Can Chris Murphy Capture the Soul of the Democratic Party?

With his growing influence in state politics and a rising national profile, Connecticut's junior U.S. senator is making national waves

  • 10 min to read
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U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy during his speech after being nominated to run for a second term during the state Democratic Convention in Hartford in May.

The Parkland kids — the student activists and survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last February that took the lives of 17 students and staff members — had been on the road all summer, championing legislation to prevent gun violence and registering young voters.

Now, on a sweltering afternoon in August, the final stop of the March For Our Lives bus tour had brought them to Newtown to connect with fellow activists and survivors of the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. While there, the Parkland students meet with Chris Murphy, the junior U.S. senator from Connecticut who, since Sandy Hook, has emerged as the most vocal and resolute crusader against gun violence in Congress, and the Democratic Party’s conscience on the issue.

As thousands of supporters mass on the sprawling grounds of the former Fairfield Hills psychiatric hospital, Parkland and Newtown students surround Murphy to share ideas and hear his. Emma Gonzalez, the diminutive Parkland senior who electrified crowds in the immediate aftermath of the shooting with her emotionally charged call for Republican politicians to take action, stands silently nearby, spent from two months on the road. Murphy listens patiently while Matt Deitsch, a 20-year-old Parkland graduate and the group’s chief strategist, talks policy and tactics, then the senator says, “I get up every morning knowing what my mission is. I’m embarrassed that it’s taken this long to pass a law.”

Afterward, Murphy says, “I couldn’t help both feel anger that these kids had to take time out of their lives to advocate for their safety, but also pride that the movement has come so far that we can turn out these giant numbers. The gun lobby can’t put together a group like this, and ultimately this has got to be about winning elections. If there are crowds like this showing up for the March For Our Lives kids all across the country, then there’s no stopping us in the midterms.”

Murphy, who identifies as a “progressive Democrat,” is something of a hero to local activists such as Jackson Mittleman, 16, a student at Newtown High School and co-leader, with fellow senior Tommy Murray, of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, a youth chapter of the gun-violence prevention group created after the Sandy Hook shooting.

“He’s pretty much been there from the start,” says Mittleman, who was 11 at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting and who joined the junior alliance in the seventh grade. “Since right after Sandy Hook he’s been fighting with us, advocating for stronger laws, and throughout the years been a presence at almost all of our events. He’s empowered a lot of people and supported a lot of people and encouraged them to join the fight like he has.”

Election 2018 House Connecticut

Murphy’s involvement with state politics includes supporting Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, to run for his former seat in the 5th Congressional District in the 2018 election.

The 45-year-old Wethersfield native is rallying others to the Democratic cause. He was instrumental in both Ned Lamont running for governor and 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes running for Murphy’s former seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Murphy, who has been a mentor to Hayes, is said to have encouraged the political newcomer to run for office and introduced her to influential donors earlier this year. Up for re-election in the midterms on Nov. 6, Murphy also left his imprint on the state political landscape by opening his campaign’s considerable coffers to the state Democratic Party.

Signs of Murphy’s growing influence on party policies and strategies are hard to miss. People well beyond the borders of Connecticut are taking notice.


Mr. Murphy goes to Washington

A graduate of Williams College and the University of Connecticut Law School, Murphy spent six years in the U.S. House before defeating Linda McMahon, who reportedly spent $50 million on her campaign, for Joe Lieberman’s vacated seat in the Senate in 2012. At 39, he was newly elected and the father of two young sons when Sandy Hook erupted in gunfire. Rushing to the school, he stayed with grieving parents until the last of the 20 children and six teachers and aides were carried out of the school. He had found his “mission.”

In spite of Murphy’s long commitment to health care, education and jobs for Connecticut residents, Newtown was his defining moment in politics.

“He has risen on his strength on the issues — the issues that he cares about or has come to care about or that have been thrust upon him, like gun control,” says Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s Democratic secretary of the state, who served with Murphy in the state House of Representatives. “Until Newtown, that was not particularly his issue — he was very involved with health care from the time he was a state representative. But when [Sandy Hook] happened, he was the one who elevated the issue and brought it forward and persisted and kept at it in the face of a lot of adversity. It’s one of the most contentious issues of our time, and yet he persisted. He’s incredibly tenacious. I think it’s absolutely sincere, and the kids know it, and the parents know it.”

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March For Our Lives activists Matt Deitsch, left, and Jaclyn Corin speak at the Fairfield Hills Campus in Newtown on Aug. 12.

Since then, Murphy has held vigils on the U.S. Senate floor, reciting the names of children killed by guns in Connecticut, and fought for universal background checks and a ban on modifications that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at an automatic rate.

But it took yet another shooting — the massacre of 49 at a gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016 — to cause Murphy’s innate righteous indignation, in Merrill’s view, to surface.

Three days later, he launched a filibuster on the floor of the Senate, promising to hold the floor until Congress acted on gun control legislation — or for as long as he could hold out. It lasted nearly 15 hours, one of the longest filibusters in Senate history. When he finally left the floor after 2 the following morning, Senate Republicans had agreed to hold a vote on two measures Murphy supports — expanding background checks and blocking suspected terrorists from purchasing weapons.

“It was just amazing to watch,” recalls Nick Balletto, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “It’s part of the great American process, and it’s not done very often, but he was smart enough to take advantage of it.”

The filibuster did not move Congress to enact gun control legislation. But Murphy’s efforts rallied fellow Democrats and spotlighted not only his tenacity but his rising role in a party in desperate need of finding its soul.

Building on his role as a national leader in the push for gun control, Murphy spearheaded a drive this past September that, for the first time, united Democrats and the nation’s major gun safety groups to raise money for eight Democratic House and Senate candidates challenging Republican congressional incumbents who have sided with the NRA.


On the campaign trail

Connecticut Republican Party Chairman JR Romano takes a different view of Murphy’s efforts, calling his filibuster grandstanding.

“I think he’s more interested in elevating his personal profile than in representing the people of the state,” he says. “Try scheduling a meeting with him. If you’re a powerful special interest group, you do get a meeting, but if you’re a middle-class family who’s struggling to make ends meet — if someone wants to talk to him about what’s happening in the state — you can’t get a meeting with him.”

Murphy’s supporters say he goes to great lengths to meet constituents, holding annual summer “Walks Across Connecticut.” In July, he set out on the third of his treks — from Hartland on the border of Massachusetts to New Haven over the course of four sultry days — talking and listening to residents on a wide range of issues. He received both praise and frustration from people, with the topics of health care and immigration coming up repeatedly. (Last year he walked an estimated 111 miles from Killingly to Danbury, and the year before 120 miles from Voluntown to Greenwich.)

“Here’s a guy who doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk,” Balletto says. “It’s amazing to see him reach out to constituents and make sure he’s at ground zero. Politicians talk about that but this guy really does it like nobody else has ever done in our state.”

Merrill adds, “He gets most of his ideas from ordinary people. He runs around the state and he talks directly to people and he takes their comments very seriously. Most people when they start climbing the ladder become more and more distant, even to people they’ve known for many years. And he’s one person who has not been like that. He’s still an ordinary guy. I love that about him.”

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Murphy speaks with Carmina Cavazos, a University of Hartford professor, in Bloomfield on the first day of his 2018 trek across Connecticut.

From practically the moment the senator steps onto the Fairfield Hills grounds in August, people come up to him to air their concerns, or to recall initial meetings, or to introduce their children and have their photos taken with him. Since then, as has been true all year, Murphy’s schedule has been packed with town hall meetings, press conferences, constituent events — sometimes as many as four in a day — on many of the most pressing state and national issues of the day: gun control, fighting to keep the Affordable Care Act alive, advocating on behalf of Connecticut farmers and manufacturers, helping spur innovation and jobs creation, supporting immigrant families, addressing the opioid addiction crisis in the state, and arguing on behalf of free trade.

In early September — prior to Canada acceding to President Donald Trump’s new trade agreement — Murphy met with employees of the woman-owned Ridgefield Supply Co., a small lumber company, to explore how the recent trade dispute between the Trump administration and Canada was affecting business.

“The reality is that Donald Trump is using the tariffs as a negotiating tactic to try to renegotiate trade deals that have not been in our favor in a very long time,” the state Republican Party’s Romano says. “But when [Murphy’s] own party has devastated Connecticut’s economy through higher taxes, [Murphy] says nothing.”

Murphy is quick to offer his opinion on the president’s trade tactics. “This trade dispute isn’t good for the United States,” he says. “My takeaway is the tariffs aren’t doing what Trump wants them to do. We have to come to an agreement. We should sit down with the Canadians and get them to change some of their lumber practices in exchange for removing the tariffs. The problem is that President Trump is more interested in browbeating than cutting a deal.”

On general principle, Murphy opposes the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. In April 2017, he donated a reported $320,000 in campaign funds he’d raised to the Connecticut Democratic Party to launch “Fight Back Connecticut,” a grassroots initiative to rally Democratic voters throughout the state against Trump’s policies.

But no administration official has provoked Murphy’s ire more than U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. During her confirmation hearings in January 2017, Murphy asked DeVos if she thought  guns had any place in or around schools. After she sidestepped the question, Murphy pressed her for an answer. “You can’t say definitively that guns shouldn’t be allowed in schools?” he asked. When the nominee cited the example of a school in Wyoming that could possibly need guns to protect students from grizzly bears, he grew visibly angry. And when, still avoiding the question, DeVos said her heart bleeds for families affected by gun violence, Murphy cut her off. “I look forward to working with you,” he said, “but I also look forward to you coming to Connecticut and talking about the role of guns in schools.”

In August, he announced plans to introduce an amendment that would bar DeVos from using federal funds to arm teachers, a move she advocates.

Meanwhile, as a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Murphy has initiated or supported a slew of educational bills: the Every Student Succeeds Act, to improve educational equity for students from lower-income families; the College Affordability and Innovation Act, to make college affordable for all students in the country; and the Students Before Profits Act, created to protect students from deceptive practices in the for-profit college sector.

“I think he recognizes that children and young adults in our communities rely on access to the education system,” says Hayes, who captured the Democratic nomination for Connecticut’s 5th District in August. “He has proven time and time again that he’s not afraid to speak out, sometimes when he’s the only one speaking out, on these issues. He has made it very clear that he’s determined to close some of the gaps in education, to provide access to educational opportunities, and to bring programs and career training back to the state so that all students can experience success.”


November and beyond

In the midterm elections this November, Murphy is running against Republican candidate Matthew Corey, 54, a pro-Trump window washer and Hartford pub owner who has lost three House bids to represent the 1st District.

Murphy is the heavy favorite. Still, he’s campaigning hard — for himself, clearly, but also for the Democratic Party in Connecticut.

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Murphy speaks at the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee cookout and campaign rally at Greenwich High School in September.

“We’re counting on him — he’s our leader,” Merrill says. “He is the leader of our ticket this year, and he’s taken this very seriously. He’s mobilizing the party itself, he’s helping mobilize volunteers all over the state, and he’s very effective at that.”

Murphy is in the mold of the great Irish Democratic politician in state history, John Moran Bailey, who led the Connecticut Democratic Party from 1946 to 1975. Yet it is on the national stage that Murphy’s destiny may truly lie. He’s made numerous appearances on cable TV news and is highly active on Twitter, using both mediums to consistently challenge Trump and his policies. He’s attracted campaign contributions from entertainment and business luminaries, including those who live outside Connecticut. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Murphy has carved out a space as a prime resister of  Trump’s “America First” policies, seeking to block the temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority nations, and in 2017 proposed doubling U.S. investment in diplomacy and foreign aid. He has been a consistent critic of our nation’s cozy relationship with the autocratic leadership of Saudi Arabia.

Murphy is also playing a critical role in strategizing how his party might regain its footing, starting with reclaiming at least one chamber of Congress in November.

“I think this is the most important midterm I’ve ever been a part of, in part because democracy is on the ballot,” he says. “Our political system is gerrymandered to make it very hard for Democrats to take control of Congress. I understand why people are hand-wringing about the state of the Democratic Party, but it is worth remembering that we won the popular vote for the presidency, the Senate and the U.S. Congress. More people across the country voted for Democrats for national offices than for Republicans. So I think we’ve always got to be engaged in self-improvement as a party. But we also have to fix the rules that allow Republicans to control the White House and the Congress even though the majority of Americans don’t want them to.”

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U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy addresses the crowd gathered for a unity rally at Wooster Square Park in New Haven in August.

Murphy might also be one of the Democrats’ best bets for winning the presidential election in 2020. Late last year The Washington Post declared him the No. 3 potential candidate behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. (He slid down to No. 11 this summer.) Although he has repeatedly debunked the idea, that hasn’t stopped others from holding out hope.

Walking across the Fairfield Hills grounds at the March For Our Lives rally in Newtown in August, a woman stops Murphy to beg him to run in 2020.

“We have to get through the upcoming elections first,” Murphy says, referring to the midterms.

“Please run!” she says. “We need you!”

Later, he says, “I don’t think it’s in the cards for me. My focus is really on this election and re-election race and I think it would be pretty foolish to be thinking about anything other than that. I’ve been pretty clear but I’m sure people are going to continue asking me about running.”


This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.You can can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here.