Democratic Rep. Val Demings Looks Back At Her Past 4 Years In Congress
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
With six weeks to go until Election Day, we wanted to catch up with a lawmaker who entered Congress four years ago with a lot of hope and enthusiasm - Democrat Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief from Florida's 10th District. She was beaming at her swearing-in.
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VAL DEMINGS: I think the last time my siblings were in D.C., they were in middle school. But then to be back to see their baby sister sworn in as a member of the 115th Congress...
CORNISH: Since then, the Republican lawmaker, her fellow classmate who we met at the same time - Paul Mitchell of Michigan - is retiring, frustrated with Washington.
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PAUL MITCHELL: It appears to me that rhetoric overwhelms policy, and politics consumes much of the oxygen in this city.
CORNISH: He declined to speak with us again. But Demings landed on powerful committees - oversight and judiciary. She became a national face overnight as a House impeachment manager and later among the list of potential running mates for Joe Biden. Her policing background put her at the nexus of changing attitudes in the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.
So how does she look back on these last four years? Well, we began with what else she remembered from those early days in Congress.
DEMINGS: It was just so exciting having my family there to witness it. I talk quite often about my parents, the maid and janitor who could've never imagined. We were just all excited on both sides of the aisle. We'd worked hard to get there, and we made it. And it was just a joyous, exciting time. But we were also concerned about the road ahead, not knowing really what to expect. But it was just so exciting. And we thought about the possibilities of what we could get done.
CORNISH: And there were some surreal moments for a new voice, especially one hoping for bipartisanship, like when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Demings to be one of the House impeachment managers.
DEMINGS: You know, I saw my job then - and I still see it now - is to do the work before me, just like as a law enforcement officer, if a person committed a crime, we made the arrest. In Congress, we work on behalf of the American people. When persons are suspected to be engaged in wrongdoing, then we have a job to do something about it in Congress.
CORNISH: But people do see it as a partisan process. It definitely came to be viewed that way by the public.
DEMINGS: People did. And I'm sure when Bill Clinton went through his moment, there were people on the Democratic side who thought it as a partisan process. But I do remember when I got the call. I wasn't absolutely sure why it felt kind of like going to the principal's office - you know, that - what did I do? And when I got there, she said something to the effect of, I was - wanted to know if you were interested in serving as an impeachment manager. And I responded that, look, speaker; as a member of two committees with jurisdiction, I'd help to advance the ball pretty far down the field. If I don't get to take it into the end zone, I'm OK with that. And she said, I want you to be a manager. And I said, yes, ma'am, Madam Speaker.
CORNISH: What was your reluctance, though?
DEMINGS: I wouldn't necessarily look at it as reluctance. Remember, we're, number one, talking about - if we look historically, during impeachments, it's been all-male teams. There'd never been an African American. For me to automatically feel like I was going to be, out of over 200 choices and in my second term in Congress - to feel like I would automatically be considered or be a part of that - no. You know, the speaker - she made her decision. I was glad to be a part of it.
CORNISH: I want to, on this topic, ask you about some news from over the weekend. It's been suggested that if Democrats were to win the 2020 election that the House could move on impeachment again as a way to prevent a lame-duck Supreme Court nomination by President Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about this, and she didn't rule it out. Is this something you think would make sense?
DEMINGS: For me, just as we're having this discussion about whether we should move forward with a Supreme Court nominee confirmation, I believe that we're only a little over a month out from the election. And I just cannot imagine why we would want to rush that process.
CORNISH: Well, we know why the Senate would want to. Mitch McConnell has talked about that.
DEMINGS: I believe sometimes there are moments before us when we just have to do what we know is right. You know, with politics aside, it's not the most - may not be the most popular decision. It may not be the best decision for our, quote, "party." But we just do what's right. And I believe when we're at the threshold of an election, why not wait and let the people be a part of this process? We're knocking on election door - matter of fact, as you well know, some states are already casting their ballots.
CORNISH: I want to ask about another trend before the Democratic Party in particular. Race in policing has taken center stage. And the biggest thing would be the movement to defund the police. Being a former police chief, what came to mind when you first started hearing this call?
DEMINGS: I would do everything within my power to make sure that does not happen. What I know from my on-the-ground experience is that all communities want to be safe. If resources are taken away from police departments, the most vulnerable communities would be disproportionately impacted yet again.
CORNISH: People have been hearing about police reform for a very long time. People have been hearing from Black law enforcement leaders for a long time about accountability and enforcement and data collection. And they're saying, look; they don't think the police departments can be reformed in that way. They don't think police departments should be doing the kind of social work-type jobs that some of them have tried to pick up, that this isn't their job. What's your response to that? - 'cause it's such a big change from the way people looked at it in the past.
DEMINGS: So I'll start here. Over 50 years ago, President Johnson looked at crime and policing in America. They concluded that we need to hire the brightest and the best policemen, at that time, of course. We need to make sure they have the proper training and equipment. But we also need to look at education. We need to look at substandard housing. We need to look at substandard wages, suggesting that we can look at brightest and the best and best training for police departments. But we have got to deal with the social ills that cause decay in communities in the first place.
CORNISH: Finally, what do you find that, looking back, you were naive about coming in?
DEMINGS: I don't know if naive is the best word. But as a law enforcement officer, I cannot tell you the political party of the overwhelming number of people that I worked with. What mattered was the mission before us. What I am disappointed in in Congress is that there's not greater effort to come to the table and work on those issues that impact the American people. I've talked behind closed doors with many of my Republican colleagues, particularly some of them who were in my class, and this is what I hear - that they never expected the president to win, that the president leads with fear and the agenda is all about him and not about the American people.
CORNISH: It is partisan, though, right? Like, you are dealing with all of this.
DEMINGS: I will continue to work hard to build relationships with my colleagues, which I do every day. And we have been able to do some things. I think we can do so much more.
CORNISH: Congresswoman Val Demings, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DEMINGS: Thank you.
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