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How Democrats alienated the woman who helped them win the House

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) pioneered the playbook that helped Democrats flip the House in 2018. Less than four years later, she announced her retirement. Her experience has raised alarms about the Democratic Party going forward.

Today, Playbook co-author Rachael Bade sits down with Murphy to talk about how the Democratic House leadership’s insistence on absolute party unity is fracturing the Dems and putting their congressional majority at risk. A transcribed excerpt from that conversation is below, edited for length and readability.

Rachael Bade: You shocked everyone in Washington, including John Mica, when you ousted him. The DCCC after that started to look to you and what you did in this race, talking about national security, about pocketbook issues, as a sort of playbook to replicate in 2018 when they were trying to flip the House. They ended up recruiting a lot of women who had a very similar mold. You worked at the Pentagon. People like Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), folks who were in the CIA, who served in the military, mothers who went onto defeat Republicans in long-held Republican districts, flipped the House by 40 seats. Again, not talking about former President Donald Trump at all, so it was definitely something that rocked Washington.

One thing I thought was interesting about you in particular is you got here, right away. You were seeing results with sort of what you tried to do. Even as a member in the minority in 2017 and 2018 when Republicans controlled everything, you found a way to get a major accomplishment, which is the repeal of the Dickey Amendment. Talk to us a little bit about what that was, how you made a personal appeal to Trump at the time, and that was sort of what got it over the line.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy: Because I had decided to run for Congress, motivated by the desire to change gun safety laws in this country, I thought to myself, “What is the most impactful but least likely to receive resistance thing we could move forward?” I decided that lifting the 22-year ban on gun safety research was something that we could probably all get around. I mean, everybody has the right to have different political policy approaches to addressing the issue, but let’s all have the same set of facts. And so after the Parkland shooting, the president invited members of the Senate and the House to the White House. This was the beginning of his televised meetings, which —

Bade: [Laughs] I remember those.

Murphy: Right?

Bade: Televised negotiations. A first for Washington.

Murphy: Exactly. We were all sort of surprised when the media didn’t leave and the cameras kept rolling. I was the most junior person sitting at this table and so I was the last to speak. I made my pitch to him, you know, that this is an easy thing to do. We just had to strike a few words and it was something that among all the ideas, this was something I thought we could get done. And it would be important because people want to see us getting something done.

And then after the meeting, my staff had printed out one of these little cards with really simple language, a couple bullet points explaining the proposal I had. They were like, “See if you can get him to tweet about it.” So I wait until everybody left and I walked up to the president and I handed him the card. I said, “You know, if you support this idea, it’d be great if you would tweet about it,” because remember this was when we were legislating by tweet.

Bade: Yes.

Murphy: And he took the card from me and I saw that he had another card from a senator that had just pictures on it. I thought, “Gosh, she outdid me.” And then on my way out of that meeting, I stopped and spoke to Vice President Mike Pence. Pence said to me, “Of all the ideas that were discussed today, I think we could live with yours.”

Bade: So you had success initially doing something that a lot of people in the minority cannot do or are not able to do when the other party controls Washington, which is to get something repealed, a priority of yours. You eventually found a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, which is a huge deal. Obviously, one of the most powerful committees in Congress.

What were some initial frustrations that you ran into when you came here? Was there something in particular that was a rude awakening for you about whether [it was] things being controlled at the top, or enforcing party discipline? What did you see that started to frustrate you?

Murphy: I think in Washington, instead of having substantive policy conversations and negotiations, oftentimes, when there’s disagreement, people go immediately to maligning your motivations. So I’ll take, for example, Kate’s Law, which was a bill that would have stricter enforcement rules for people who were multiple offenders of violating immigration rules. Anyways, when it came to Kate’s Law, I believe in immigration and comprehensive immigration reform and the ability for people to immigrate to the United States in a legal way. But I also believe in law and order and ensuring that we hold people who commit crimes accountable.

I was one of a few Democrats who voted for Kate’s Law, including my local former sheriff, Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.). She also voted for it. I think it was a bill that people saw as a law and order kind of bill. And the immigrant groups immediately went to “You’re anti-immigrant.” But look at me. I’m a refugee. I’m an immigrant. I’m not anti-immigrant. I found that they were maligning my motivations as opposed to trying to seek to understand my intentions and to understand the policy concerns I had. We had one meeting that got so heated and passionate that the nun who was there had to stand up and ask everybody to settle down, calm down the hostilities. I mean, thank God for that.

Bade: Did these groups end up coming after you and spending against you? Or was it more just out there, them saying things about, “Stephanie Murphy is against immigrants or immigration”? How else did it manifest itself beyond just these groups coming at you, angry about that vote?

Murphy: Well, it wasn’t just that vote. It became what I discovered to be a trend, that a lot of these outside groups that purport to represent a specific interest are just an extension of leadership. Instead of purely focusing on their issue area, they bleed into just advocating for whatever Democratic leadership wants. And it’s true on the Republican side, too.

For example, the labor unions. The infrastructure bill was one of the most historic job-creating bills for labor. And instead of [being] focused on the bill that would create jobs today for their members, they were focused on carrying out the Democratic leadership’s approach to the two bills. I think that’s a real tragedy because my dad used to belong in a union and I would imagine that if he didn’t see his union leadership advocating for a job today, he’d wonder why he should reup his card.

Bade: You’re specifically referring to this fight that happened last year about tying the Build Back Better with the infrastructure bill? Labor groups who you say would have 100 percent been on board with infrastructure, saying, “Let’s not pass this now until this other bill is passed,” which is something the leadership wanted at the time. So you believe, a lot of these outside groups, that this stuff is sanctioned by the higher-ups here in Congress?

Murphy: I think so.

Bade: What makes you think that?

Murphy: Because labor didn’t start whipping the infrastructure bill until three months after it had passed the Senate. Until the very last minute, they were waiting. I think there are smoke signals that go up at some point and then when they start whipping, then you know leadership is serious about putting a bill on the floor and having it pass.


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