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Oct 2010

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Why Scott Murphy Matters

Republicans and Democrats read the tea leaves of the 20th District win

David Freedlander

Fri, 22 May 2009 12:36:00

Scott Murphy is only out on the street in front of his Saratoga office for a few minutes before a woman rushes up to him.

Breathless, she corners him and asks what he is going to do about gun control.

“We can’t have another Wesleyan,” she implores, referring to the shooting at the Connecticut campus a few days earlier.

She does not introduce herself, does not say who she is or where she is from.

But she does say she voted for him.

Murphy thanks her, nods his head in agreement, and ducks back into the office on Broadway that he inherited from his predecessor, now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D).

She and her staff left the office bare. Unopened boxes of computers and unassembled furniture parts litter the floor. A flagpole, without a flag, lies in a corner.

Once inside, Murphy says that interactions like those are the hardest to get used to in his new life.

Only three months ago, Murphy was a businessman in a small town in upstate New York, someone whose biggest public decisions came as a board member of the Glens Falls Civic Center.
Now, he has entertained Joe Biden at his Inauguration Party, where the vice-president charmed his 94-year-old grandmother. He has masterminded a whirlwind eight-week special election campaign, which vaulted Murphy from obscurity into the one of the biggest political stories of 2009.

That Murphy is such a familiar face on the streets of small North Country towns has a lot to do with the $2.2 million the former venture capitalist provided and raised in his race against former Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco (R-Saratoga/Schenectady)—twice what the typical Congressional campaign costs. And this one lasted two months, not two years.

The Republicans picked one of the best-known politicians in the state. They were counting on conservatives in a conservative district being disgusted with the Democrats’ free-spending ways in Washington. Rudy Giuliani and other state and national bigwigs dropped in, hoping the shine of an easy win in a blue state would rub off on them.

Embattled Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele thought the race would be a springboard for a comeback of his own.

“That win will send a powerful signal to the rest of the country and especially those folks in the elite media who think they know more than the rest of us,” he said the week the election was announced. “Our game is not up … our message still rings true with countless Americans, specifically those in the 20th district.”

He was wrong, of course. But so were many Democrats who shrugged when Murphy was chosen, who figured that the party was just picking a rich guy who could self-finance in a race not worth the resources.

That so many were so wrong has a lot to do with Scott Murphy. But it has even more to do with the new political order in New York.

Murphy had already banked almost half a million dollars by the time he officially got the Democratic nomination, half of it from his own pocket. The campaign poured the money into mail and television advertisements. Hence the “Scot-eee!!” shouts he gets from people who call out to him from their cars as they pass him on the street.

The first ad, the one that introduced Scott Murphy to the world, was “Sunday Dinner.” Over some footage, Murphy talked about how he and his wife Jennifer Hogan get together every Sunday with her extended family, a large and well-known upstate dairy farming clan who count several Republican elected officials among their ranks, including Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan, and, through marriage, GOP State Sen. Betty Little (R-Clinton/Essex/Franklin). Murphy’s wife is one of 87 grandchildren, 57 of whom get together for those Sunday suppers.

“I’m related to 1 percent of the electorate,” Murphy liked to joke during the campaign.

This was not his first exposure to politics. He had volunteered on the Clinton ’92 campaign during his last year at Harvard, but moved back home to Missouri after he graduated to take care of his ailing mother. He worked on Gov. Mel Carnahan’s (D) staff there, and a few years later, when he was between jobs, as deputy chief of staff to interim Gov. Roger Wilson (D). In both jobs, he was known as a formidable fundraiser, raising over $2 million in two campaigns, which was big money in Missouri in the late 1990s.

Most of his life, though, Murphy has been an entrepreneur, making millions in the dot-com boom, and later as a venture capitalist investing in technology companies in upstate New York. It shows. Murphy does not come across like a politician. Call him the anti-Biden. He has none of the backslapping raconteur about him. Friends say there is even a bit of shyness in him.
But still, there was something about him which just worked.

“I met with the guy, sat down with him and said, ‘This guy is a natural,’” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-Suffolk/Nassau), who recruited Murphy for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I called the speaker and said, ‘This guy is going to be in Congress. Do not give up on this district.’”

Israel was not the only one impressed.

“It’s a big step to come out of nowhere and run for Congress,” said June O’Neill, head of the state Democratic Party. “He’s a natural.”

Just about everyone in Glens Falls thought that Scott Murphy was going to embark on a political career sooner rather than later. But no one guessed a run for Congress was where he would start.
“He was just another interested citizen who shows up at chamber of commerce meetings and those kinds of things and says, ‘Here’s what we should do,’” said Maury Thompson, who covers politics for the Glens Falls Post-Star.

Murphy says they talked about public policy a lot around his house. He is an inveterate newspaper reader and television yeller. So perhaps he should have been expecting his wife’s reaction to the newspaper on the morning of Friday, Jan. 23, saying that Gillibrand was going to the Senate: “You should run.”

He kicked the idea around over the weekend. By Sunday, he was in the race for her House seat. A week later, the Democratic Party chose him from among 30 other candidates as their nominee.
The goal was to have a strong showing, to do well enough to maybe set things up for 2010. But one extended recount later, he was being sworn into Congress.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) called from the rostrum for the New York delegation to congregate below.

In the well, there were only the Democrats.

“Aren’t there any Republicans from New York?” she said, laughing.

A half-mock hush went through the gallery. But facts are facts, and the speaker had hit a little close to home. Even some Republicans look at the results of the Murphy-Tedisco race and wonder if they are doomed. For Long Island and the outer-ring suburbs of New York City to become swing districts is one thing, Republicans say, but when Warren and Essex and Columbia and Saratoga, the reddest territory of the state, start to go the other way, death knells start ringing.

“We need to get our act together,” said JoAnn Trinkle, a member of the Board of Supervisors in Washington County. “Here’s a man who is basically a businessman, who never held public office, and boom, all of a sudden he is one of the top dogs up here. It’s like people are still conservative up here, but there just aren’t as many Republicans as there used to be.”

The Democrats have now won three elections straight in the 20th Congressional district, a swath of land that curves around 10 counties in upstate New York. Republicans outnumber Democrats by 70,000 votes in the 20th; the district elected Republicans for 28 years in a row before 2006. George W. Bush carried the district by eight points in 2004.

Those days appear to be over.

“Now Republicans fight a Democrat who opposes executing Sept. 11 murderers to a tie,” seethed the conservative monthly The American Spectator in the days following Election Day. “This is exactly the kind of district where the Republicans must win.”

But if the national Republican Party is tearing its hair out, the state party is downright splenetic.

“We needed that seat,” said one upstate Republican senator. “We can’t win the Senate, we can’t win the governor. Democrats are totally in control of re-districting and we are going to lose at least one congressional district. We only have three seats in Congress. We just really needed to win that seat.”

Had the Republicans given the nomination to Betty Little, much of the teeth-gnashing could have been avoided. A popular female legislator, she would have, many think, cruised to victory.

Plus, since Little is related (tangentially, but still) to Murphy and considers him and his wife friends, Murphy would probably not have sought the Democratic nomination, and the party would have had been forced to pick among the union officials, party insiders and other wait-your-turners who would have almost certainly lost. (Now that Murphy is in Congress, Little says she will not challenge him, clearing out his most immediate threat.)

Little wanted it. The seat became available on the last Friday in January. On Saturday, she sent out 1,300 letters to party officials declaring her interest. Too polite, too slow. By Tuesday, when many of them had received her letter, the GOP had already decided on Tedisco.

Tedisco was a sensible choice—well-known, a party leader with working-guy cred. But he had not faced a serious challenge in years, though he had perfected the kind of attention-gathering stunts afforded to minority leaders in Albany. “He was manifestly unserious,” said one local Republican. “Every time he opened his mouth, he lost votes.”

Many Republicans say that the process by which Tedisco was chosen, and Little was not, reveals a lot about what ails the party at this critical moment. The vote was seen as rigged by the Saratoga County party and other heavily populated counties in the center of the district, turning off voters in the northern and southern portions of the district. The perception of a good ol’ boys network rallying around one of their own hurt him with women as well, who came out in force for Gillibrand in 2006 and 2008 and did the same for Murphy.

Gillibrand’s shadow hangs over the district in other ways as well. Republicans thought that her 2006 win over John Sweeney was a fluke, a result due more to allegations of drunk driving and spousal abuse on his part than anything having to do with the voters. She won then as the prototype of the kind of Democrat that Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emmanuel recruited to win in conservative districts: a gun-totin’ immigration hard-liner eager to disobey Pelosi.

By the time the race to replace her began, those kinds of hot-button issues were effectively neutralized—a credit, many say, to Gillibrand, who was often at Murphy’s elbow during the eight-week campaign. Like Murphy, Gillibrand spent most of her adult life in an office tower in Manhattan, but she showed that just because you elect a Democrat does not mean your hometown becomes Berkeley.

“Once a Democrat wins in a district that has never had a Democrat before, all of those awful things Republicans tell you are going to happen don’t,” said Democratic state chair June O’Neill. “Once somebody gets in there who can get something done, it has a tendency to dispel those myths.”

So for every mile on which they encroach, the Democrats say, there are 10 miles more for them to take in another cycle or two. At this rate, they say, before long, the win-loss records for the North Country will look like those on the Upper West Side.

Others see something else going on, insisting that Washington misread the district all these years. These people are not the evangelical, socially conservative Republicans from the southern end of the big tent. They voted Republican because they were fiscally conservative. When the Republicans in Washington and Albany ceded that fiscal ground, they ceded the ground of the 20th and other districts to Democrats too.

“All of those hot-button issues speak to a subset of the electorate that is predetermined in how they are going to vote anyway,” said one state Democratic strategist. “That huge swath in the middle is much more concerned about pocketbook issues. That is what Scott Murphy talked about everywhere he went.”

A spillover in enthusiasm from November helped as well. Democrats say they had dozens of phone bankers every night, and voters who lived faraway from the district’s urban center had canvassers at their doorsteps for the first time.

Labor unions have been quietly getting more and more involved politically in the cities and towns of the 20th electoral district. The Working Families Party, a labor-backed New York City-based political party, has been gaining strength in the area by working on down-ballot district attorney and town council races with an impact that is just beginning to be felt. The group says they knocked on 20,000 doors, and they received close to 4,000 votes on their line in the special election. The SEIU spent over a half a million dollars on the race and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) poured in another $100,000.

“The labor movement has been a big factor, going back to 2006,” said Thompson, the Glens Falls Post-Star political writer. “I think the labor movement stayed neutral for a long time because you had Republicans in power. There are a lot of mill workers and correctional officers and teachers and government workers who are unionized who may be enrolled Republicans, but union ideas and union values resonate very much with them.”

Union efforts were magnified by a state party that has honed its inside game through several election cycles to turn the State Senate blue and to flip eight seats in Congress.

“It’s a testament to the fact that we have right now basically a much better operation than the Republicans do,” said Shams Tarek, the communications director for the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. He said his organization is now sending field operations out wherever elections are held, from the upcoming U.S. Senate contest to contested council races in Newburgh or Newton Falls. Having allies in elected office will provide an advantage in races down the road.

“They have access to the same tools we do,” he added, though “we come from a background where we have been reaching out to people from the ground up for a long period of time, so we naturally have an advantage.”

In the 20th, the difference in the two parties’ organizing prowess was most apparent at the end of the campaign. When Election Day votes were tallied, Tedisco led by 17. Most assumed the absentee ballots would favor the Republicans, as they often do.

But perhaps more on this front than any other, the Democrats out-mobilized the Republicans. They targeted on the permanent absentee list, sending out ballots and following up at nursing homes and with voters who reside elsewhere in the winter months.

The differences in the two parties’ approach was crystallized by whom they selected to do their robo-calling in the days leading up to the election. The Democrats had Joe Biden. The Republicans cued up Pat Boone.

When returns came back showing a slight Tedisco lead, Murphy knew he won the race. It was all part of the plan.

Murphy is sure to be one of the most targeted Democrats in 2010, but few think it will matter. If Tedisco could not win and Little will not run, many Republicans acknowledge that the party will struggle with recruitment. If the Democrats hold on to the State Senate and the governor’s office, the expanded margins of Murphy’s district will likely shift in his favor. Political observers see him as playing kingmaker, perfectly positioned to bring middle- American values to the heartland of the state, someone to whom other Democrats will have to defer.

That makes him more powerful than anything else.

“I’m telling you,” one upstate Democratic operative said. “This guy is going to be governor some day.”

Murphy laughs off questions about 2010.

“It is the furthest thing from my mind right now,” he says, listing the economy, energy and finding a place to live in D.C as greater priorities at the moment.

And the Republicans? Not left with much.

Already upstate Republican operatives are telling the politicians that the only way to hold on is to focus on constituent service and to be an ubiquitous presence in their districts. In other words, hit every pancake breakfast, and never mention your party.

For decades, Democrats struggled with finding good candidates to run for upstate seats. People were convinced the idea was a lost cause. Now that burden is on Republicans, as both parties look at the Murphy win and acknowledge that no one, not a single upstate Republican, upstate Assembly member or Senator is safe. Not even, all of a sudden, Tedisco, for whom Democrats are recruiting challengers for the first time in years. One day soon, 109 Assembly seats and 32 Senate seats may seem like a quaint beginning for the super-charged party.

“It’s like Mike Tyson back in the day,” said one upstate Democratic elected official. “Everyone was scared of him. Then he got knocked down, and nobody was scared any longer. Murphy changed the whole culture. There are qualified Democrats ready to take the Republicans out. We are not scared of the bully anymore.”
Above: (left) photo by Barry Sloan (right) photo by Charles Steck
Targeting Tedisco

For years, Democrats have avoided taking on James Tedisco, figuring that running against him, especially after he became Assembly minority leader and one of the most well-known Republicans in the state, was pointless.

But after Tedisco lost in his heavily-favored race to replace Kirsten Gillibrand, Capital Region Democrats now say they smell blood in the water and have begun circling to take out the 26-year incumbent.

“He’s been given a free pass for years,” said John Franck, the Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Accounts. “But he lost his luster when he lost the campaign. Democrats think he is ripe for the taking.”

Two names have emerged as likely contenders: Joanne Yepsen, a popular Saratoga County supervisor, and Susan Savage, the chair of the Schenectady County legislature.

“Whenever an opportunity comes up to make more of an impact, I’m going to take a look at it,” Yepsen said.

Yepsen believes that Tedisco, whose 26 years in office make him his chamber’s longest-serving Republican, finally seems vulnerable.

“He’s not seeing the support from his own party, which is a disgrace,” she said.

Savage could not be reached for comment.

As part of a strategic move during the recount of the Congressional race against Scott Murphy, Tedisco stepped down from his position as minority leader of the Assembly. Now he has even less clout within the party.

Tedisco did well in that race in the area that covers his Assembly seat, winning in Saratoga county, which makes up half of the Assembly district, by over 4,500 votes.

So do not count him out just yet, said Jaspar Nolan, the Saratoga County GOP chair, and a big fan.

“People who want to challenge him better be careful,” Nolan said. “We are very, very supportive of Jim. If he runs he will have strong support.”



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