September 25, 2020

Val Demings

Congresswoman Val Demings (D-FL) discusses the Supreme Court vacancy, police reform, COVID and Florida’s pivotal role in the presidential race. Demings was previously Orlando’s first female police chief and on the short list to be Biden’s VP.

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She’s a rising star in Congress after a trailblazing career as a top cop, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

I’ve enforced the laws, and now I write the laws.

The daughter of a janitor and a maid, Val Demings, joined the Orlando Police Department, rose through the ranks, and became its first female chief.

I feel the department is focused.
It is running like a well-oiled machine.

She was elected to Congress and, earlier this year, made Joe Biden’s V.P. shortlist.

The vetting process was intense.

With an epic battle underway over the Supreme Court…
The president is supposed to fill the seat, right?
And that’s what we’re going to do.
We’re gonna fill the seat.

To jam this nomination through the Senate is just an exercise in raw political power.

…five weeks until Election Day, and Florida, the state that could determine the next president — again — what does Representative Val Demings say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… And by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Representative Val Demings, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

It’s great to be with you.

Listen, in your statement, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you said, quote… You were the first female chief of the Orlando Police Department.
What does her legacy mean to you?

Well, I thank you so much for that question.
Justice Ginsburg was a real-life superhero that I envision wearing a pink cape.
She wasn’t afraid to use her brainpower, even during a time when women were not really expected to or accepted in that way.
And when I think about my career at the Orlando Police Department and the awesome opportunity of serving as the first woman chief of police, I believe that my ability to make it so far in a nontraditional role for women is a direct result of the work that Justice Ginsburg and other women like her did.
So, what a loss, but what a legacy she has.
And she’s left a roadmap for all of us to follow.

She sure has.
Like so many things in Washington, not a beat passed before the discussion about Justice Ginsburg’s passing turned to politics.
And you have been tweeting quotes from Republican senators who are now flipping their stance on election-year nominees after refusing to hold hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court justice nominee, Merrick Garland.
Are you surprised that Republicans have changed their position, and how are you sure the Democrats wouldn’t do the same thing if they were in the same position?

Well, Margaret, let me say this.
I know what would do.
And I have to say, I am surprised.
As you well know, I spent a lot of years in law enforcement.
I cannot tell you the political party of the overwhelming number of men and women that I served with at the police department.
We had a mission, and our job was to accomplish that mission.
I brought that same attitude to Congress.
And I have to say, I’ve been quite disappointed that politics can take precedence over what’s just plain old right and wrong.
Well, I’m not perfect.
I’ve always tried to do what was right.
That’s how my parents raised me, to be honest and decent and a person of integrity and to stand by my word.
You know the saying ‘Your word is your bond.’
I remember watching that battle.
I was not here in Congress during the time, but I remember watching one senator after another said, ‘No, we’re too close to an election,’ during President Obama’s tenure.
‘We’re going to wait until the new president, that the American people should weigh in.’
That’s what they said.
And we watched one senator after the other say that.
At that time, I think it was about nine months before the election.
Here we are, 40 days away.
I really believed that they would — that they would wait because that’s the precedent that they set.

In fairness, the Democrats’ position has changed, too, though, ’cause Democrats wanted to go ahead and confirm before the election back in 2016.

We were nine months out.
We were nine months out from the election.
But the Republicans are the ones who said that during a presidential election year — we were nine months out — they said during the year, we should not move forward, that the new president, the American people should weigh in with 40 days out, and they’re moving forward full speed ahead.
And then I got to tell you what’s also very, very disappointing for me is that, ‘Yeah, I said it’ — it’s almost an attitude, ‘Well, I said that then.
Now the rules have changed.
Oh, but I really meant when the president and the Senate are in the same party, the rules are different.’
I gotta tell you, I served as a law-enforcement officer.
I’ve seen America at its worst and I’ve seen America at its best.
I thought I would find America at its best in the U.S. Senate.
I’m disappointed.

Speaker Pelosi said this week that she would not rule out impeaching President Trump to delay the vote on nomina– on a nominee if Biden wins.
Is that a good idea?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is one of the smartest women that I know.
She’s very strategic and very methodical.
The ability to move forward with whatever strategy, whether that’s impeachment, whether it’s after Vice President Biden and Senator Harris win, they look at expanding the number of justices on the court, those are decisions that will be made by leadership.
What I do know, Margaret, is that we should not move forward with this appointment before Election Day.

If it is pursued, and, of course, all signs point to the fact that it probably will be, will you consider the Supreme Court legitimate?

Well, one of the great things about leadership and this body, you use the tools available to right wrongs.
I think that’s part of our job.
Republicans set the rules.
They now want to change it 40 days out.
I think it is incumbent upon us to use every tool within our authority to right a wrong.

So that would include the so-called packing of the court.

There have been discussions.
The nation has changed.
Republicans have talked about expanding the number on the courts.
And so, you know, I don’t necessarily look at it as packing the courts, but I do look at it as a possible response to moving forward with an election that Republicans said just a few short years ago they would not move forward with.
You talk about packing the court.
What about ramming a justice down America’s throat that we don’t have the time even to properly vet?

So you think that — Did I just hear you say that you think a possible response is increasing the number of justices?

I think it’s an option.
I think the Speaker and leadership, Chuck Schumer, Senator Schumer, will look at all options, as they always should do, especially when they’re considering making serious decisions that will affect us for decades to come.
We’re talking about a lifetime appointment, as you well know.
And so what’s the hurry?
Stacking the courts or ramming a justice down our throats who may not have been properly vetted?
What’s the hurry?
Is the hurry the fact that the President’s behind in the polls?
He’s very worried about being re-elected.
He has tried to disenfranchise voters and destroy the Post Office as a campaign strategy.
So now is this one, as well?
I think that’s shameful.

Now, I’d like to get to you.
You grew up outside of Jacksonville, Florida, where you, in your early childhood, attended segregated schools until sixth grade.
You were bussed later to a predominantly white school 15 miles away from your home.
And I have heard you say… For you, Representative Demings, was it more than a ghost in the room?

Well, you know, we can talk about racism in America, we can read about racism in America, but there’s nothing like the experience of racism in America.
The first time, Margaret, that I was called the N-word, I was 4 years old.
And I got to tell you, the first time I heard it, I wasn’t even sure what was going on, but when I saw all of the little white kids laughing and pointing at me, I figured it was not a good thing.
But let me say this.
Children are not born racists.
I don’t believe this.
I think racism is a learned behavior.
And sadly, in this country, we find ourselves in far too many times when people want to hate that which is different from them.
And it’s incumbent on those of us who were raised right, and, or even if we were not, who want better because we are one nation.
It’s incumbent upon us to learn how to exist in a society together.

And, you know, I like to quote reply one who says there’s no question about America’s greatness.
We know America is a great nation.
But the question is, how do we make America’s greatness accessible to everyone?
And in this country, we see for too many people judge other people based on gender and color.

Well, this is why it’s so extraordinary that you served as the first African-American female police chief in Orlando, and remarkably, your tenure saw a 40% decrease in violent crime.
How did you do that?

I thought it was interesting that Orlando got its first woman chief when crime was at an all-time high.
It’s kind of like, ‘Okay, let’s give it to the girls now.’
You know, ‘Things are a mess.’
But anyway, I think women, in general, just make great leaders because women are like great quarterbacks.
We have the ability to see the entire field.
We consider — When we make decisions, we consider how our decisions affect others.
We also don’t mind working as a team.
We don’t mind sharing the credit.
We don’t mind asking for input.
I think our egos are healthy enough, but they’re not too big.
And so by involving the men and women at the Orlando Police Department, even to those who were actually on the, you know, the rank-and-file doing the job, asking their opinions because they were out there every day, and by involving the community and working as a team and not being afraid to try new things, I started a youth mentoring program.
Worked very closely with the community.
We sponsored a GED program.
And by doing those things way outside of the box of what police work is normally like, we were able to reduce violent crime by over 40% because we worked as a community.
The police are the community, and the community is the police.
We’re not two separate entities.
And once we remember that, I think any community can do anything to be a safe community.

Look, as you know — I don’t need to tell you — that policing has come under scrutiny in recent months.
And I’ve heard you say that bad outcomes at police departments stem from one of three factors — bad minds, bad hearts, and bad policies.
I’ve heard you attribute the death of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old African-American woman who was shot by police in her home in Kentucky to bad policy.
Can you explain what happens with bad policy, and are you universally opposed to no-knock warrants as a bad policy?

No, I’m not.
When we think about no-knock warrants, and I know how dangerous and high-risk they are because I was the police chief.
But when we look at the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that we passed in the House of Representatives, it bans no-knock warrants as it pertains to drug cases.
I would like to see us go one step further with the legislation and ban no-knock warrants as they pertain to all nonviolent cases.
But banning no-knock warrants and what happened to Breonna Taylor, and my heart goes out to everybody who loved her, is a beginning.
It is a start.
Another policy — chokeholds.
George Floyd Justice in Policing Act also bans chokeholds.
I would like to see us go one step further, having been on the ground and done the job, where we ban neck restraints, period.
What happened to Eric Garner in New York was a chokehold.
What happened to George Floyd was not a chokehold.
It was a neck restraint.
And so I would propose banning neck restraints of anything — any kind of restraint above the shoulders.
And what I can also say, Margaret, as a 27-year law-enforcement officer, had the honor of serving as the chief of police, it was a job that I loved, a place where I think I grew up, what happened to George Floyd was brutal, it was senseless, and it was murder.
And I do believe the Justice in Policing Act is a good start to helping to develop policies that will govern the way police departments operate, whether they are a 10-person agency or a 36,000-person agency.

Since we’re meditating on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy right now, you know, one of the things she famously said was… And I cite that because, as you well know, Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina also had a bill that was introduced in the Senate, and it included probably not your entire wish list of police reforms but some of them.
It had incentives to end chokeholds, to wear body cameras, to adopt de-escalation measures.
What is your take on that bill being blocked by Democrats in the Senate?
Wouldn’t it be better to have moved a little bit forward?

Margaret, let me say this.
We know that the overwhelming majority of law-enforcement officers do a good job.
It’s a tough, dangerous job.
The overwhelming majority do the job well, but we have had some issues.
And the problem is, sometimes when law-enforcement officers do a bad job, people die.
When we do something, we need to do something.
And I do believe that my good friend, Senator Scott, could have done better.
We can’t be timid.

But was it a first step?

Let’s bring law enforcement to the table.
Let’s bring some community stakeholders to the table.
Let’s look at those things that we can change right now.
We cannot be shy about this issue.
I think he could have done better.

So given that the moment that this country is in, the heightened tensions between law enforcement and protesters we’ve seen over the last several months, and as someone who was a law-enforcement leader of color, you are in this unique position to reflect on ‘How do we heal this rift?’
What would you tell protesters that officers are thinking in those moments of heightened escalation?

Well, let me just say this.
What I used to tell the officers on a regular basis is that, ‘I want you to police with your mind because your mind, that is the greatest weapon that you have, right?
The greatest weapon that you have is not what you wear around your waist.
It is your mind.
You have another very powerful tool — discretion.
Using officer discretion.
But thirdly, police with your heart.
And I would remind them that they wear the badge over their hearts as a constant reminder that they have to have the heart for the job.

What would you tell protesters?

Protesting is a part of the moral fabric in this community.
And, look, I have worked many, many demonstrations.
You know, I was talking to some people who were involved in protests recently, and I said, you know, ‘Your job, your calling was to be a protester.
My calling was to protect you and allow you to engage in a peaceful protest by protesting.’
Well, what I would say to the protesters is that, when you think about your interactions with law-enforcement officers, whether they are, you know, your school resource officer or the guy who rides on your block, I want you to think about the relationship that you have with that person, because if we talk long enough, we’ll see that we all have very positive, very strong, very good relationships and interactions with police officers.
And I would ask them to remember those interactions during this very critical time as we work together to address police misconduct.
We cannot solve it with just the police, and we can’t solve it with just the protesters.
We need both at the table, and we can get there.

This program, ‘Firing Line,’ was hosted originally by William F. Buckley Jr.
It aired for 33 years, from 1966 six to 1999, and early in the program, in 1968, Buckley invited a committed leftist and beat generation poet, Allen Ginsberg, on the program, and here’s what he said about police brutality.
Take a listen.

Politically speaking, no one can understand the problem of police brutality in America or the police state, seeing that we’re going through, as I see it, without understanding the language of the police.
But the language that the police use on, say, hippies or Negroes is such that I can’t pronounce it to the middle-class audience.
So the middle-class audience doesn’t really have the actual data or some portion of the data to judge the emotional situation between the Negroes and the police.

Even right there in passing, Ginsberg references — And you see the example of how the political left has rallied against the police and police brutality for decades.
That was more than 50 years ago.
I just wonder, as a Democrat, how does it make you feel when you hear people, fellow Democrats, progressives in your party, calling to defund the police?

Margaret, I’ve heard people on both sides of the aisle say things about law enforcement that were — I would not repeat on your show and also just demonstrated that they had no clue about what they were talking about.
But let me talk about defunding the police.
We’re not defunding the police.
No great society can exist without law enforcement.
And if we — if we talk to African-American communities, as opposed to just talking about them, they will tell you that, regardless of the economic base or the conditions on the ground, that they want to see more police, not less police officers, because if we cut the number of police officers or significantly cut budgets, then vulnerable communities are going to be the ones that are disproportionately impacted the most.
And haven’t we done enough of that in this country?
And so what we do need to do, as opposed to talking about defunding the police, we need to get serious as a nation about funding those social ills — those programs that address social ills in the first place.
That’s where the funding needs to go.

The coronavirus, you mentioned it earlier.
Your home state of Florida holds the record for the highest number of newly reported cases in a single day.
15,300, which was in July.
And your congressional district includes Orlando, the theme-park capital of the world, which now has one of the highest job-loss rates in the country.
When do you think we’re gonna get back to normal?
And your district will get back to normal?

Look, I wish I could say we got back to normal three months ago.
We have a long way to go.
But what I do realize is that we cannot get back on track, we cannot get back to anything, to any — any semblance of normalcy until we get the virus under control.
We cannot get our economy back on track.
You’re absolutely correct.
With the theme parks and the hospitality industry in Orlando, we’ve been hit hard, but we’ve got to get the virus under control before we can get our economy back on track, which means testing, contact tracing, treatment.
Has to be address the virus first, economy gets back on track.

One wonders how the coronavirus is going to impact voting in Florida.
And a recent poll found that about half of Democrats plan to vote by mail or absentee and about a quarter of Republicans will do the same.
Republicans tend to vote in person.
Do you think that the mail-in ballots will help or hurt Biden in Florida?

We have encouraged people to, whether they’re able to go to the polls or not, go ahead and make an application for your vote-by-mail ballot.
Get it in hand.
We don’t know where COVID-19 will be in 40 short days.
We don’t know if there will be some shenanigans where polling places are suddenly not operable.
And so we’re making sure that people have the vote-by-mail ballot in hand, and we’re also educating voters to make sure that they understand the steps and how to properly get it back into the hands of the supervisors of elections.
And also, Margaret, you know how important it is to make sure that our post offices have the infrastructure in place that they need, too.
And so we have a lot of work to do in Congress.

To your point about absentee ballots, though, in the primary, many thousands of ballots were thrown out because they were either received at the wrong time, the signatures were wrong.
There are many errors that led to the invalidation of many people’s votes.
Now, Florida, we all know has the probability of being very close or could be very close.

Believe me, it’s a painful — We remember that in a very painful way.
And the Florida Democratic Party has taken extra steps to educate the voters, as well, to make sure that those discrepancies do not happen in the general election.

Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg is part of an effort to help pay the fines for more than 32,000 ex felons so that they can vote in your state.
What do you think of that?

When people have paid their time, they’ve served their time, then they should be allowed to exercise their right to vote.
And I see — and you also know about 63% of the voters in Florida voted overwhelmingly for restoration of rights, voting rights, to convicted felons.
And yet our governor came up with what I see as the equivalent of a new poll tax and, you know, when are we going to stop in this country?
It’s an effort to disenfranchise voters and prevent them from voting.
I’m not in favor of taking rights away from anyone.
I’m trying to protect and restore rights.
This is a barrier to your ability to vote.
And we do know some states, persons in prison can vote.
And so this is an issue that we need to look at and get it right.

Listen, last question.
Florida, as you know, is a battleground state.
You mentioned the déjà vu and the trepidation that we all face when it comes to Florida, Florida, Florida.
Most polls show the state in a statistical dead heat between the President and Joe Biden.
What is your best guess, what is your prediction, for which way Florida will go?

For 20 years in the presidential race, Florida has always been within a percentage for it, regardless of which way it goes.
And so we have learned, sometimes painfully, to not take anything for granted in our state.
And I do believe that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are not taking anything for granted.
You’re going after every vote and not taking any person, any voter, for granted, regardless of what the polls — And, of course, the polls are a snapshot in time, and they help to govern, you know, how you — the changes you might make, in terms of strategy.
But whether we are tied up or down, we’re going to continue to work hard up to and including on Election Day.

Representative Val Demings, thank you for your time.
Thank you for joining me on ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you so much.
You take care.

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