District’s New Colors
Scott Murphy steps into his role as the state’s newest congressman,
the question lingers: Just how blue is the 20th now? By David
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
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
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?
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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.”