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Photo: Chet Hardin

The District’s New Colors

As Scott Murphy steps into his role as the state’s newest congressman, the question lingers: Just how blue is the 20th now? By David King

They peer forward, anxiously waiting for that one break in the conversation that will allow them to thrust their hands forward to shake his, whisper into his ear, hand him a card, tell their story, invite him by, pat him on the back, or pose and smile with a wide grin as their spouses snap pictures. They quickly pitch the importance of their new business to the regional economy, ask for a job or simply congratulate him. It’s hot, and they are packed tightly, slowly shuffling forward, eying the competition. They are businessmen, teachers, insurance salesmen, politicians, professors, activists and volunteers, and when they approach him they explode in rapid speech, trying to make sure they say what they came to say before their time has passed.

I’m waiting here with them to get just a minute of his time. To say that the people gathered here at the Saratoga VFW post on a rainy Saturday evening are anxious to see Congressman Scott Murphy would be an understatement. The event, which was billed as a thank-you celebration, has become a rush to get a few minutes with the new representative.

For a new congressman, Murphy is remarkably poised. He knows his lines, speaks firmly, and listens attentively before responding. Murphy seems in his element—mobbed by people, a conversation looming at every turn. Originally from Missouri, Murphy is a Harvard graduate who began his career as an entrepreneur by co-founding Small World Software, a company that produced fantasy sports software. From there he went on to invest in multiple start-up companies. In 2000, Murphy was married to Jennifer Hogan, whose large family lives in the Hudson Falls area. The couple have three young children: Simone, Lux and Duke. If you turned on your television in the last few months, you are probably aware that Murphy has a large family, and that his family played an integral role in helping him decide to run for Congress, and in getting to know his sprawling district. Hogan says that being away from the kids was an issue for her husband. In family discussions in the days before he jumped into the race, it was decided that the “kids wouldn’t be happy if Scott wasn’t out doing something that made him happy.”

“The morning he decided he was running, it was 11 o’clock and my two sisters—one is a doctor, one is a dentist—asked Scott if they could help,” says Hogan. “Scott said, ‘Actually, it would be great if you could drive me to visit the county chairs, but I need to get in the car now.’ ” So, says Hogan, “Off they went,” driving across a district that reaches from the tip of the Adirondacks all the way to Poughkeepsie.

Murphy was leading by 59 votes at the close of election night, and pundits have joked that it could have been Murphy’s extended family that gave him that slim lead.

Murphy had some other help in his race against Jim Tedisco: President Barack Obama, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the woman who previously held the seat, all endorsed Murphy. Some commentators say it was the help of popular national Democrats that gave the relatively unknown Murphy the edge. Others say it was a floundering campaign run by the national Republican Committee that doomed James Tedisco, or the general beating that the Republican Party took nationally, that drove Murphy to a slim victory. But no matter the reason, the race ended with Murphy’s hand raised in victory.

Questions still remain. One is a question his opponent asked over and over again during the furious campaign: “Who is Scott Murphy?” Murphy spent the short campaign cycle telling voters he is a replacement Gillibrand. And as he has no political history, the district has taken Murphy’s word for it. Another question is, with three Democratic victories in a row, have the dynamics of the 20th Congressional District firmly shifted from conservative to moderate?

Victory appears still fresh in Murphy’s mind. The recount that followed the March 31 special election lasted for nearly a month, and Murphy has just returned from his first week in Washington. “Apparently a good way to get press is to keep counting ballots for weeks,” Murphy jokes. Then he asks the crowd if they know exactly how many votes he won by. “Three hundred ninety-nine!” a man shouts. “Seven hundred,” a woman cheers repeatedly. “No, it was 550!” another woman insists triumphantly. But they are all wrong. “Seven hundred twenty-six votes,” Murphy booms proudly across the room.

He wants people to remember that number. The crowd cheers. Then it’s back to scrambling for a few personal minutes with the congressman.

Things were different just a couple of years ago. When Gillibrand stood in the same VFW hall during one of her first Congress on Your Corner events, she was harangued by veterans and chastised by conservatives. Republicans still saw Gillibrand’s victory over incumbent John Sweeney as a fluke. But Gillibrand set about establishing a battle plan to cement her popularity in the district. She and her staff promoted an air of transparency in her office by posting her schedule online and having the congresswoman in the district as much as possible to hold town-hall meetings. They played to Gillibrand’s rural roots: her concern for farmers, her firm stance on the Second Amendment and her A rating from the National Rifle Association. And Gillibrand did her best to downplay the importance of party.

By the time the next election cycle rolled around, Gillibrand had won over her district and beat challenger Sandy Treadwell by a landslide. Her victory was so decisive that one had to wonder whether the 20th had firmly shifted.

Murphy and his staff have done their best to paint Murphy as a Gillibrand doppelganger. That task has not been particularly challenging. Murphy and Gillibrand are both relatively young, good looking, wealthy, conservative Democrats who support gun rights and have large families in the district. But the supporters here at the VFW hall seem to think that Murphy will soon begin to demonstrate his individuality. Some here say Murphy has taken on some of Gillibrand’s more conservative stances out of political expediency. Others think he is more conservative than he lets on.

With only six days in Congress, there isn’t much to go on in an effort to figure out how Murphy might actually differ from Gillibrand, but one supporter points out a fairly obvious way. “Scott Murphy is a tall man with a deep voice,” says Marilyn Klaiber. Klaiber is on to something: Murphy is much more of a public speaker than Gillibrand. He commands a room, whereas Gillibrand’s soft voice and conversational style of public address are sometimes overwhelmed by the crowd. Murphy, on the other hand, after only months at the game, already has his message polished and his delivery honed.

But Roger Wyatt, a Saratoga Democrat who volunteered for Murphy, says he thinks there is a more significant difference between Murphy and Gillibrand. He says Murphy’s pro-gun stance is based on a “fundamental misreading of the district.” Wyatt says he saw Murphy swallow as if he were drinking oil when he professed his staunch support of the Second Amendment at a public forum. Not only does Wyatt think Murphy is more liberal than he lets on, but he thinks that the district itself has shifted.

Wyatt says that the urban centers in the district are gaining liberal young people, while voters in rural parts of the district are not wedded to one political party. Despite overwhelming Republican registration, Wyatt says he thinks the sea change in national politics has left voters in the district more open to Democratic ideas. Wyatt further says Gillibrand’s recent assertion that she “sleeps with two rifles under her bed,” is not at all reflective of the majority of the 20th.

Joe Seeman of MoveOn.org says that he thinks the “value of the Obama administration reflects mainstream American concerns.” Seeman is here to invite Murphy to an event on clean energy. Seeman gets a moment with the congressman and unleashes his pitch. Seeman’s son mimes his father’s rapid speech with his hand. He looks up at Murphy, looking for approval. Murphy cracks a smile, laughs, and continues listening intently.

Murphy’s Republican opponent in the special election, Jim Tedisco, has said he thinks the district may have shifted—sort of. “I think Nancy Pelosi, Kirsten Gillibrand and Barack Obama kind of turned it around a little bit and made it more moderate of a district,” he was quoted as saying on election night. “It’s not Gerry Solomon’s old district.”

At the thank-you event, Murphy tells his supporters that he just wants to give them a quick political update. He says that he has been involved in discussions of legislation that would ensure that credit-card companies notify customers before they institute rate hikes, and another bill that would reform the mortgage industry. The talk of politics ends abruptly. “I’m not gonna bore you more with talk about politics. I mainly wanted to say thank you very much.”

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, elected last year to replace Michael McNulty in the 21st District, stops by to congratulate Murphy. He says that Murphy’s history as a venture capitalist will give him insight into how to help his district brave the current economy. “Scott understands the intuitive, thoughtful policy that he will guide through Congress for his district. He has a bold vision, and I look forward to working with him for the greater good, not of just my district or his district, but for that of the Capital Region.”

Along the same lines, Hogan says it was her husband’s experience as a businessman that made her think he could do good for the 20th District. “People keep saying, ‘How do you feel? Has it sunk in?’ I don’t know if it ever will. But I do know he is doing exactly the right thing. He’s trying to make the world a better place through his talent. He has a great brain for the economy, which is why I told him, ‘You really should run. With the economy the way it is you could really help people.’ ”

Hogan says that she and Scott didn’t have to tour the district to understand what the current economy is doing to families and businesses around the area. “I have 10 brothers and sisters, all from fairly diverse professions. Scott is always reading Foreign Affairs and The Economist, and a year ago he said to my family, ‘You’ve got to be prepared for one of your siblings to lose a job in this economy. So we need to figure out how to be ready and how to help one another.’ ”

The table that had been covered by a spread of snacks and drinks is now littered with cracker crumbs and the stems of half-eaten strawberries. Plastic cups with drops of Sprite left in them topple over in the breeze of passing guests. Volunteers are clearing off tables and moving chairs. But Murphy, who has spent the last hour greeting everyone who stood before him, is still chatting with the few guests who remain. Hogan has spoken politely with anyone who wanted a minute of her time. Murphy is already late for a fundraiser for Saratoga County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen. He makes his way to the door while Hogan finishes up a conversation. The rain that greeted visitors as they arrived has stopped, and finally I have a few minutes with the congressman. After waiting all this time, I fumble out an awkward question about how the district might have changed since Gillibrand’s last visit to the VFW. I wonder if perhaps he thinks the people of the 20th have grown accustomed to a moderately conservative Democrat.

“I think we ran a campaign that was open to people from all parties and all ideologies, really talking about how we get the economy moving, which is not an issue for just Democrats or Republicans,” says Murphy. “We tried very hard not to let it be a partisan issue or a partisan campaign, but one that is about the issue of the day. That may be part of why people from both sides of the political aisle are responding to us, and hopefully we are just going to be an open government. I want to be able to talk to people whether they voted for me or didn’t vote for me, and I think that’s an important part of representing the district, so hopefully it feels that way.” And then Murphy is off to his next appointment. As Hogan points out, the election may finally be over, “but this is just the beginning.”


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