As AFT leaders always say, elections matter—especially November’s race for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat. Democratic control of the Senate could turn on this race, which (after the August primaries) will likely pit U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who has been endorsed by the Florida Education Association/AFT, against incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I’m running for the United States Senate, and I’m running to win,” Demings told delegates on Sunday morning. A rising star in the Democratic Party, Demings is on a mission in her battleground state, defending the same priorities that are dear to AFT members: ending gun violence, securing reproductive rights, providing affordable healthcare for all and protecting the sacred right to vote.
Demings told delegates that her life in public service is directly tied to her own personal story of hardworking roots and the struggle for the American dream. The youngest of seven, Demings grew up in a small wood-framed house in Jacksonville, Fla. Her mother worked as a maid; her father as a janitor, landscaper and orange picker. Demings—a first-generation college graduate—took her first job at 14 as a dishwasher and worked at a fast-food restaurant to pay her way through school.
Demings remembers being told she would “probably never amount to much,” but said, “there were teachers in my life who helped me see past my circumstances.”
She started her career as a state social worker, then became a police officer. In 2007, she was appointed the first female chief of the Orlando Police Department. She retired from the force after 27 years and has served in Congress since 2016.
The contrast between Demings and Rubio on policy stances couldn’t be clearer.
Demings supported the U.S. House’s comprehensive Protecting Our Kids gun safety bill. Rubio is reportedly one of the National Rifle Association's top campaign contribution recipients.
She told delegates, “Like you, I am sick and tired of watching innocent people being gunned down in innocent places. … I am sick and tired of it, and we need people in elected office who will do something about it.”
Demings has taken Rubio on about his anti-choice record (Rubio has a zero percent rating on Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s congressional scorecard). Demings vowed to delegates, “We’re not going back, we’re not shutting up, we’re not sitting down. We’re going to fight for a woman’s right to choose.”
Demings told delegates it’s time for renewed investment in the public schools that educate most of America’s children. As part of that investment, she asked, “Why don’t we start paying teachers what they are worth?”
While Rubio is currently favored, the race is beginning to look very competitive. Demings is currently outpacing Rubio in fundraising (relying on small donors, with the average donation during the second quarter under $30.)
A July poll by Center Street (a nonpartisan PAC) shows Rubio still leading, but a 13 percent swing in Deming’s favor among registered voters. Building name recognition will be crucial for Demings, but as the poll showed, she is making major gains among unaffiliated voters and has strong favorability numbers.
AFT President Randi Weingarten asked the cheering crowd, “Are we going to help her win?” The answer—and control of the U.S. Senate—will be riding on getting out the vote in Florida in November.
[Christina Bartolomeo/photo by Suzannah Hoover]