Politics

Campaigning on Hold in Orlando

But shooting in Florida's 10th raises profile of former police chief, HIV-positive candidate

Val Demings is seen as the front-runner in the race for Florida's 10th District Democratic nomination. (Roll Call File Photo)

Val Demings, Orlando's former police chief, is running for Congress.   

But she spent the week since the deadliest mass shooting in America attending vigils and memorial services in her hometown.  

She's delivered food and water to donors at a blood bank and attended a fundraiser for employees of Pulse, the gay nightclub where a gunman killed 49 people early in the morning on June 12.   

The massacre put traditional campaigning in one of Democrats' more competitive primaries on hold, as the four Democrats running have focused much of their attention on their community. The site of the shooting is in the newly redrawn 10th District. In subtle ways, however, the tragedy may be bringing into relief the different backgrounds and personalities of the candidates in the August primary.   

Most of the Democratic establishment has rallied behind Demings, Orlando's first female police chief, who cancelled multiple fundraisers and all direct voter contact activities last week.  

"After 27 years in law enforcement in Orlando, my last four years as the chief of police, my priority now is helping to heal a broken community," Demings said in an email Wednesday.   

Of course, local media has sought her law enforcement perspective in the wake of the shooting, and that's given her a platform on gun safety reform.  

"The words 'mass shooting' are becoming too commonplace in this nation," Demings told WUSA9  last week.  

"Moving forward, we must make sure dangerous people do not have access to guns, that we close the so-called 'Terror Gap' and that assault weapons are banned," she said.  

State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, who's also running for the Democratic nomination, set aside her fundraisers and public campaign appearances last week, too. The Pulse nightclub is in her state Senate district.   

"I could not focus on anything other than the victims and their families," she said in an interview.  

Having served in the state Senate for four years and the state House before that, Thompson is well known in the area. She says she represented about 70 percent of voters in the 10th Congressional District in the past 10 years.  

The media appearances she's made over the past week — as a legislator, not a candidate — also gave her the chance to discuss her commitment to gun control.  

She believes she's been the most vocal about gun control.   

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott visited the site of the shooting, Thompson asked him for a meeting to discuss the availability of guns. But that meeting hasn't happened yet.   

Thompson raised just $40,000 during the first quarter of 2016, although she said her goal is to raise $600,000 for the primary.   

"There’s a difference between having the most money and having enough money," Thompson said.  

The candidate with the most money is Bob Poe, former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.  

National Democrats have been blasting Republicans for refusing to call the Orlando shooting a hate crime that targeted LGBT individuals, and, in Poe, the party would have an openly gay nominee.   

Poe recently announced that he is HIV-positive , and he hosted an HIV roundtable in the community on Friday.   

Gun control is a major theme on his campaign website.   

"Congress must reinstate the ban on military-style assault weapons, and close the loophole that allows suspected terrorists on the FBI’s watch lists to purchase deadly weapons legally," he said in a statement after the shooting. Poe has loaned a lot of his own money to his campaign, and he's promised to pay his campaign canvassers $15 an hour.   

On Thursday, his campaign announced $1 million in TV advertising  on cable and broadcast in an expensive media market.   

The fourth candidate in the race is attorney Fatima Fahmy. But she raised just $4,000 in the first quarter of the year.   

Most observers see this primary as a fight between Poe and Demings.  

But Poe doesn't start with the name recognition that either Thompson, as a current state senator, or Demings, as the former police chief, has.  

Demings raised $212,000 in the first quarter of 2016. She ended the period with $362,000.   

Her campaign says she oversaw a 40 percent reduction in violent crime in Orlando.  

She has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, EMILY's List and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.  

Helping her profile in the area is the fact that her husband is the Orange County Sheriff. He has been in the news this week for dealing with the death of the 2-year-old boy an alligator pulled into the water near Disney World.   

Demings has also run before. She lost to current 10th District Rep. Daniel Webster, a Republican, in 2012 by fewer than four points.  

Recent redistricting drew the district into a 'Safe Democratic' seat, and Webster is now running in the nearby 11th District , which is open because GOP Rep. Rich Nugent is retiring .   

“The primary is the race," Thompson said.  

But the political issue that the shooting makes most salient — gun control — doesn't likely leave much room between the three major candidates, said Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist not affiliated with any of the campaigns.   

All of the candidates are being smart about not politicizing the tragedy, he said: "I don’t know that any candidate has ever regretted not saying more in light of a tragedy."  

"It will take some time," he added, before normal campaigning resumes.   

"We have been known for many years as the happiest place on earth," Thompson said. "And now we’re known as the place of the worst mass killing in U.S. history."  

Contact Pathé at  simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at  @sfpathe .

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