On a grimy CT Transit bus heading toward Bloomfield, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy leans forward on the edge of his seat, listening intently to a woman with a black and white polka-dot scarf around her head and pink Uggs on her feet.
He’s just asked her what he should be focusing on in Congress.
“Guns,” she says, her tired face wearing more age than its 26 years. The woman, who identified herself only as Tiheesha, says the neighborhood she lives in is dangerous, and she fears for her child’s safety. Tiheesha thinks more regulation of guns is critical.
A woman in the back of the bus voices the same concern. But she tells Murphy what would really help is giving kids some economic hope.
For nearly an hour on this rainy Monday night, Murphy asks the same question of bus commuters: “What should I be doing?”
On the city bus, you don’t hear about the issues blaring over cable news. The concerns that dominate this rolling forum are housing, education, safety and jobs.
Every time he visits his home state, Murphy schedules time to ride a city bus and talk to the people he meets. He figures he’s done nearly 20 of the rides since last summer.
“People taking the bus in Hartford don’t have a lobbyist, so you have to find them if you want to hear their voices.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Just two years into a six-year Senate term, Murphy seems as comfortable and articulate on the bus as he is in the halls of power in Washington. And D.C. isn’t going to get any more comfortable soon, as he and his fellow Democrats will be in the minority come 2015.
“Part of the problem with Washington is that it’s easy to get disconnected from regular people,” Murphy said. “People taking the bus in Hartford don’t have a lobbyist, so you have to find them if you want to hear their voices.”
Undoubtedly one thing on the minds of people on buses in Connecticut this month is the Sandy Hook shooting, as its two-year anniversary approaches.
Before the tragedy, Murphy hadn’t spent much time on gun regulation. Afterward, it became a focus.
He said the worst day of his career in public service was April 17, 2013 — the day any chance for substantive gun control laws died in the Senate.
His wish list includes expanded background checks, outlawing high-capacity magazines and banning assault rifles.
None of that has any real chance of becoming law for the foreseeable future.
“I’m going to still press for legislative changes, but I’m under no illusion that we’re going to pass a background checks bill in the next two years,” Murphy said.
What they cannot do is abandon the fight, said the senior senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal.
“The effort has to be sustained and relentless, and (Murphy) has devoted time and energy,” Blumenthal said. “We’ve done basically this whole effort as a team.”
Blumenthal called his relationship with Murphy a “seamless partnership,” where they work together on many issues, including the environment, mental-health care and sexual assault.
“Ultimately, we’ll get to a place where we’re powerful enough to take on the NRA in the halls of Congress,” Murphy said. “I’m young. I only get a six-year term, but I’m planning to be around the Senate long enough to beat the gun lobby.”
He is young. In fact, he is the youngest member of the current Senate — a position he has become familiar with over the years.
At 25, he was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives, defeating 14-year incumbent Angelo Fusco. Four years later, he ran for the state Senate and won. After two terms there, he ran against 12-term Republican incumbent Nancy Johnson in 2006 for the U.S. House of Representatives and defeated her by 12 points. Finally, Murphy was elected two years ago, at age 39, to the U.S. Senate as its youngest member.
“I’ve always been playing from behind as far as age and experience are concerned,” Murphy said.
He has combatted that by working to achieve expertise in individual fields. He was the co-chairman of the Public Health Committee in the Connecticut Senate at 29, becoming useful despite his age because he understood how Medicaid was financed.
“Chris was absolutely an authority in health care,” said state Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, who was Murphy’s vice chairwoman on the committee in 2005. “He had a point of view that was based on facts and evidence. You know Chris had done his homework.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Murphy provides a fresh voice to the Senate — one that’s knowledgeable and articulate.
“We don’t always agree, but I always sincerely want to listen what he has to say,” Corker said. “Having people like Chris Murphy in the Senate causes us to have a place for real debate.”
Murphy will lose the “youngest” title in January, as two freshman Republican senators will be younger than he is: Tom Cotton from Arkansas and Cory Gardner from Colorado.
It’s a label he is happy to relinquish.
“You can’t build a career on being the youngest,” Murphy said.
His relative lack of age and experience hasn’t kept him from jumping in on some of the most contentious issues in Washington.
In addition to his work on gun laws, Murphy has become a steadfast and vocal defender of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Along with Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Murphy is one of the leading defenders of Obamacare on the Senate floor.
“He’s a tremendous fighter for what he believes in,” Stabenow said. “But he’s able to speak in a way that shows his understanding and his commitment.”
Stabenow said Murphy plays a critical leadership role in sharing positive stories that have come out of the new health care law.
“He is one of the few Democrats willing to go to the floor ... and I think you have to respect that,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who often debates the law with Murphy on the floor.
Barrasso is a member of the Subcommittee on European Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Murphy chairs.
The two work closely on the committee and have traveled to Ukraine together, which gave them the opportunity to know each other better.
“He’s very smart and an effective communicator and he cares a lot about the people in Connecticut,” Barrasso said.
While Murphy may be in lockstep with Obama on health care, they often diverge on foreign policy.
He was public and adamant in his disagreement of the United States’ decision to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State group, though he does agree the Islamic State should be confronted.
He doesn’t think the administration fully grasps how damaging this country’s surveillance program is to its perceptions overseas. And he is wary of military actions being taken outside the purview of Congress.
To Murphy, the most important foreign-policy issue
— and another departure from the administration
— is how much money the United States spends on military funding versus humanitarian aid.
He believes offering aid to at least the same level as the country offers military support should be a priority, and one that does not get a lot of attention in the current foreign policy atmosphere in Washington.
“There are places in which the progressive foreign policy community needs to create a proactive vision that stands as an alternative to what John McCain offers, what Rand Paul offers and what President Obama offers,” Murphy said.
Back in Connecticut, as expected, foreign policy didn’t come up at all during the bus ride. But, to Murphy’s chagrin, his party will soon lose the ability to act on the issues he did hear about.
Issues like gun control and immigration are probably going to have to wait a few years before they are seriously considered again.
“You just have to recognize what you can get done and what you can’t get done and be realistic about what’s possible,” Murphy said.
So what is possible?
A lot of that is up to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Murphy said.
“Hopefully we’re not going to spend two years trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and reverse the president’s immigration orders and gut the Clean Air Act,” Murphy said. “If that’s what’s on the Senate floor, we’re not going to get anything done.”
There are some key issues that have bipartisan support, including tax reform and mental-health care, he said.
But, he adds, there is peril in an intentional blockade by Democrats looking to reclaim the majority in 2016.
“The danger is that Democrats repeat the obstruction of Republicans because they think that’s the way to get back in power. And that will be tempting,” Murphy said. “It will be tempting for Democrats to say, ‘Well, let’s just shut down the process and we’ll get elected two years from now.’ That would be a terrible outcome from this election.”