Police car in Titusville. Credit: GunnerVV via Wikimedia Commons
As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio seeks reelection in November, the Florida Republican has been racking up endorsements from dozens of sheriffs and law enforcement groups. Yet U.S. Rep. Val Demings — the Democratic front-runner facing Rubio — has an extensive background in the law-and-order field but, as of yet, no official endorsements.
Whether Demings can capture law enforcement support will be pivotal, requiring endorsements from sheriffs and law enforcement personnel in heavy Democratic counties, including Broward and Orange, where Demings was appointed the first female Orlando police chief in 2007.
Meanwhile, Rubio’s endorsements are largely from Republican sheriffs across the state, from big counties such as Duval to Pinellas and Hillsborough, albeit many of the Republican sheriffs endorsed also are from smaller counties with small voter registration figures, elections data show. That said, the 55 endorsements in all could create a major voting bloc in favor of Rubio.
Overall, the U.S. Senate campaign will not only be related to party affiliation — Democrats, Republicans and other political parties — but also race and gender. Demings is a Black female; Rubio is a Hispanic male.
Demings was first elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives starting in 2017. Rubio is a two-term U.S. Senator of Florida and a former state House member and House Speaker, seeking a third term in Congress.
“Chief Demings is giving Florida voters a choice between someone who has been in elected office since 1998, and someone who put on a bulletproof vest and went to work to protect her community,” said Devon Cruz, campaign press secretary for Demings.
Demings files paperwork in Tallahassee
At a Tallahassee news conference on May 31, Demings spoke about her experience in the law-and-order field and reducing gun violence. The ten-minute video was posted on her Twitter and Sheriff Walter McNeil of Leon County, in the state capital, was present at the conference.
However, the Democratic sheriff didn’t make any official endorsement for her, according to McNeil’s spokeswoman.
It’s unclear whether Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young, also a Democrat, joined Demings, but a Demings campaign press release stated that he was present at the event.
“As a police chief, I was appointed chief when crime was at an all-time high in Orlando,” she said. “So my first priority was the reduction of violent crime. My second was to get crime guns out of the hands of dangerous people. I believe right now, I know right now, the United States Senate can pass universal background checks.”
At the event, Demings was also asked by reporters about Rubio’s list of endorsements, including the 55 sheriffs and two police groups.
“I know that Marco Rubio wished that he could get one of those sheriffs or chiefs to run for him against me. Maybe he’s using them as cover; I don’t know,” Demings said. “But what I do know is this, that Marco Rubio will have to run against me. This race is between him and me.”
Data on party affiliations of sheriffs
In total, 50 of the 55 FL sheriffs who have officially endorsed Rubio are registered as Republicans, according to a directory from the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Only two sheriffs in the list are Democrats — in Calhoun and Glades counties.
The other three sheriffs are listed as no party affiliation (NPA). Those sheriffs are from Polk and Volusia, considered bigger counties in Central Florida, and Columbia County in North Florida.
Rubio has received support from Polk Sheriff Grady Judd.
Scott Wilder, director of communications at the sheriff’s office, told the Phoenix in an email that “Sheriff Judd is supporting Senator Rubio” and that Judd spoke in support of Rubio at an event in late January featuring the sheriffs.
Thus far, 12 sheriffs have not officially endorsed either Rubio or Demings.
In that 12 group, three sheriffs are Republican — Monroe, and two very small counties, Lafayette and Franklin.
In addition, Miami-Dade has an appointed sheriff, not an elected sheriff, and there are more Democrats than Republicans in Miami-Dade. That said, there’s a large NPA group in Miami-Dade.
That leaves eight Democratic sheriffs that have not endorsed yet. Those are Broward, Palm Beach, Alachua, Gadsden, Leon, Orange, Osceola, St. Lucie.
The Florida Phoenix used data from the Florida’s Division of Elections to juxtapose the sheriff endorsements by party affiliation to voter registration figures that could show how Rubio and Demings would match up in being able to woo law enforcement voters for the U.S. Senate seat.
For instance, in Seminole County, Sheriff Dennis Lemma is a Republican but that county has 113,676 registered Democrats, compared to 114,822 Republican voters. Voters registered as No Party Affiliation are 99,903.
Pinellas County also has a Republican sheriff and there isn’t a major difference in voter registration for both political parties. Republicans have 241,486 voters registered, while Democrats have 237,216 voters. The NPA group is 192,836.
And in Orange County, Sheriff John Mina is a Democrat and the county has more registered Democrats, with 359,770, compared to 213,451 Republican voters. However, it also has many voters registered as NPA, with 264,478.
Rubio backed by police associations too
Rubio also has received backing from the Florida Police Chiefs Association (FPCA), with more than a thousand members, as well as the Florida Police Benevolent Association, consisting of more than 30,000 members, according to a press release in June.
In a video posted June 1 on YouTube, Rubio received an endorsement from the only woman sheriff in Florida — Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican. “He understands that safe neighborhoods are the key to any successful community,” Cook said in the video. According to the Clay County Sheriff Office’s website, DeSantis appointed Cook “to complete the term left vacant by her predecessor” in 2021.
In the June video, Charles Broadway, second vice president of FPCA, said: “I believe in supporting him because he has shown his support for public safety, and safe streets, and safe communities.”
Steadman Stahl, President, South Florida PBA said in the video: “It was a no-brainer for us to stand behind him and we will continue to stand with him. He is the best candidate.”
Another sheriff, Gordon Smith of Bradford County Sheriff, said in the video: “He doesn’t sway to the political winds that you see that grab headlines.”
Demings has the longtime law enforcement background
According to her campaign website, Demings is a former social worker and served 27 years in various positions within law enforcement, including as a police officer in Orlando.
In 2007, she made history as Orlando’s first female police chief. She served in that position from 2007 to 2012, according to Ballotpedia.
As to her other law enforcement background, Demings “commanded the Special Operations division and handled the department’s highest-profile tasks,” according to her campaign website. She also “coordinated the response of the Airport Division on 9/11,” according to her campaign website.
Despite Demings’ experience in law enforcement, two large police associations in Florida have recently spoken in support of Rubio.
Those groups include the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and the Florida Police Chiefs Association (FPCA). In an email to the Florida Phoenix last week, Florida PBA President John Kazanjian said, “Senator Rubio has consistently stood with us on these critical issues and has always had our backs. For these reasons, we are proud to endorse him for re-election.”
“When it comes to making political endorsements, what matters most to us is a candidate’s track record and commitment to supporting law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, Congresswoman Val Demings has a track record of putting politics before the interests of the men and women who work under her and in law enforcement throughout Florida. She supports eliminating qualified immunity, defunding the police and other one-sided reforms that would diminish our rights and jeopardize public safety.”
However, Demings debunked those claims about defunding the police during a U.S. House Judiciary hearing, according to her U.S. House press release back in February.
“Let me say it for about the millionth time: we are not going to defund the police. We are going to fund the police. And we can have the backs of our police officers and the communities in which we serve, too,” Demings said.
“She never had her door shut”
Barbara Jones is a former police lieutenant and spokesperson who worked directly with Demings at the Orlando Police Department. “I was her spokesperson, and I was on her staff,” Jones told the Phoenix in a telephone interview last week.
Jones believes Demings will be a great candidate for the Senate seat in Florida because of her leadership skills. “I saw what I felt to be good leadership. She was confident and I found her to be a hard worker.”
“She affected change,” Jones said. “She had the burden of being the first female chief. But it wasn’t a burden for her. I never saw her rattled. She knew what she wanted. … she will not defund the police.”
“She always included me in some decisions that she made. She was very personable, and she never had her door shut. She always asked me how my day was. She was confident and competent,” Jones said.
Jones also said Demings will work to earn residents’ votes. “She is all over the state; she’s a worker. If she wants your vote, I know she will work for it,” Jones added.
Two Black Democratic sheriffs
Meanwhile, it’s been nearly a year since Demings launched her campaign against Rubio for the U.S. Senate seat. But she filed her official documents last week for her candidacy in the Senate race. Devon Cruz, press secretary for Demings, told the Phoenix last week that she “filed to appear on the 2022 ballot with the support of two Florida sheriffs.”
She filed her paperwork in Tallahassee and was joined by Leon County Sheriff McNeil and Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young, both Democrats, as well as some faith leaders and other supporters, according to a Demings campaign press release.
A spokeswoman for the Leon County Sheriff’s Office did confirm with the Phoenix that McNeil was present at the event but said he hasn’t made any official endorsements. “As of now, Sheriff McNeil has not made any endorsements regarding the race,” Angela Green said in an email Thursday to the Phoenix.
The Phoenix hasn’t received a response from the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office about whether Young has endorsed Demings.
Rally at Rubio’s office to demand gun reform
In the wake of recent mass shootings in both Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York, large teachers union and gun safety advocates in Florida are calling on Rubio to take action on gun reform. The Florida Education Association was joined by gun violence survivors, teachers and other groups at a rally last week to demand that “Rubio take action on common-sense gun safety legislation,” according to a press release from the FEA.
Demings, also spoke about the issue of gun safety on Twitter in late May:
“It’s ridiculous that Marco Rubio is trying to distract us from the issue at hand, which is keeping our communities safe. I stand with the American citizens that are sick and tired of innocent people being gunned down in innocent places.”
Still, Devon Cruz, press secretary for Demings, said in an email last week to the Phoenix that Demings demonstrates a proven track record “fighting crime and making communities safer,” compared to her opponent Rubio.
Cruz said: “As Florida’s next senator, Chief Demings will always have law enforcement’s back as she works to keep the public safe and ensure law enforcement officers have the resources they need to fight crime.”
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