Orange, Osceola Poised To Deliver Florida’s First Black State Attorney
Right outside the John H. Jackson Community Center in one of Orlando’s predominantly black neighborhoods, signs that read #JustVote hang between a DJ booth and some picnic tables.
Inside, Aramis Ayala stands in front of two dozen residents preparing to moderate a workshop on the power of black voters in central Florida and the rest of the state. Just the evening before she stood before thousands at a rally where President Obama stumped for Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
That is why her voice is hoarse.
“When I saw the president, I lost it,” she says to the laughing crowd. “I met him, personally. He shook my hand. I went mute. Who does that? So, anyway, I just want to let you know I do apologize about my voice, but I’m excited to be here today because I am evidence that black votes matter.”
In the August 30th primary, the 41-year-old beat her Democratic opponent and former boss, the 9th Judicial Circuit’s high-profile State Attorney Jeff Ashton. He is known in the legal world for prosecuting Casey Anthony and the Florida A&M University band in its hazing trial.
Now, with no Republican contender in the general election, Ayala is the only candidate on the ballot.
“The mindset of the people who just wanted more integrity, more transparency, more consistency, higher levels of justice, they opened their arms to my campaign,” she says.
That campaign has been centered on strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and the black and Latino communities. Ayala also wants to make victims the priority in cases—more than suspects. As state attorney, she will decide whether an arrest turns into a case, whether that case results in someone going to prison.
“Prosecution has been known as ‘we have evidence, we proved their case, done,’” she says. “There are black and brown people who receive disparate treatment the way that the law is set up, period. And because of that, we have to have things in place to do something different.”
Challenges and opportunities for attorneys of color
Now, Ayala never sought to be a trailblazer. Like many attorneys of color she had a private practice for a short time. But a near-death experience with a cancerous tumor as a 24-year-old law school student made her determined to become a public servant. She says low pay and high pressure tend to keep attorneys of color away from working for the state.
“Police officers can arrest you, but the only person who can really take away your life, your liberty, and brand you a felon is the prosecutor’s office. So that’s why it’s important for us to have people who look like us and not only look like us, but understand the needs and the issues in our communities,” says attorney Natalie Jackson, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin during the George Zimmerman trial. She believes the presence of a Black state prosecutor in the state with highest concentration of ex-felons is going to change the course of justice statewide, and set a domino effect of other people of color taking office in similar positions in other states, particularly in the wake of that incident and police-involved shootings of black and brown people across the country.
“Young people of color, they’re saying, ‘If we cannot get fairness on the outside, then we’re going to go inside these institutions and we’re going to become these institutions,” she says. “We’re seeing an inclusion of people who are saying ,’Listen, the American agenda is not a Christian, white male agenda; it is a more diverse agenda.”
Support from progressives
That is the argument of liberals pushing for criminal justice reform across the country, including billionaire George Soros whose PAC spent a reported more than $620,000 in attack ads against Ayala’s opponent, Ashton. Nationwide, he has spent more than $9 million to help other candidates of color in similar races.
Buddy Jacobs is general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. Since 1970, he has represented state attorneys in Florida’s twenty judicial circuits and does not expect Ayala’s position in itself to spur major change in Florida.
“Reform of the criminal justice system is dependent upon the state legislature of the states of this country. And so, whatever, the representatives of the people decide the law would be, that’s what state attorneys enforce.”
For Ayala, that is why, as record numbers of Floridians cast early ballots, she is speaking to as many people of color as possible about going to the polls.
It is to open doors for more people like her.
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