WASHINGTON — As protests against police brutality against people of color roil the nation, former Vice President Joe Biden is under increasing pressure to tap a black woman as his running mate.
At the center of attention is a little-known Florida lawmaker from Orlando — but could her background in law enforcement dim her chances?
The question is on the minds of political observers as speculation swirls around U.S. Rep. Val Demings, former chief of the Orlando Police Department.
The answer depends on how it’s spun, according to Sharon Wright Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
Demings’ background could dampen support among voters who distrust police, she said. But it also enables her to present herself as a “law and order” candidate — a theme President Donald Trump is hitting amid violence, she said. They can “turn this into a positive.”
Glynda Carr, president of Higher Heights of America, a political action committee that supports progressive black women, cast Demings’ background as a plus because it makes her “uniquely positioned” to address issues at the center of the national political conversation, like police brutality and system racism.
Demings made the point herself, telling the Associated Press this week that “the community wants people who understand the system from the inside out in order to bring real-life necessary reforms.”
‘What in the hell are you doing?’
Biden confirmed last month that Demings is one of about a dozen women he is considering for the post. The two-term Democrat has since risen in prominence, especially in the wake of protests following the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minnesota last week by a police officer who suspected him of using counterfeit money to buy cigarettes. That officer has since been fired and charged with Floyd’s murder.
“As a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing,” she wrote last week in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
The civil unrest is shaking up the conventional “veepstakes” wisdom, as leading contenders with backgrounds in law enforcement face intense scrutiny of their records.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) was serving as Hennepin County attorney when Derek Chauvin — the ex-officer who was filmed last week kneeling on Floyd’s neck and choking off his airflow — was involved in a civilian killing in 2006.
During her tenure, she declined to bring charges in more than two dozen cases in which people were killed in police encounters, the Post reported last year.
California Sen. Kamala Harris (D) has drawn fire for decisions she made as a state attorney general and local prosecutor to resist investigations of police killings and set standards for police body cameras, according to the Associated Press.
Law-and-order bona fides
Demings touts her “law and order” credentials on her office website, pointing to a significant drop in violent crime during her tenure as Orlando’s police chief.
But the department also drew criticism for its use of force when she held the role.
In 2008 — the year after Demings took the department’s helm — the Orlando Weekly completed a use-of-force investigation that concluded that the department had “a problem policing its own.”
Demings defended her record in the Orlando Sentinel, writing that “looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church.”
In 2015, when Demings was running for Congress, The Atlantic explored the department’s “long record of excessive-force allegations,” which it said dated to Demings’ time as chief.
Also that year, the Sentinel published an investigation that found that during Demings’ last full year as police chief in 2010, the department used force significantly more than the police department in Baton Rouge, a city with a similar population size and demographic mix.
Bob Poe, one of Demings’ rivals in her party’s 2016 primary for the 10th district seat, used the report to accuse her of overseeing police brutality at the department, according to the Sentinel.
Now, a rival for her congressional seat is attacking her record on the issue.
Orlando Republican Willie Montague, who is vying for his party’s nod to challenge Demings this fall, told the Phoenix she’s “flipping the narrative” about her law enforcement record to advance her political goals, he said.
But Wright Austin of the University of Florida said such attacks may not stick, given Demings’ background. “It would be totally different” if she were a white man, she said.
Pressure to nominate a black woman
Biden, 77, was under pressure to nominate a black woman before civil unrest seized the nation, given the role the black community played in turning around his moribund campaign.
In addition to Demings and Harris, Biden is reportedly considering other black women, such as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Georgia state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and former national security advisor Susan Rice.
Other Democratic candidates mentioned include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Demings shot onto the national scene last year, when she played a key role in the U.S. House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump as a member of both the House Judiciary and Intelligence panels. Her star rose higher in January when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) selected her as one of seven managers of the Senate impeachment trial.
She was initially regarded as a long shot, in part because of relatively low name recognition and her lack of state or national campaign experience.
But political observers are increasingly pointing to her as a good fit for the Democratic ticket at a time when anger over police violence is reaching a boiling point.
In addition to her background as a police officer-turned-congresswoman, she also hails from the biggest battleground state in this year’s elections.
If tapped, she would be the third woman in history to be named as a vice presidential nominee on a major party ticket, after Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008.