- Rep. Stephanie Murphy has been one of the highest-profile moderate Democratic lawmakers in Congress.
- Long seen as a rising star, Murphy surprised many by deciding not to seek reelection this year.
- Murphy spoke with Insider about infrastructure, inflation, and bipartisanship, among other issues.
Democrats knew they were going to face political headwinds in 2022 as the party in power during a midterm election year.
But even after a wave of lawmakers said they wouldn’t seek another term in Congress, Florida’s moderate Rep. Stephanie Murphy turned heads last December when she announced her retirement. Murphy is a former national security specialist at the Department of Defense who represents the Orlando-area 7th congressional district.
As one of the most high-profile centrists in the House, Murphy decided that she would forgo a reelection bid to a fourth term, stunning many observers who thought she’d run in a newly-reconfigured House district or aim for a Senate run against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
Instead, Murphy opted to vacate her seat on her own terms, citing a desire to spend more time with her family. But she is not leaving without a brutally honest assessment of Congress and the direction of the Democratic Party.
In a recent conversation with Insider, the 43-year-old Blue Dog lawmaker spoke of the need to help families struggling financially, and criticized the Biden administration for using the term “transitory” in discussing inflationary issues last year. She also lamented the failed Democratic push to pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in tandem with the nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better social-spending framework.
“I think a lot of my district looks at Washington and the dysfunction and the bickering and are turned off by it,” Murphy said. “I always say that the only things that can help my constituents and the American people are the ideas that have the ability to be signed into law. Everything else is just talk.”
The Build Back Better challenge
While the bipartisan infrastructure framework championed by President Joe Biden was eventually signed into law in November, that only occurred after the bill was untied from the larger Build Back Better Act, which deeply frustrated progressive members within the Democratic Party.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has spoken at-length about how she felt the process for passing the bills was flawed and caused a major rift within the Democratic caucus. Despite supporting the legislative aims of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, she joined five other progressive lawmakers in opposing the bill.
Murphy is unyielding in her belief that Build Back Better — which in its previous iteration would have funded massive investments in healthcare, childcare, and climate initiatives — should have been taken up on its own without being inextricably linked to another piece of legislation.
The congresswoman was openly critical of the way in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shepherded the bills in the lower chamber, which created a situation where the Senate passed the bipartisan bill last August, but Democrats continued to debate Build Back Better for months afterward, holding off an immediate bipartisan victory in lieu of working to pass the larger bill.
“Bills should be evaluated on their merit. And if you wed one bill to the other in order to leverage members of your own party, then maybe that’s a bad strategy for trying to get legislation done,” Murphy told Insider.
She added: “I have always said that we should have picked a few things [in Build Back Better] and done them well. If we had focused on the climate provisions, shoring up the Affordable Care Act and providing universal pre-K, any one of those provisions would have been a historic piece of legislation.”
The more expansive multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better bill is all but kaput at the moment, but party leaders are hoping to salvage chunks of the legislation and pass them individually — similar to Murphy’s initial sentiments.
Praise — and caution — for Biden
As the United States continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic — with the virus having been the underlying or contributing cause in nearly 1 million deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Murphy said during the interview that Biden has done a lot to tackle the virus in the face of many unknowns.
“I think President Biden did a good job at handling COVID,” she added. “When he took office, we didn’t know that we were going to have a Delta [variant] surge and an Omicron surge, and by passing the [$1.9 trillion] American Rescue Plan, he put shots in arms and checks in pockets that helped carry us through those two surges and has enabled us to return to a somewhat normal life.”
However, Murphy said, the president should continue listening to the concerns of unaffiliated voters, many of whom are worried about the direction of the country, especially as it relates to the economy.
“I think there are a lot of great opportunities for him to focus on kitchen-table issues that matter to independents,” she told Insider. “I hope that the administration puts an increased emphasis on pragmatic solutions — as opposed to progressive pipe dreams — and actually focuses on the things that can get over the finish line.”
One of the most pressing national concerns — inflation — has arisen in large part because of supply-chain issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For much of last year, Biden and several of his top economic officials said rising costs would be temporary. In October, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said inflation would be “transitory,” but acknowledged that it will still take some time for prices to ease.
However, Murphy said such assessments largely fall on deaf ears to everyday Americans.
“I think when you tell a working mom who is struggling to put the same amount of groceries into her shopping cart that inflation is just ‘transitory,’ you’re not connecting with the concerns that she has,” she said. “What does that even mean? They feel it today and to combat emotions with economic data points really created a sense that Washington wasn’t attuned to the struggles of the American people.”
Don’t discount the Sunshine State
While Democrats were once dominant in Florida, Republicans have ascended in the state since the 1990s.
Democrats have not won a gubernatorial election in Florida since 1994, when then-Gov. Lawton Chiles won reelection to a second term. The party has narrowly lost a string of gubernatorial races in recent years — nominating moderates Alex Sink in 2010 and Charlie Crist in 2014, along with the more progressive Andrew Gillum in 2018.
President Barack Obama won the state in both 2008 and 2012 in what was seen as a triumph for the party, but in 2018, the party’s long-serving senator, Bill Nelson, lost a razor-thin reelection campaign to now-Republican Sen. Rick Scott. And although former President Donald Trump narrowly won the state in 2016, he expanded his victory in 2020 — winning by more than 371,000 votes — by boosting his numbers among the state’s burgeoning Latino population.
Democrats are also outnumbered in the Florida legislature, which has allowed Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is seen as the favorite in his reelection bid this fall and has endeared himself to Republicans across the country ahead of a potential 2024 presidential campaign — to largely enact an unabashedly conservative agenda.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, pointed to money and messaging as big reasons why Republicans have enjoyed electoral success at the statewide level.
“The Republican candidates have almost always been better funded,” he told Insider. “Republicans have also been able to paint Democrats as too liberal for the state, either on taxes or when Trump ran painting Joe Biden as a communist or socialist. Part of it is also organization. The Republican Party and outside groups have typically done a better job than Democrats with registration and turnout efforts, with a few exceptions — with Barack Obama’s team.”
Murphy, however, rejects the contention from some Democrats that Florida is no longer competitive for their party.
“I believe Florida still is a swing state and that’s because I represent a district that very much mirrors the statewide numbers,” she told Insider. “I have consistently overperformed up-ballot Democrats when I have been on the ballot with them.”
“But in order to win Florida, you have to have smart policies and strong politics and by smart policies, I mean, we have to craft policies that advance the needs of Floridians,” she added. “And then, from a political perspective, you have to have the statewide leadership and organization to put together the money, message, and machine that’s necessary to compete at the polls.”
Murphy then pointed to the GOP push to enact restrictive voting measures — building on the state’s sweeping election bill that was signed into law last year — in making the case for why the party should continue to fight for Florida’s votes.
“It’s more important now than ever because we have to push back against Republican efforts in the state to disenfranchise voters and to make it more difficult to vote, not less,” she told Insider. “There’s a lot on the line right now. I think Florida will continue to be a state that determines the direction of this nation.”
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