it’s important to both of you?
Val: It’s very important. Very important. I grew up poor, and my mother came to me one day and said, “So where are you going to college?” I was the youngest of seven children. Nobody in my family had gone to college before.
I was working at McDonald’s at the time, and I said, “I think I’ll stay at McDonald’s for maybe another year and save up some money and then go.”
Mother said, “No, if you do that, you may not want to go. You’re too smart to stay home; you’re going. You apply to the college of your choice. I’m going to pray about it, and we’ll go from there.”
The only college I applied to was Florida State. My mother and father grew up poor themselves, did not finish high school, and always had a bigger dream for their children. And they pushed us. They played such a significant role in my life; they were so very, very important to me. Mother was a maid, and my dad was a janitor, but they could dream big.
Jerry: My parents are very similar. My mother graduated from high school. She came down here in 1940/1941. My father is from Alabama and came down here, and they have been married for over 72 years. They both are 94 now.
Val: They need to put on a class, right?
Jerry: My mother was a maid also. My father drove taxi cabs. He was also somewhat of an entrepreneur. He owned a little convenience store at one point here in Orlando. He owned a fish market, at one point, in West Orlando, the Washington Shores area. My dad worked seven days a week; he did a lot of things to make it work.
There were five children. I have a twin brother; we’re the youngest. My twin brother is 30 minutes older than I am, and his name is Terry. Ironically, Terry majored in criminology at Florida State, and I was in the school of business. Terry owns a couple of businesses now. He and his wife and two kids are here. He does very well with his businesses now. He was my roommate during college. My older sister was the first in my family to go to college. All those things influenced my trajectory.
My mother was a woman of faith. She made certain that we went to church; there was no option. There were people at my church who played a significant role in my personal and professional development that encouraged us to go to school, that we could do it. I was an honor roll student — made good grades because I worked hard. My mother didn’t have it any other way.
You were raised with a faith.
Val: My mother was the musician at our church; we sang in the choir. We grew up Baptist, and we went to church on a regular basis.
Do you sing now?
Val: I’ve been in the choir in high school and the church choir. When I became the chief, I would only sing on special occasions like during the women’s conference and during the Christmas concert. I really enjoy that. I sing to him — that’s why he’s laughing! He sings to me, too.
Jerry: I don’t sing in the choirs. My twin brother and I, at an early age, we both had the chicken pox at the same time right before Thanksgiving. When we got back to school, all of the parts (in the school play) were taken. The only parts that remained were singing parts. Those kids, they laughed at my brother and I when we were singing those parts, and I declared, “I won’t ever sing publicly anymore!” So I don’t sing outside of my home.
What are some of the highlights for you as a couple? You’ve made some big decisions; how do you do that together?
Val: I really believe you CAN have it all. My mother, for someone who was not exposed to the world, she pushed us to live life to the fullest, to never be afraid, to reach for the stars basically. And I did believe I could be a cop, have a family, I could raise good kids, I could apply for promotional exams, and I wasn’t afraid to win or lose. A lot of times, I think people will not try things because they think, “What if I fail?” I was never held back by fear, and I took the promotional exams as soon as I was eligible. Always passed them, thank God. But I wasn’t afraid if I didn’t.
We love our community. We’ve seen the effects of good government, and we’ve seen the effects of bad government. And the best way to change it is to get involved. Get in the arena. Standing on the sidelines when you can do more — it’s not an option. I’m not afraid of the big decisions because I don’t see them as big decisions. I see them as opportunities to make my community better.
Jerry: I’m a product of my environment. In my lifetime I’ve had some extraordinary experiences in meeting real-life heroes. I remember sitting in my third-grade classroom on April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated. I remember the profound impact that had on me. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I remember, as a small child, those conversations in my household.
Along the way, I met a lot of people who were educated, who gave back to the community. In this community, one of them was Dr. James Smith — there’s a community center named after him. He was a family physician. He tutored us in mathematics and science. His daughter tutored us. Dr. Smith was an entrepreneur, but he was also a social activist.
I went to Jones High School and I was immersed in a lot of cultural activities. My teachers did not accept anything less than us striving for perfection. And they really pushed us and motivated us to be the best that we could be. Then I got to Florida State University and I met people like Muhammad Ali, F. Lee Bailey, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and was able to have conversations with these people about the civil rights movement. All of these people had an influence along the way. I listened to them; I watched them. Again, I’m a product of my environment — going to church, college and meeting some of these civil rights legends.
Rosa Parks has been to our church, and we’ve had conversations with her. It’s very moving to just be in the right environment to meet all of these people. I’ve met the last six or seven presidents of the United States of America. Had one-on-one conversations with them. These opportunities made us believe that, after hearing their stories, we could do the same things.
Glenda Hood in 1998 appointed me as police chief. I was the 34th, the first African-American. It took a woman, a Republican woman, who appointed me as police chief, took a risk, and I was appointed police chief at 39 years old. People said, “Wow, that’s awfully young,” and I thought about it and Dr. King. He died at 39 years old, and look at all he accomplished in his 39 years.
(At this point in our interview, we were interrupted by a man who spoke to congratulate the Demings. They both had a cordial, short conversation with him and wished him well.)
How do you stay humble? You both are known to be very approachable.
Val: By never forgetting where we came from and always feeling a necessity to reach back and help somebody else. No matter where we live, what schools we go to, we will always be connected to the community that we grew up in, and we have an obligation to always think about how we can further develop those behind us, those left behind, those who are still struggling, and that keeps us grounded. I want to do great things, but I don’t believe that I’m that great! I am an instrument, to do God’s work. Going to Congress, it’s an opportunity to make the world a better place. That’s my responsibility. I’ve been blessed to be a blessing to other people. And I will never forget that, and that keeps me grounded. I’m reminded every day of others who are struggling. That keeps me humble and grounded.
Jerry: That’s how we were raised, that no matter where you end up, you never forget where you came from. My parents still live in the same home that I grew up in, in Washington Shores. We still have relatives who struggle. We were raised to treat people like we wanted to be treated, with dignity and respect, so in our leadership roles, that’s what we demand, and hire and promote within our respective agencies. That’s the kind of person I look to hire in advance, people who have a servant leadership style. We are public servants; we work for the people. I never forget that I have a responsibility to them. My center of gravity is taking care of people, and the people take care of us. They always have.
Yet you are the consummate power couple.
Val: We don’t focus on that. We’re willing to roll our sleeves up and get the job done. In terms of how you treat people, I used to say to every new recruit, to imagine their family on the side of the road with a cop. “Get the image in your head right now — your loved one on the side of the road — and I want you to think about the level of service you would want your family member to receive, whether they were right or wrong. Everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. A thousand people applied at that time to be part of the Orlando Police Department; you were one of the chosen ones. Make the best of it. And use the best weapon you have, and that weapon was given to you by the Lord, and that is the brain, to process and think and make good decisions, and to not have to use the other weapons.”
You both have been in 24/7 jobs your entire careers. How do you find time to turn it off, to get out of the limelight and recharge?
Jerry: Well, people can’t really talk to us when we’re riding our Harleys! We have a couple of motorcycles.
Val: We love to ride.
Jerry: We try to build in opportunities to have time to ourselves where it’s just us. But we love what we do; it’s not so much like a burden, not so much like work. Our ultimate goal is not to have power, but to have influence and impact in our community. So we get our joy from that. It’s the opportunity to help other people. Even when we go to church or other various places of worship, it’s like a workday; we have to take notes, because somebody has an issue that they want us to take care of. But that’s what we do. That’s what we like doing.
We spend a healthy amount of time with family. We have five grandchildren. And all here in Orlando.
Val: I am the best Nana in the world. I get the Nana award. I love being a grandmother. He’s Papa.
Jerry: We get to see these children. Our children have done fairly well, all college graduates. They all went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. They probably grew up a little bit different than we grew up, but they have seen all of it. That’s how they’ve been taught, to get involved in the community.
How do you stay fit?
Val: I run about four to five mornings, but campaigns will help you to get off that schedule.
Jerry: I try to get in the gym three to four times a week. Campaigns, there’s so much of a demand for your time, it just was a lot of major commitment for the last year. So we’ll get back to our regular workout routine.
What is it going to be like, having a long-distance relationship with the family for a while?
Val: Look at the jobs that we’ve been in. I remember when I was appointed chief, we weren’t spending as much time together as we did before that, but I noticed that everything that made it to our calendars, we did. So we started scheduling date night. Thursday night was date night, and unless there was an emergency, nothing else could change that. And we still have it today.
So because of our careers — working shift work and crazy schedules, being called out in the middle of the night — we’ve kind of been through this process, and we look for quality time and moments, and we’ll continue to have that. I will get to come home on a regular basis, spend time in the district, and we’ll make those special moments for family too. Jerry gets to come up and visit; my whole family does.
What is a typical date night?
Val: The hardest part is deciding what restaurant we’re going to go to. Jerry will say, “So where do you want to go?” and when I say where, then he’ll say, “Well, I don’t really want that!” We go through that every Thursday night. We go to dinner, and sometimes we’ll invite some of the kids with us and kind of get caught up on things.
Jerry: We have family events that we host at our home. We don’t typically host all the people in our home, because that’s the sanctuary for us. In my family, we typically rotate Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays, and my parents, we go there every Sunday after church. They used to prepare dinner; now we take them dinner every Sunday.
Do your kids and their kids go to your parents’ house on Sundays as well?
Jerry: Yes. We have those opportunities. Sometimes we go to movies, but home … we spend a lot of time at home, because we’re invited to many, many social events, appearances, speaking engagements all over the country.
This weekend after we came back from Washington, we went to New Orleans. I spoke at a counter-terrorism conference. Val went, and we had a day and a half of free time, and we went to the French Quarter over the weekend. We ate at a couple restaurants; we took in an NBA game when we were there.
I will go to Washington, D.C., and look for opportunities to not just interact with Val in her professional, elected role, but also to socialize and take in a cultural event while I’m there. I’m on the FEMA National Advisory Council, and that takes me to D.C. a few times a year. I’m active in the Major County Sheriffs’ Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association. They meet in D.C., so every January I’ve had to go there, so I’ll be there in January, and I’ll have a place to stay!
And you’re not afraid of the cold weather, trudging to your new office in the snow?
Val: You gotta do what you gotta do! It’s so funny: I have a member of Congress who was assigned to me as a mentor, and she and another member were having a discussion about what my top priorities should be, and one was focused on legislation, and the other one said, “Forget that, get your winter clothes together!”
(Again, a restaurant patron approached the table. She asked if she could show the sheriff something, an old photo on her phone of herself with the sheriff at a police-related educational program. Both Jerry and Val were gracious and cordial. They asked the young lady about herself in the years since the photo was taken.)
That happens all the time, doesn’t it?
Val: At the grocery store, church, everywhere. There’s no running in anyplace. We still do it; I went grocery shopping last night. What should have been like 20 minutes, it ended up being 40. But we also believe to whom much is given, much is required.
Jerry: I guess we have a lot of national exposure. I was walking down the street in Washington, D.C., last week, and a guy stopped me and said, “Hey, Sheriff Demings!” I didn’t recognize him, but he said his uncle is an Orlando police lieutenant, and he had family here and had met me and had seen me on the news. We can be in cities in different places and someone will stop us. We were in London, England, and some people recognized us.
Val: It was a tour that we were in, and someone said, “Oh, yeah, you guys!”
Jerry: It’s a small world after all!
What’s on the bucket list?
Val: I want to sky dive. But my son said, “We’re not letting you jump out of a perfectly good plane.” They said, “That’s where we draw the line!”
Jerry: She’s a daredevil. That’s why she rides a motorcycle.
When did you start with the Harleys?
Val: Jerry’s been riding for years.
Jerry: And she didn’t worry about the motorcycles for years.
Val: And I didn’t worry about them. But in 2003, I was a captain transferred to the Special Operations Division where the motorcycles, horses and dogs are. I did not have to learn how to ride as a captain, but there was no way I was going to let the guys go out every day and ride and not know. So I did my cross-training at OPD. I did cross-training on motors and mounted patrol.
And what I learned is riding the motorcycle is actually easier than mounted patrol. And this is what one of the trainers told me, because of course I was a little more afraid of the motorcycling and thought the horse would be easier. The officer said, “That motorcycle will only do what you make it do, right or wrong. That horse has a mind of its own. It’s this big (she showed a tiny space with her hands) and it weighs 1,500 pounds.”
I said, “OK, I’m in. I’m riding the motor.”
Where do you like to ride?
Val: We run over to Clermont a lot. The back roads to Clermont. I’ve ridden to Savannah with a group, and that was great. We eventually would love to ride to the Carolinas, but it takes a lot of time to do that.
Jerry: It’s something we have to plan for.
What kind of Harleys do you have?
Val: I have a 2004 Road King Classic.
Jerry: I have an Electra Glide, a Screamin’ Eagle. My bike is an ’03.
Other bucket list items?
Jerry: Maybe for me, becoming a pilot. Flying a plane. I would like to fly someday.
Is there anyplace you haven’t travelled that you would like to visit?
Jerry: There are lots of those.
Val: We spent our 25th wedding anniversary in London, England. That was the place I really wanted to go, and we also went to Paris, France. Probably Rome would be my next place that I’d love to travel to that I have not gone to yet. And Israel. I’d love to go to Israel, and I know I’ll get to do that as a member of Congress.
Jerry: That, and I’d like to go to Africa, tour the continent, trace some roots back to our ancestors.
Tell me your feelings about Orlando.
Jerry: I was born in Phillips Memorial Hospital. I was born in a hospital; my siblings were born at home, in our house. Phillips was founded by Dr. Phillips; it was a segregated hospital, and I was in the first group of children, babies, born at that hospital. 1959. It is now Guardian Care Nursing home. It didn’t stay open as a hospital very long. Not a lot of children were actually born there. Last year, they celebrated the first babies born there.
Val: They were both there, he and his brother.
Jerry: We have lived through this era of segregation, here in Orlando, so when you talk about what do I think about Orlando now, I think it’s fantastic!
You know, I remember when the desegregation order came out to desegregate the public schools, and afterwards they transferred the black teachers out and brought in the white teachers, and a year or two later I was bused, in junior high school. I went to Memorial and Richmond Heights Elementary School, which was a segregated school, and then Memorial in the era when it was first desegregated. My mother was somewhat fearful of that. She gave us lots of instructions, and then I went to Jones High School. And graduated from there and on to Florida State.
So I’ve seen desegregated schools and segregated schools and multicultural schools, so to me, I like the cultural change that has happened here. I like even the social change, and I lived here pre-Disney, and I’ve seen how the community has just grown in positive ways. So it’s much more of a melting pot here than it was in the ’60s and to some extent into the ’70s. I worked at Disney as a kid.
What did you do at Disney?
Jerry: I did several jobs. My first job I was in characters, and I worked part of the bicentennial parade in 1974 and ’75, and then after that whenever I would come home from college I had a job. I worked as a custodial host and as a food and beverage host. For about five years, to 1979.
Were you a dressed-up character? Are you allowed to say which one?
Jerry: I was a character. I could, but I won’t, I always tell people. That’s self-imposed! I am not going to make myself the butt of jokes!
Val: That would be on the Internet before the day’s over!
Jerry: Disney just celebrated the 45th anniversary. I was part of a video documentary they did of people who started at Disney in the early days and where they are now.
Val: I want to know more about this character part!
Orlando has been the city of opportunity for me. I have the fondest of memories. I served as my academy class president. I received the Board of Trustees’ Award. I hit the ground running as a police officer, was able to work my way up through the ranks and make a difference in my community. I was assigned to OIA during 9/11 and was able to help work through that tragic time in our nation’s history. I was appointed Orlando’s first woman chief of police and just really have had the opportunity to mold and shape this city into a great place to live, work and visit.
I could do a commercial for Orlando, because it really practices what it preaches. Look at the very dark moment we had with the Pulse shootings. But you saw a community come together; it was a model of how something very tragic happened, but this community rose to the occasion and led from a position of strength and compassion. I love this city. It’s been good to me, and I hope I have been good to — and for — Orlando.