The ‘Velvet Hammer’ leads resurgent Blue Dogs
Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a veiled shot at Rep. Stephanie Murphy during a closed-door meeting after the centrist Florida Democrat bucked party leaders on a contentious immigration vote.
Pelosi said Republicans were eager to exploit fissures in the early weeks of the new majority, according to a person in the room, and Democrats newly enjoying exclusive committee assignments — like Murphy — can’t be breaking ranks.
Murphy, who was sitting only a few feet away and wearing a “Wonder Woman” T-shirt beneath her blazer, didn’t respond. But months later, she remains unapologetic about the vote, arguing battleground Democrats shouldn’t be expected to fall in line simply to avoid embarrassing leadership on procedural votes.
“Decisions aren’t black or white sometimes, and at the end of the day, members have to vote their districts, especially the ones, I think, who are in more vulnerable seats,” Murphy said in an interview in her Capitol office.
In just her second term, Murphy is suddenly a critical figure in the House as co-chief of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. Once on the verge of extinction, the Blue Dogs nearly tripled their membership after the 2018 elections and now have 27 members.
And Murphy and the Blue Dogs are proving themselves to be a force — challenging leadership and the caucus’ progressive wing with real success.
Pelosi and her deputies yanked a budget bill from the floor last month in part because of complaints from moderates that it was too expensive. This month, the Blue Dogs are holding up a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill — a key priority for the left — as they look to soften it for rural areas, though Murphy herself supports it. Murphy also helped secure changes sought by Blue Dogs to Democrats’ landmark campaign finance overhaul.
Murphy prefers to work quietly behind the scenes, but her colleagues probably wouldn't be surprised to learn she earned the nickname “Velvet Hammer” as a Pentagon analyst before she came to Congress. (Her Pentagon team even turned it into a drink: part champagne, part bourbon.)
“She’s a low-key negotiator and power broker but don't mistake that for not having a lot of power,” said Rep. Ben McAdams, a Blue Dog Democrat from Utah. “As long as we’re organized and willing to say no to legislation that doesn’t advance good policy, legislation doesn't go forward without us being willing to support it.”
Murphy doesn’t clash with her party just for the sake of it, and she’s worked with Democratic leaders to fend off the “gotcha” votes that House Republicans use to squeeze vulnerable Democrats.
Whenever the GOP uses its procedural powers to deploy tough amendment votes, Blue Dog leaders gather near the back of the chamber in what Murphy calls a “safe zone” to dispatch last-minute advice to members. And if moderates do decide to break with the party, Murphy will personally make sure Pelosi’s whip team is aware, helping avoid any more embarrassing defeats on the floor.
Murphy is not the typical Blue Dog, which has long been seen as a boys’ club of older, white Democrats who were moderate on social issues and worried about the national debt.
The first Vietnamese American woman to serve in Congress, Murphy is a 40-year-old mom who strongly supports LGBTQ and abortion rights. She does back a Balanced Budget Amendment, however, and preaches the kind of fiscal tightening detested by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Murphy also resembles many of the freshmen who helped deliver Democrats the majority: ex-Pentagon with zero political experience, and a woman of color with kids back home. Before she filed her campaign paperwork, she hadn’t even been registered as a Democrat, according to an aide.
But her quick success — a 15-point margin of victory last fall after beating ex-Rep. John Mica by just 3 points in her first election — has turned her into a guidepost for the dozens of freshmen Democrats who unseated GOP incumbents last year and are looking to survive in Donald Trump’s Washington as middle-of-the-road Democrats.
McAdams, who won one of the closest contests last November, said he privately approached Murphy even before the Democratic whip team with his qualms about the caucus’s marquee campaign finance and anti-corruption bill, H.R. 1.
McAdams, like roughly a dozen other moderates, had issues with the idea of public financed campaigns, with taxpayer money going toward TV ads.
Within days, Murphy worked with the bill’s chief authors, Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and John Sarbanes (D-Md.), to come up with a workaround so that all the money came from fees, not tax dollars. The tweak went almost unnoticed until a reporter noticed that a group of Blue Dogs had all become co-sponsors on the same day.
Back in the fall, Murphy withheld her vote for Pelosi as speaker until she and a band of moderates — including some Republicans — secured a promise from leadership to make it easier for bipartisan legislation to receive floor votes.
“She helped us get to a point where everybody was comfortable,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, who worked with Murphy to win over skeptical Democratic committee chairmen who had feared they’d lose their ability to control the agenda.
The maneuvering led several Republicans to take the highly unusual step of breaking with their party to support the Democratic rules package on the floor, including Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who credited Murphy’s “good faith manner.”
And unlike many of her Democratic colleagues, Murphy has been happy to accept invitations to the White House. It has paid off: On one visit, she pitched Vice President Mike Pence to support loosening restrictions for federal funding on gun research, and she says that moment — which came in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting in her home state — helped get the provision ultimately signed into law.
Murphy has largely avoided direct clashes with the progressive firebrands who have dominated discussion of the new Congress, but she recently made something of an exception by publishing an op-ed condemning socialism that some on Capitol Hill saw as a rebuke to members of her own party.
Murphy said she decided to speak out because of what she views as the ideology’s dark side. Her own family fled communist Vietnam by boat in 1979, when she was just 6 months old, and her family was rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy before moving to the United States.
“I feel like my family didn’t escape socialist Vietnam, taking great risk to have the opportunity to grow up in America and live the American dream, for me to be serving in Congress to see this conversation about socialism grow as it did,” she said.
Still, Murphy typically stays away from highlighting the internal fights that have characterized much of the new Congress — a style that’s won Murphy praise from top Democrats like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
“She gives you a heads up to let you know what they may be doing, or what she may be doing that might not be what the majority of the party will be doing,” Hoyer said in an interview. “The fact that she’s honest and straightforward about it really enhances her reputation and the trust people have in her.”