Washington – Freshmen senators, especially those belonging to the party out of power in the chamber, generally keep a low profile in deference to their elders. But Sen. Chris Murphy has clearly broken with tradition.
Since assuming office in 2013, Murphy has been anything but a backbencher. His campaign for gun control, born of the Newtown shootings, was the topic of his first Senate speech and a 15-hour filibuster that captured national attention. He was chosen by Senate Democratic leaders to lead his party’s defense of the Affordable Care Act and gave dozens of speeches rebutting GOP assaults on the health care law. He’s also walked across the state during Congress’s summer break to try to connect with constituents. His energy and faithfulness to his party and his strong support of Hillary Clinton prompted some mention of him as a choice for the former secretary of state’s running mate.
Last week, in a speech at the National Press Club, Murphy said, “I feel like I finally made it.”
The Connecticut Mirror interviewed the senator about his relatively short, but very busy, time in the Senate and his plans for the future.
Q. What have been your highs and lows in the Senate?
A. The low clearly was the spring of 2013, when we lost the (gun purchasing) background check vote to a Republican filibuster. After Sandy Hook, I would have never believed that we weren’t going to be able to pass a relatively meager compromise on background checks. I thought in the weeks after Sandy Hook that we were going to be able to ban assault weapons again. I was totally unprepared for how powerful the gun lobby was and how weak at that time the anti-gun violence movement was. So it was definitely a shock when we weren’t able to pass that legislation.
Q. But you’ve analyzed the defeat.
A. In retrospect, it made all the sense in the world. In retrospect I now know that we paid a price for the anti-gun violence movement being dormant from 1994 to 2012. And looking back, I also think that people in this country weren’t ready to spring into political action after Sandy Hook. They were taking the time to reconcile how something that evil could happen in a just world.
Q. You say the filibuster was a “high” even though it failed to result in the approval of any new gun control laws and that it and a sit-in to press for gun control bills in the House that followed – changed the political equation. How?
A. I do think that week of collective action in the House and the Senate will be looked back on as a pivotal moment in the movement. I do think we were able to tap into a reservoir of support for anti-gun measures that will eventually win victory for us.
Q. Other victories?
A. We’ve been able to really plug away in bringing in some economic development dollars to the state that will be very significant in the long run. Very quietly we’ve been able to win some very significant economic development grants for the state, particularly around job training in Eastern Connecticut and our community college system. I get excited when we get one of these grants because I know it’s going to put people back to work…Sometimes it’s a half-a-million-dollar grant that gets only a small mention in the newspaper…
Q. So they are small victories?
A. Listen, this is a place that’s fundamentally broken. So not that many big pieces of legislation cross the finish line. So you’ve got to be in the business of plugging away every day at making small, good things happen for your state.
Q. What’s your goal in the next Congress?
A. My priorities will be somewhat dependent on who the next president is. But I have a feeling that we’re going to have a chance at doing a big infrastructure bill in 2017. The holy grail of economic development in Connecticut is fixing (Interstates) 95, 84 and Metro North…. We’re working right now in the Connecticut delegation and the Northeast delegation to make sure that we’re ready to win some big funds for the Northeast.
Q. Other priorities?
A. I clearly want to get a gun bill passed. I don’t know if we’re strong enough as a movement to beat the NRA in open battle on the floor of the Senate and the House, but we’re getting there.
Lastly… 2016 isn’t done yet. So I’m trying to get my mental health bill done in 2016, as well as a whole bunch of things that I want to get done in 2016. I’ll put my 2017 list together once I know what didn’t get done in 2016.
Q. What prompted you to walk across Connecticut?
A couple of things. I’ve always thought that part of this job involved an obligation to go find people rather than waiting for people to find you. I take seriously everybody that writes and e-mails this office. But I also understand it’s a pretty small subset of the state. There are a lot of people out there, especially people who are struggling to make ends meet, who have no lobbyist, who have no political action committee. And who don’t have the time or inclination to contact me on their own. So I have to go out and find those people. So I thought to myself, what better way to find the people who may not have the time or inclination to write my office than walking the state and talking to everybody I ran into?
Q. What else made you decide to walk 130 miles?
A. The second reason I did it is that I do want people to see how passionate I am about this job. I hate the fact that Congress has a 6 percent approval rating and I wanted people to know who I am, see my love for this job…I don’t know whether the second rationale panned out, that’s for people to decide. I know that I came back from this walk totally recharged and having a better sense of some of the populations in our state, like the working poor, who don’t have the time to come visit me in Washington.
Q. What prompted you to filibuster?
A. I was standing next to my first-grader when I saw the news of (the shootings in) Orlando. I always think of what (Sandy Hook mother) Nicole Hockley says. She reminds parents that she did not care about gun violence before Sandy Hook because there was no way it was ever going to affect her. And she tells parents if you remain silent just because you think it’s somebody else’s problem, life may surprise you like it did her…So I sat there that day looking at the screen scroll news of Orlando, and I just became sick thinking about how the next week was going to play out. I knew what the script was. Tweets about thoughts and prayers and a moment of silence on the House and Senate floor. Demands from Democrats for Republicans to do something. And then inaction.
So I knew the script had to change. And the filibuster, in my mind was the biggest, boldest way for the script to change.
Q. Did you think the filibuster would work?
A. I had no idea how it would turn out. I didn’t really make the decision to pull the trigger until about an hour beforehand. I texted my wife five minutes before taking the floor telling her I thought I was maybe making a big mistake.
Q. Nobody knew it was going to happen?
A. A couple (of senators) did, but most of them didn’t. In (the Democratic) caucus on Tuesday, I had made the case that we needed to do something dramatic…The leadership presented what they were going to do. They were going to demand votes on gun measures and then, if they didn’t get them, then we were going to vote against the motion to proceed (on the Commerce and Justice departments’ budget bill.) And I got up and said, “You guys are fooling yourself if you think anybody is going to care about Democrats voting against the motion to proceed, nobody is going to notice that.”
Sen. Chris Murphy displays a poster of Newtown shooting victim Dylan Hockley as he comes to the end of his filibuster on the Senate floor early Thursday.
So I got up and gave a speech about how we needed to do something much more dramatic to show inaction was not acceptable… It wasn’t a total surprise to the caucus when I began my filibuster, but truthfully only a handful of people knew I was going to do that.
Q. The filibuster opened the door to votes on gun control legislation, but those votes failed. Where does it all go now?
A. I think this debate suffers from the two sides talking past each other. I think Republicans are using the issue of guns to flex their anti-government muscles. Many members of the Republican base see the Second Amendment as a guard against tyranny. So if you want to be more anti-government than the next guy, then one way to prove that is to shout louder about the right of individuals to own guns to protect against a government takeover. So I think the issue of guns has become very much tied into the anti-government orthodoxy of the Republican Party….I don’t think we can remake the Republican Party. What we can do is help Republicans find other outlets for that hatred of government than protecting the rights of criminals to get guns.
Q. There are quite a few people who say you have a bright political future; some even said you would have made a good running mate for Hillary Clinton. What do you say to that?
A. I think it’s so absurd to think about the future when you have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I know this town is obsessed about what comes next. But I have the ability to make a huge difference for my state and the things that I care about. Why would I be thinking about anything else….?
Q. So you are happy in the Senate?
A. This was my endpoint. I’m not somebody who grew up thinking that I was going to be president of the United States. I wanted to get to a point where I could make a big difference for my state and I am now at that place.