The Orange County mayor had dedicated much of his life serving his community, and that has awarded him with a lifetime of accomplishments.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings lives to serve. Since childhood, he always knew that he wanted to serve his community, but having grown up poor, he never knew how far his call to service would take him.
“As a child, that wasn’t something that I dreamed about — that I’m going to be mayor one day,” Demings said prior to taking his oath of office. “What I knew was that I wanted to serve my community. From an early age, from being a Boy Scout, I knew that I wanted to be of service to other people. I just didn’t quite know what kind of service.”
In an emotional speech at his historic Oath of Office Ceremony Dec. 4, he said, “A poor kid from Washington Shores in west Orlando has now become the Orange County mayor.”
The story of Orange County’s first African-American mayor is filled with many other “firsts” — all in the name of his lifelong call to serve his community.
Demings, 59, was born and raised in Orlando. Having grown up during the Civil Rights era, many of his early role models were Civil Rights leaders. He even got to meet some of those leaders throughout the years.
“I was born in Phillips Memorial Hospital, which was a segregated hospital,” Demings said. “I never got to meet Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.), but I certainly studied Dr. King. I was able to meet many of the other Civil Rights leaders personally, and (I) have had conversations with people like Rosa Parks, Benjamin Hooks, Andrew Young … (and) Jesse Jackson.”
Demings’ mother was a maid, and his father was a taxicab driver and budding entrepreneur. He’s the youngest of five children, and although he has a twin brother, his twin is older than him by 30 minutes. Despite growing up poor, his parents always provided him and his siblings with the necessities. His mother, who was also a part-time seamstress, custom-made his clothes growing up.
“Even though I was poor, when I was in junior high and high school … I was honored with being ‘best dressed,’” Demings said. “A poor kid was recognized as the ‘best dressed’ at a school thanks to my mom who custom made my clothes at the time.”
Demings attended Jones High School, where he played football, basketball, soccer and ran track. He graduated with honors from Jones High in 1977 and attended Florida State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance in 1980. In 1989, he received an MBA from Orlando College, now Everest University. He graduated as a member of the 194th session of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy in 1998, and in 2000, he graduated in the 23rd session of the FBI Executive Institute. He also completed studies at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School in 2013.
Earlier in his life, Demings’ older brother struggled with drug addiction. He died of an overdose in 1999 at age 50. His brother’s struggles with drugs became one of the reasons Demings got into law enforcement.
“(I wanted) to try to really do something about it (to) stop that from happening in our community for any other family,” he said.
Call to Service
The call to serve his community came to Demings at an early age, starting with the Boy Scouts. That call to service has driven him all the way to the position of Orange County mayor.
“I’ve been given the tremendous opportunity to lead our community through the last 37-plus years in different public-sector roles,” Demings said. “I started out my public-sector/public-service career as an Orlando police officer (in 1981).”
Demings held every rank at the Orlando Police Department before he was appointed chief in 1998. He is the first African-American to serve as chief of police in the Orlando Police Department. He served in that role until he retired from the department in September 2002. The following month, he was named deputy county administrator and director of public safety for Orange County. He’s the first African-American to serve in those roles, as well. In November 2008, he became the first African-American elected as Orange County Sheriff. And today, he’s the first African-American to serve as Orange County mayor.
“In 2017, when I decided to run for Orange County Mayor … I was getting out of my comfort zone,” Demings said. “A number of people came to me and asked me to run … and initially, I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in that,’ because that’s not where I saw myself.”
Demings said he decided to run after he realized that he had an “opportunity to impact the lives of people in (the) community.”
“While (being) sheriff created a significant opportunity for me to do that, I believe being mayor creates an even bigger opportunity,” Demings said. “In the Bible … there’s scripture that says, ‘Oh lord, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory that your hand will be with me and keep me from evil.’”
That verse, in a way, describes Demings’ life of public service. His “territory” — which in this case can be thought of as his level of impact on the community — grew each public service position he has held over the years.
“My life is a living testimony to my ancestry and to my religion,” Demings said. “These positions that I’ve been in, they had not been without challenge. … They have not been without a lot of sacrifice. As a public servant, there’s a tremendous sacrifice to your family because you spend a lot of time trying to help someone else, and if you’re not careful, you’ll deprive your own family.”
Demings’ sacrifices has not gone unnoticed. Over his years of service, Demings has been honored with a number of awards for his contributions to the community.
“I received thousands of awards — with no exaggeration,” Demings said. “I’m proud of all of them. All of them mean something to me. I was recognized as a distinguished alumnus of Jones High School and Florida State University. ... I also received the lifetime achievement award from President (Barack) Obama.”
In addition to his public-service roles, Demings also serves the community through various organizations. He isn’t the only one in his family who answered the call to serve. His wife, Valdera, represents Florida’s 10th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s also the first woman to serve as chief of the Orlando Police Department.
Demings said his vision for Orange County is to make it “a safer, more prosperous and a stronger community.”
“The sum total of my experiences make me who I am, and I take that to the office of mayor,” Demings said. “Orange County is on the precipice of greatness, but it can be greater. In order for Orange County to realize its true potential, we’re going to have to take some risks as a community — some measured risks … to where we are able to address the issues (and) the challenges of this community.”
He added that some of those challenges are the lack of affordable housing in Orange County; improving wages for the working class; improving public transportation; “improving the opportunity for entrepreneurialism here in this community,” among other challenges.
“I want Orange County to be the environmental prototype community of tomorrow,” Demings said, borrowing some words from Walt Disney. “We want to advance Orange County to that experience: where other people from around the globe will study what we’re doing here; where we are on the cutting edge; where we are doing some things that no other community is doing. That’s where we want to take Orange County.”
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