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Stephanie Murphy leaves Congress for now ... maybe with an eye on Rick Scott | Commentary

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 2 days ago Scott Maxwell

Stephanie Murphy takes a swig of her coffee, seeming relieved to sit down for a moment.

It’s Monday, and she just finished making the morning run to her two kids’ school. Today she made the run twice, since her 11-year-old son had forgotten his homework binder as 11-year-old boys sometimes do.

A staffer will soon swing by the Winter Park coffee house where we’re meeting to shuttle her off to the airport. There, she’ll catch a flight to Washington to spend four days as one of 435 cogs in the dysfunctional, slow-churning machine that is the U.S. House, and four nights in a townhome with a roommate who’s another one of those cogs. During the week, family chats take place via Facetime.

Not much longer though. Murphy has decided to leave Congress, saying she wants to spend more time with her family. But we’ve heard that line before.

I figure there must be more to it. And I later learn I’m right … especially when Murphy concedes that she hasn’t ruled out a future run against Florida’s junior senator, Rick Scott.

But first you have to understand how rare Murphy is as both a Democrat who ousted a Republican in Florida and as a moderate in Congress. And also how she spent most of the past year taking fire from party operatives on both sides.

“I’m accustomed to being stoned by Republicans,” she said. “I was a bit surprised to see Democrats eat their own.”

The idea of Democrats attacking Murphy would’ve been laughable six years ago. Back then she wasn’t a target; she was a savior.

It was 2016, and Florida Democrats were staring another loss dead in the eye.

Veteran GOP Congressman John Mica had won re-election so many times, the district was practically named after him. And Democrats were struggling to find someone to take him on.

Finally, Murphy stepped up, facing an uphill battle. But she had an impressive background as a Pentagon specialist, an inspiring story as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and a command of the issues. Plus, the Florida Supreme Court had forced the Legislature to stop gerrymandering the district specifically to help Mica win. And with the Seminole County/Winter Park district finally drawn into sensible shape, Murphy won.

Over the ensuing years, Murphy would champion the issues Democrats care about most: education, health care, the environment and jobs. But she also cared about balanced budgets and wasn’t afraid to butt heads with Nancy Pelosi or even the White House.

In short, Murphy was what Republicans fear most — largely unbeatable because she advocated populist ideas that guaranteed her re-election.

The GOP raged against her with near-weekly press releases, calling her a coward, a fraud, a phony and a socialist. It was like listening to playground insults at an elementary school if the kindergartners all watched Tucker Carlson.


Video: Rep Murphy: 'Independents are rejecting the Biden administration' (FOX News)

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The GOP attacks fell flat. But pressure also started building against Murphy from the activist wing of her own party that was angry she wouldn’t quickly embrace multi-trillion-dollar spending plans. Murphy had concerns about costs. Activists started protesting at her office, accusing her of being a sell-out and in the pocket of Big Pharma.

The accusations rankled Murphy, who said she wanted most everything Joe Biden wanted, but also wanted spending accountability and was willing to make concessions to get a deal done.

Members of Our Revolution Florida protest outside Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s office in Orlando to urge her to support the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, on, Wednesday, September 8, 2021. © Provided by New York Daily News Members of Our Revolution Florida protest outside Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s office in Orlando to urge her to support the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, on, Wednesday, September 8, 2021.

Members of Our Revolution Florida protest outside Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s office in Orlando to urge her to support the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, on, Wednesday, September 8, 2021. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/)

Coming from a country with authoritarian roots, she dislikes extremism, no matter where it’s coming from. “The extreme right is trying to dismantle democracy,” she says. “The extreme left is trying to dismantle capitalism.” She believes most Americans are in the middle, where she is.

The jockeying continued until early last month, when Murphy took center stage in brokering a deal to get Biden’s scaled-down package across the goal line in the House.

Suddenly, Murphy went from saboteur to savior again. The New York Times all but sainted her in its piece: “How Stephanie Murphy, a Holdout on Biden’s Agenda, Helped Salvage It.” Washington is a fickle place.

I have little doubt Murphy could win re-election no matter how her district is redrawn this year. Chatter about GOP legislators rigging the district for tantrum-throwing Republican legislator Anthony Sabatini is silly. The only people who dislike Sabatini more than Democrats are the Republicans — who stripped him of committee assignments and stuffed him in a basement office just so they wouldn’t have to see or hear him as often.

But Murphy had had enough of the House’s battle royales.

She contemplated taking on Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate until national Democrats thought Val Demings was a better matchup. Now she doesn’t rule out challenging Rick Scott in 2024.

Frankly, I think Scott would be a better face-off. Murphy could try to do to Scott what she did to Mica: oust an entrenched incumbent, and compare her record as a do-something deal-maker to Scott’s as a do-little grouser.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy hugs Vietnam veteran Paul Bertram, Jr., during a ceremony at VFW Post 5405 in Winter Springs, Fla., Wednesday, November 6, 2019. The Winter Park congresswoman, who was born in Vietnam in 1978, hosted the event as a part of the U.S. Department of Defense Vietnam Veterans 50th Anniversary Pin Program. © Provided by New York Daily News U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy hugs Vietnam veteran Paul Bertram, Jr., during a ceremony at VFW Post 5405 in Winter Springs, Fla., Wednesday, November 6, 2019. The Winter Park congresswoman, who was born in Vietnam in 1978, hosted the event as a part of the U.S. Department of Defense Vietnam Veterans 50th Anniversary Pin Program.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy hugs Vietnam veteran Paul Bertram, Jr., during a ceremony at VFW Post 5405 in Winter Springs, Fla., Wednesday, November 6, 2019. The Winter Park congresswoman, who was born in Vietnam in 1978, hosted the event as a part of the U.S. Department of Defense Vietnam Veterans 50th Anniversary Pin Program. (Joe Burbank/)

But first, she says, she wants to “take a beat,” think things over and attend more Girl Scout meetings and spelling bees.

Basically, she sounds like a woman who would indeed rather spend time with her family than another two years on the House’s frenzied, 435-person treadmill. The more deliberative Senate might be a different ballgame.

She’s not alone in her frustration. About two dozen House Democrats, many moderate, are leaving this year, setting up what may be a Democratic bloodbath this November.

I think this country could use a little more moderation and cooperation. I’ll take someone I agree with 75% of the time over someone who screams bloody murder all the time.

But even if Murphy leaves her seat at the end of this year and never returns to Washington, she seems at peace. “I’ve really felt honored to do this job as both a refugee and immigrant,” she said. “It’s a real reflection of what makes America great.”

smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com

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