Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Jan. 21, 2021. Read more of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2021” stories here.
No one among his 1 million Twitter followers could reasonably mistake Chris Murphy, the junior senator from Connecticut, for an irrepressibly upbeat Pollyanna. On social media and the Senate floor, he often speaks darkly of the political class he inhabits, both before and since the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
More quickly than most Democrats, Murphy looked past Donald J. Trump’s claims of a stolen election to castigate the president’s congressional enablers. A month before the assault on the Capitol, Murphy warned, “Those who are pushing to make Donald Trump president, no matter the outcome of the election, are engaged in a treachery against their nation.”
And yet, Murphy insists he sees silver linings in the darkest moments and unlikeliest places. Prime among them is his time huddled in a secret safe room with more than 90 senators and an equal number of staff, protected by police while a violent pro-Trump mob surged through the U.S. Capitol exactly two weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“You know, we sat in that safe room for five or six hours together,” Murphy said. “We had the time to talk in frankly a way that we haven’t in a long time across the aisle. I think there’s a big chunk of Republicans who now feel the need to turn the page on Donald Trump in a way that they didn’t prior to Jan. 6.”
Lest that sound naively optimistic, he conceded that some of those hours were spent glaring at Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
They are the Republican populists, albeit ones with undergraduate degrees from Princeton and Stanford and law degrees from Harvard and Yale, whose objections to Electoral College votes gave the mob false hope that the certification of Biden’s victory could be stopped.
Murphy mingled with Republicans in the safe room, urging one in particular to step away from supporting the election challenge led by Cruz and Hawley. With others, he saw no point. Murphy said, “There are a dozen Senate Republicans who are irredeemable, who are lost forever.”
Still, Murphy insists he sees the events of Jan. 5, 6 and 20 as inextricably linked watershed days, moments capable of returning the Senate to a functioning legislative body, a place where bills are debated, amended and even passed. Jan. 5 is the day two Democrats won runoff elections in Georgia, giving the Senate Democratic caucus 50 members.
“Right now, the most serious attempt to overthrow our democracy in the history of our of country is underway.
Those who are pushing to make Donald Trump President, no matter the outcome of the election, are engaged in a treachery against their nation.” pic.twitter.com/FE7K91nlSD
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) December 11, 2020
That belief will be tested now that Biden and Kamala Harris have been inaugurated as president and vice president, the latter also serving as presiding officer of an evenly divided U.S. Senate. Her tie-breaking vote gives Democrats nominal control of the Senate, though far short of the 60 votes necessary to easily move business.
Unclear is how quickly the Senate will schedule a trial on the article of impeachment accusing Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol.
“It is not my priority. My priority is getting the cabinet confirmed and a COVID relief package done,” Murphy said. “And then let’s find the right time to process the impeachment articles. I just think we have more important priorities now, right?”
Whatever comes next, Murphy is entering a new phase in his career. He long has been a politician blessed and cursed as a man of potential, a quotable habitué of MSNBC, Politico and The Fix, that gossipy corner of the Washington Post’s coverage of D.C.’s only industry, the politics and policy attendant to governing America.
Murphy was ranked third by The Fix on a list of 15 possible Democratic nominees for president in September 2017, behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden and ahead of Elizabeth Warren. By the end of 2018, The Fix still counted him among the 11 senators “definitely or potentially running.”
Sandy Hook made him a leader on gun control, an issue that immeasurably raised his profile yet produced no record of legislative accomplishment.
“I do start to think about the story I want to tell to my grandkids about my time in public service,” Murphy said. “And I really feel like I’ve got to get something done on this issue of gun violence, or I won’t be as proud of the story that I’ll tell when it’s all said and done.”
With Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., now the majority leader, Murphy said he expects a floor vote this year on a bill to require universal background checks for the purchase of firearms.
His other sphere of influence is foreign policy, an area in which members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee exercise soft power, not the measurable win-and-loss business of crafting laws. In April 2017, he sketched out his own doctrine for how U.S. power should be wielded, “Rethinking the Battlefield.”
It barely caused a ripple in Connecticut. His home state was not the intended audience.
Last spring, Murphy was the subject of an admiring 10,000-word profile in Vox pronouncing him “Senator of State.” It recounted his rise as a progressive voice in foreign policy and the significance of his time traveling with John McCain to Ukraine, defying Russia.
According to an unnamed former McCain staffer, the late Arizona Republican saw Murphy as a future leader worthy of his mentorship. Ben Rhodes, a senior national-security official in the Obama administration, told Vox, “He could be a McCain for the Democrats in the Senate for the next 20 years.”
The piece fairly shouted for Murphy to stay in the Senate, play the long game and accrue influence.
Hanging over Murphy always has been the question of what he will do next, understandable for a politician with a career marked by rapid advancement and unbroken electoral success: Winning seats in the state House at age 25, the state Senate at 29, the U.S. House at 33 and the U.S. Senate at 39, arriving eight years ago as its youngest member.
On Wednesday, a window opened for Murphy and other Democrats. For the next two years, they can expect to hold the White House, the Senate and the House. The question for Murphy no longer is where might he go next but what can he do now.
His eight years in the Senate, six in the minority, are the longest he’s been in any office.
“I really love this job,” Murphy said, a quote that comes now from muscle memory, a reflexive shrug at the body of political journalism dedicated to his potential for president, for secretary of state. “And I know, for a long portion of my career, I’ve looked like a big bundle of political ambition.”
Last August, Murphy turned 47. So, let’s just say it: The junior senator from Connecticut has entered middle age. It’s a good time for Chris Murphy to decide what he wants to be.
Is he in for the long game?
Murphy smiled, or winced, when the topic of reaching middle age was broached in an interview on Zoom.
“Yeah, I mean, I’ve been doing this for a while, right?” Murphy said pleasantly, sitting in his office in Washington. “I remind myself that most folks don’t show up to the United States Senate before they’re 47. So, I shouldn’t feel, you know, too ancient.”
U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, the dean of the Connecticut delegation, turned 47 two months into her first term in Congress. That was 30 years ago. Now, two months before her 78th birthday, DeLauro finally has grabbed one of the brass rings in Washington — chairing the House Appropriations Committee.
Congress can be a very long game.
Ted Kennedy became one the most influential and successful senators only after giving up on presidential ambitions. His funeral was a tribute not only to Kennedy but to a Senate of another age, a place where liberals and conservatives could do business, where the regular order meant passing budgets.
The conventional wisdom now is the Senate is broken, run on the principles of partisan warfare, not compromise. When the subject came up at a recent press conference in Hartford, Murphy was surprisingly protective of the institution, sounding very much like a man vested in its future.
“It is deeply unpopular and totally counterintuitive to make the case that the Senate can still work,” Murphy said. “But I think in some ways, you know, 2020 proves that Republicans and Democrats can still come together and pass big, complicated, meaningful legislation in the Senate.”
Murphy allowed that the process for passing COVID-19 relief bills was ugly, but ultimately the Congress agreed on legislation that pumped billions into the economy and saved hundreds of thousands of business from what he called “an extinction event.” He suggested that the politics behind landmark legislation of decades past was as messy, just not as visible.
“If the American public had as much transparency on the passage of Medicare in the 1960s as they have on the passage of the stimulus bills today, that process probably would have looked as ugly, if not uglier,” he said.
His top legislative issue, gun control, has long been one of the most divisive in Congress, though hardly risky for a Democrat from a blue state, even one with a history as an innovator and manufacturer of firearms.
His district office is in the old Colt Armory, a sprawling brick landmark in Hartford. Where the sponsor of a bill to ban assault weapons now sits, workers once produced six-shooters that won the West and M-16s carried in Vietnam. It now anchors a corner of Hartford making a rebound, and Murphy moved his office there to give it a small push.
“I drove by that building growing up, you know, 5,000 times. And for much of my upbringing, it was not in great shape,” said Murphy, who grew up in a close suburb, Wethersfield. “So I think I grew up being fascinated by that building, fascinated by the beauty of it, fascinated by the history of it and fascinated by why nobody was trying to save it. And so I just really was eager to jump at the chance to try to be part of an effort to bring back a pretty fantastic and historic building.”
The Sandy Hook massacre of 20 first graders and six educators came in December 2012, a month after the election that made Murphy a lame-duck congressman and a senator-elect. At the time, Murphy and his wife, Cathy Holahan, lived with their two young boys in Cheshire, a community of 30,000 with a median household income of $120,000.
A book that admits failure and sets a new course
Last fall, he published “The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy.” As much about racial inequity as violence, it includes an unflinching account of a Black minister dismissing Murphy as a white dilettante on the issue of gun violence.
With reporters watching, the Rev. Henry Brown thundered at Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a roundtable talk in Hartford on gun violence, recounting the marches he led after shootings in Hartford, most little noted by press and politicians: “I didn’t see none of you folks!”
“It was that day where I really came face to face with my failures,” Murphy said. “I was sitting in a room that was a couple miles from where I grew up. It’s not like I didn’t know what was going on in the North End of Hartford, and shame on me for not caring more or doing more during my entire time in public service.”
Murphy said Brown’s critique was not entirely unexpected.
“I went there for a reason. And I invited the press for a reason. I wanted to make sure that this conversation about gun violence in Hartford was part of this broader conversation that we’re having in the wake of Sandy Hook,” he said. “Even by then, I had grown uncomfortable that the country was all of a sudden caring about this issue, because … white children had died in Newtown. And I wanted to make this a broader debate.”
Murphy and his wife, a former legal-aid lawyer now employed by an education think tank in Washington, are raising their children in two cities. They own two heavily mortgaged homes in Washington and Hartford. Their two boys are enrolled in D.C. public schools.
In 2016, the Murphys bought a 3-bedroom, one-bath house near American University, a neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of Washington that commanded a premium price for a small house: $936,000 for 1,200 square feet. The seller was the family of a famed lobbyist, Thomas Hale Boggs, Jr., who died in 2014. It had not been Boggs’ residence.
In 2019, Murphy and his wife sold the Cheshire home they had owned for 14 years, and the next year they paid $355,000 for an income-producing property on a historic street in Hartford: a converted stable with a basement apartment they rent to a young couple.
The house sits on the southern edge of downtown, not far from his office at Colt, in a census tract that is racially diverse — 20% white, 23% Asian, 27% Black and 27% Hispanic. The neighborhood is on the upswing, with new and remodeled rental housing. But about quarter of the 1,459 residents live in poverty. The median household income is $45,481, higher than most of Hartford, but only three-fifths of the county median.
“I wanted to be in a neighborhood where I could learn firsthand about the challenges of families who have been left behind by this economy,” he said. “You know, I love Cheshire. It was time for us to sort of move closer to the center of the state for a bunch of reasons. And I just thought that it’d be important for me and for my family to be in an integrated neighborhood.”
One of the shooting victims discussed in his book, the son of community activist Sam Saylor, was killed on Sheldon Street, a few blocks from Murphy’s new home. Saylor’s son, Shane Oliver, was murdered in October 2012, just months before Sandy Hook. He was shot after an argument that Murphy argues would have been settled by punches in another place and time.
“The gap between white victims of violence and black victims of gun violence is smaller than it was eight years ago, but it’s still pretty big. And it will remain large, so long as we continue to live apart from each other,” Murphy said. “I mean, there’s just only so much you can accomplish in conference calls and roundtables and forums. If affluent white people are living lives that never intersect with poor people of color, then I don’t know how we really bridge this gap.”
He has crafted legislation that would create a voluntary grant program for states that want help in desegregating their schools. It is an issue that might make universal background checks for firearms seem easy.
Murphy said he is confident of a background checks bill getting to the Senate floor this year.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader until Wednesday afternoon, refused to call a vote on an issue popular with voters but vehemently opposed by the NRA and conservatives. Once on the floor, Murphy suspects Republicans will try to amend the measure, not kill it. He offers no prediction of whether the final version would be acceptable to the House.
Murphy said gun control is winning outside Washington, especially background checks. Eventually, he said, Congress will reach a tipping point.
“As I write in the book, shortly after our loss on the background checks bill in 2013, I came to the conclusion that this was about a long-term fight to build up enough political capital that we could overcome 40 years of power-building by the gun lobby,” Murphy said. “We got to the point where the NRA couldn’t get anything from a Republican Congress. That was an achievement in and of itself.”
Jon Ossoff, one of the two Democrats who just won Senate races in Georgia, ducked gun control when he ran in a special election for Newt Gingrich’s old House seat in 2017. Eighteen months later, it was won by Lucy McBath, a Democratic gun-control activist since the shooting death of her teenage son.
“We elected a candidate for president who ran strongly on the issue of universal background checks,” Murphy said. “I know this progress is gradual. But it’s undeniable progress. We’re heading in only one direction. And it is to me just a question of when, not if, we’re going to pass universal background checks in this country.”
At least for the moment, it sounds like Murphy intends to be there.