Val Demings didn't set out to be a congressional candidate any more than she set out to be a police officer.
But a chance visit with a police recruiter started Demings on an unlikely path that ended with her running the Orlando Police Department. Now she's hoping for a similarly improbable ending as she runs for the U.S. House against well-known incumbent Dan Webster.
"As a police officer, I really was a hard-charger," she said. "There's a commitment to keeping people safe, and I still carry that. I would not be in this race if I did not believe I could make people's lives better."
The daughter of a maid and a janitor, Demings grew up the youngest of seven children in a two-bedroom home inJacksonville.
After earning a criminology degree from Florida State University, she took a job with the state working with foster children. After hearing a radio announcement that OPD recruiters were in town, she filled out some paperwork on a whim and a few weeks later received a letter saying she had been accepted into the police academy.
She was elected president of her class at the academy, and it was a sign of things to come. She rose through the ranks, working in criminal investigations, intelligence, internal affairs, tactical operations and drug enforcement, among others. As deputy chief, she ran the patrol division and oversaw Operation Delta, a get-tough crime sweep credited with reducing street violence in Parramore.
Mayor Buddy Dyer appointed Demings chief in 2007. She was generally liked within the department. She is half of a crime-fighting couple; her husband, Jerry, is Orange County sheriff. She has three grown sons and two grandchildren.
Demings, 55, stayed in the chief's job only 3 1/2 years, saying she had accomplished her goals of reducing crime — which had been on the upswing; taking crime guns off the street; and improving relations with the community.
She began to consider a political career even before her resignation became public last year. After she told Dyer of her plans, he encouraged her to consider politics and brought Demings to the attention of national Democrats. She was soon courted by U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
She faces Webster, a freshman congressman who served 28 years in the Legislature, in the newly drawn 10th District. The district is a tough one for Demings because registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 20,000, and it includes conservative parts of Orange, Lake and Polk counties.
Just as Webster is sticking to his party's fiscal and social positions, Demings is hewing close to the Democratic platform. Demings would allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the middle class but not the wealthy, though she has said the dividing line should be $500,000 to $1 million rather than $250,000, as the president maintains.
To create jobs, Demings would cut regulation, provide incentives for businesses that bring overseas jobs back to America, double the tax deduction for small-business startup costs and invest in infrastructure.
As she tours the district while riding her Harley, Demings stresses her record of reducing crime while cutting OPD's budget. She has unveiled an "accountability plan" that includes requiring members of Congress to disclose meetings with lobbyists and tax-break votes from which they would personally benefit.
Perhaps with conservative independents in mind, Demings has stressed her differences with her party. Demings said she will work with Republicans because Congress will overcome gridlock only if members reach across the aisle.
"I would not be fulfilling for me to go up to Washington and just take my marching orders every day from my party," she said. "If voting against my party, voting against the president, means I'm a one-term congresswoman because my party's not happy, then I'm secure enough in who I am and what I stand for, that that will be just fine."