SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A look now at down-ballot races that might make history. Renata Sago from member station WMFE takes us to central Florida, where voters are poised to elect Florida's first black state attorney.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right, ladies and gentlemen. The workshop is starting now.
RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: A get-out-the-vote block party is underway outside this community center in one of Orlando's predominantly black neighborhoods. Inside, Aramis Ayala stands in front of two dozen residents.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I want this room to please give this lady, Aramis Ayala, a big round of applause.
ARAMIS AYALA: I am excited to be here today because I am evidence that black votes matter.
SAGO: In the Democratic primary, the 41-year-old beat her high-profile opponent and former boss, Jeff Ashton. In an area with 1.3 million residents, he's had a say in which police arrests turn into cases, which cases go to trial and which people go to prison. Now, with no contender in the general election, that will be Ayala's job.
AYALA: Prosecution has been known as, we have evidence. We prove the case. We're done. 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.
SAGO: That campaign has been centered on shifting the culture of the prosecutor's office to focus on crime victims and strengthening its relationship with communities of color.
AYALA: The image of a prosecutor appears to be against people of color. We focus a lot on the person who's committing the crime in his or her race. There are black and brown people who receive disparate treatment the way that the law is set up, period.
SAGO: Desmond Meade, who heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, calls that perspective historically significant in a state with the nation's highest concentration of men and women in prison, many black and Latino.
DESMOND MEADE: When you talk about an office that's probably the most powerful office in a local municipality, hopefully, with an African-American leading the charge, we can have a better representation of what this justice system is about.
SAGO: Attorney Natalie Jackson represented the family of Trayvon Martin during the George Zimmerman trial.
NATALIE JACKSON: All over the nation, we're seeing people like Aramis.
SAGO: Since Trayvon Martin's death, Jackson has witnessed firsthand a change in how people think about criminal justice issues.
JACKSON: Young people of color - they are 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.
SAGO: That's the argument of liberals across the country pushing for criminal justice reform. A group tied to billionaire George Soros boosted Aramis Ayala's campaign by spending more than $230,000 on attack ads against her opponent. And nationwide, the group has spent more than $9 million to help other candidates of color in similar races.
That money may have helped, says Buddy Jacobs, who's been with the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association since 1970. But he says Ayala faces larger structural challenges such as the state legislature.
BUDDY JACOBS: And so whatever the representatives of the people decide the law would be - that's what state attorneys enforce.
SAGO: What's for certain is that Ayala's presence is evidence that voters want change. And that alone could open doors for more state-attorney candidates like her. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Orlando.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.