Dropping Your GuardLeave a Comment
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is the guy in the Sox cap with the sunglasses perched on the brim center fielder-style. The one in the neon-and-turquoise Adidas running shoes and the cargo shorts like the ones your dad wears. The one dressed more casually than anyone in the small crowd gathered inside a firehouse in Norwich, Connecticut to hear him speak.
This month, Murphy walked across Connecticut. Beginning in Voluntown, near the Rhode Island border, and finishing in Greenwich, the 43-year-old covered more than 126 miles during the six-day tour. Murphy concluded the first leg of his journey in Norwich with a small town-hall meeting, or as he put it, “a little get-together.” Roughly 40 people filled the small firehouse three-quarters of the way. Perched on a barstool at the front of the room, Murphy told them why he was there.
“My hope is that all of these out-of-the-box interactions that I’m trying to have with people throughout the state of Connecticut not only make me a better representative,” he said, “but ultimately may be recasting the impression of what a public official is, for people who are just used to seeing us in the newspaper or on TV or giving a speech. So I’m really not dressed like a senator today, but that’s OK. People want to know that we are real and authentic and deeply care about who they are and where they are.”
Here, he echoed a sentiment he expressed to me when we met in his Washington, D.C. Senate office. On Capitol Hill, he described voters’ thirst for sincerity in somewhat less diplomatic terms.
“I think people are clamoring for authenticity,” he said. “They want to know who you really are. They don’t want you to put on an act … You know, these days, I think the bar is pretty low when it comes to what people want in politicians, and they definitely want you to drop the façade and the talking points and be real.”
That much is evident in an election cycle featuring one presidential contender whose chief virtue in the eyes of many of his supporters is that “he says what he thinks,” and another whose greatest obstacle is her perceived untrustworthiness. Politicians strive to convey authenticity. The good ones don’t let you see the strain; the bad ones labor visibly. If though, like an increasing number of Americans, you believe none of them are genuine, why focus on any one in particular? Why focus on Chris Murphy?
On the heels of the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June, Murphy catapulted into the national spotlight when he led an impassioned 15-hour filibuster to force votes on four pieces of gun-related legislation. The measures, which included an amendment barring gun sales to anyone who had been on the terrorist watch list in the past five years, all failed decisively, with none coming within six votes of passage. Nonetheless, Murphy believes the filibuster helped “move the needle” on achieving common-sense gun control reforms.
It also helped raise his national profile. Following the filibuster, Google search volume for “Chris Murphy” spiked to 25 times its previous levels. To Murphy’s critics, like Connecticut Republican Party Chairman J.R. Romano, the filibuster was no act of heroism, but an attempt to harness a cause célèbre for political gain. A self-interested power play.
“It was all posturing,” Romano said. “It was to raise money. It wasn’t about helping Americans … He’s attempting to raise his profile. You know, the bench within the national Democratic Party is extremely weak and he’s trying to become a national figure.”
To supporters, however, the act was not one of opportunistic calculation but of genuine, righteous indignation. Laurie Rubiner, the chief of staff to Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, the senior U.S. senator from Connecticut, called the moment a release of “pent-up frustration.” It was raw and it was real.
“It just felt like a really great moment for people to vent their frustration,” she said. “And I think it did get people’s attention.”
More so than most, Murphy grounds his pitch to voters in his authenticity. Many candidates seeking elected office wax lyrical about their great-uncle the coal miner to avoid being labeled a member of the affluent and nefarious Washington elite that doesn’t understand the average American. But whereas their narratives of authenticity often seem like ad hoc appendages, Murphy tries to weave his anti-Washington message into everything he does.
Although not nearly to the same extent as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and with policy positions and ideological leanings diametrically opposed to the real estate tycoon’s, Murphy presents himself as an alternative to the political status quo.
“The age of incrementalism has to come to an end,” he said. “People fundamentally don’t think that the things we’re talking about here — like a small increase in the Pell Grant, or another tax credit for child care — are going to be meaningful to them. That was the attraction of Bernie Sanders and that’s in part the attraction of Trump.”
Murphy won his first public election in 1997 at the age of just 24, earning a seat on the Southington Planning and Zoning Commission. Since that first electoral victory, he has rapidly ascended the political hierarchy, moving from the Connecticut House of Representatives, to the state Senate, to the U.S. House of Representatives and finally to the U.S. Senate. Part of the reason he is so grateful for his six-year Senate term is that he spent his 20s and 30s “running and running and running,” he told me.
Despite having now served a decade in Congress, Murphy still sees himself as an outsider in Washington.
“I’m probably not the traditional backslapping, hand-grabbing politician,” he said. “I don’t have natural gifts in crowds. I may not be a natural politician. I may be a little bit more of an introvert than some people here are, but I try to make up for it with hard work.”
At the time of his election in 2012, he was the youngest member of the U.S. Senate at age 39, and he remains nearly two decades younger than the average senator. Rubiner can recall times when Murphy has “come in looking like a college kid.”
In 2012, Murphy ranked third-to-last in wealth among U.S. senators, with a net worth of about $82,500 — more than $2.4 million below the chamber median. He has neither “a popular last name,” like his 2012 general election opponent and professional-wrestling magnate Linda McMahon, nor a family history in politics. His only electoral defeat — suffered in the 1992 race for the Freshman Council at Williams College — came at the hands of Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer of Colorado and, as Murphy says, a second cousin of President George W. Bush ’68.
Since his first race for national public office, in which he upset 12-year incumbent Nancy Johnson to earn a seat in the U.S. House, Murphy has followed the same political “formula.”
“I don’t have the pedigree that some other people have running for office,” he said. “But I just work really hard and I care really deeply about the issues I work on, and my belief is that, you know, if you do both of those things, voters will notice.”
And, for the most part, they have. Murphy won his 2006 race against Johnson by a 12-point margin, then defended his seat in 2008 and 2010 with 60 and 54 percent of the vote, respectively. In 2012, he routed McMahon by 12 points to win the Senate seat he now holds. His approval rating stands at 53 percent, ranking 37th among all senators.
Murphy says the impetus for his filibuster — and for all his work to pass gun control legislation — traces back to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, which killed 26 people, including 20 six- and seven-year-old children. The attack occurred in his former congressional district while he was still a senator-elect. Together with Blumenthal, Murphy met with victims’ families and attended funeral services in the aftermath of the tragedy. Blumenthal called the ordeal a “transformative experience.” In an interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, Murphy said he was “embarrassed that I hadn’t paid attention to this issue.”
When he took office just weeks after the shooting, he devoted himself to passing “common sense” gun control legislation. More than three years of congressional inaction later, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history drove Murphy, a self-proclaimed introvert, to seize the Senate floor.
Janis Sawicki, an audience member at the Norwich town hall meeting who hadn’t yet decided how she felt about Murphy, said the filibuster helped convince her that the senator genuinely cares about his constituents.
“He does seem to be interested in the people and the issues and the whole business with the filibuster and the gun control business really caught my attention,” she said. “I think that’s a real positive.”
To the senator’s longtime allies, the filibuster showcased Murphy’s authenticity and caring, and, in that sense, provided a fitting introduction to the national stage.
Bob Berkmoes, a longtime friend of the senator’s and the chairman of the Southington Democratic Town Committee, can remember Murphy’s first campaign for the Connecticut Legislature.
“He walked, I think, to every house at least twice to introduce himself to the public,” Berkmoes recalled. “And the biggest thing that Chris did is he listened to everybody. You know, when he knocked on the door and he asked people if they had any problems or how things were going, if people had an issue or problem, Chris really looked into it and got back to the person.”
Berkmoes also reiterated a common refrain I’d heard from Murphy supporters: “What you see with Chris is what you get.” Scott Merchant, a firefighter in Norwich, echoed Berkmoes verbatim. And the senator himself assured me there would be few surprises if I spent more time with him outside the public eye.
Susan Bysiewicz ’83, Murphy’s Democratic primary opponent in his 2012 Senate race, offers a more conflicted perspective. On the one hand, she praised the work her former adversary has done in the Senate and emphasized that, with a few notable exceptions like financial regulation, on which she considers herself the Bernie Sanders to his Hillary Clinton, he and she hold similar policy positions. Bysiewicz commended him in particular for his efforts to pass gun control legislation.
“To me the bottom line is… that Chris and I are both ardent Democrats,” she said.
And for the most part, that was the bottom line of our interview. At times, though, Bysiewicz seemed hesitant to issue a ringing endorsement of Murphy, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the exchange that ensued when I asked whether she thought he aspires to the presidency.
“I am sure that he has very high aspirations, and, you know, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “Look, I am a person who believes that leadership is about helping other people achieve their goals and aspirations.”
“And do you think he embodies that?” I asked.
“I think he has high aspirations,” she said, taking a long pause. “I think he has high aspirations and … he’s a person who has a lot he would like to accomplish in his life. Look, I’m a person who’s got a lot I’d like to accomplish in my life. So I think that’s a good thing.”
Ten minutes after our interview, she called me back to “clarify” her comments — in effect, to assure me that she wholeheartedly supports Murphy.
Bysiewicz’s reluctance to criticize is rare. The U.S. Senate is “a world where people may simply take shots and they may often be unfair,” Blumenthal told me over the phone. It should be no surprise then that senators are loath to “drop the façade and the talking points,” to borrow Murphy’s phrase. For his part, Murphy acknowledges that he doesn’t always present the real Chris Murphy.
“I don’t know that I achieve that every day, because sometimes it’s hard to drop your guard in this job, but I try,” he said during our meeting.
In a follow-up interview two weeks later, I returned to that comment, asking why it’s so hard to drop your guard. He paused before replying.
“Well, I mean, this is a job in which people pay very close attention to what you say,” he said. “You know, if you make one misstatement, it can cause you a lot of heartache. So I think everyone in jobs like this is careful about what they say.”
I asked if he could recall a time when he regretted not dropping his guard more. “No I think I was making a general comment,” he said. “I don’t sort of think about it in terms of specific instances.”
I then inverted the question, asking if there were any time that he had dropped his guard and taken criticism as a result. His answer was the same — nearly word-for-word.