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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Pathfinders: Stephanie Murphy

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Congressional Pathfinders: “First” Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History, Stephanie Murphy was the first Vietnamese American woman--and the second Vietnamese American, behind Ánh Quang “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana--to be elected to the United States Congress. In a stunning upset, she defeated 12-term Congressman John Mica in 2016 to take her seat in the House of Representatives serving Florida’s seventh congressional district, which covered much of Orlando, including Winter Park, Maitland, Sanford, and Altamonte Springs. After she came into office, she became a prominent member of the Blue Dog Democrats, a fiscally conservative, centrist coalition. Murphy eventually became the first woman of color to lead the Blue Dogs.

She was born as Đặng Thị Ngọc Dung on September 16, 1978, in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. The US-Vietnamese war had ended five years earlier, with the city falling to the Communists in 1975. Her family fled the country in 1979, when the child was only six months old. Their boat exhausted its fuel at sea.

Following the drama of those early years, her family eventually settled in northern Virginia. Young Stephanie understood the importance of education for advancement. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from the College of William & Mary, and later earned a Master of Science in foreign service from Georgetown University.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred shortly before Stephanie’s twenty-third birthday. As with so many young people of her generation, she felt a compelling need to serve her country following the tragedy. Consequently, she signed on to work as a national security specialist with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). During her time at DOD, she won the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service.

She later worked in the investment industry and became a business professor at Rollins College. By 2016, Stephanie Murphy was well-established in her life and career, married to husband Sean and rearing two small children. She might have followed this path indefinitely, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited her to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida’s seventh congressional district.

The district had been represented by a Republican, John Mica, since 1993. Mica was a powerful legislator who had brought innumerable federal dollars into the district. Democratic candidates had challenged him in the past, and all had gone down to defeat. Mica was confident that he could win reelection, but the DCCC recognized an opportunity. The district had been redrawn, and its demographics were changing. Despite his past successes, Mica appeared vulnerable in 2016.

The DCCC gamble paid off handsomely. When the ballots were counted in November 2016, Murphy had won slightly more than 51 percent of the vote. What had seemed improbable, perhaps even foolhardy, at the outset proved to be a winning formula: A woman of color with no previous experience serving in elective office had taken down a well-known, long-time Republican congressman. The victory was historic.

After she swore the oath of office in January 2017, Murphy was assigned to the House Small Business Committee as well as the Armed Services Committee. True to her centrist roots, she sought to steer a middle-of-the-road, bipartisan course as much as she could. As one of three freshman Democrats from swing districts in Central Florida--the others were Val Demings from Orlando and Darren Soto of Kissimmee--she knew that her legislative career hinged on her ability to remain moderate on a variety of issues. Her attempt to balance Democratic and Republican sentiments was evident in her approach to the Trump administration. Although she criticized the president’s decision to add political adviser Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, for example, Murphy also said she could work with Trump on issues of mutual concern.

Early in her tenure, she became a vocal proponent of gun control legislation following a series of horrific mass shootings. In fact, Murphy said that she decided to run for Congress in 2016 when Congressman Mica accepted a campaign contribution from the National Rifle Association two days after a shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando left 49 people dead and 53 injured. Groups such as American for Responsible Solutions supported her calls for universal background checks and a prohibition on gun sales to persons listed on the federal government’s “No-Fly” list for airlines. She even introduced a bill, the “Gun Violence Research Act,” that would have repealed a ban on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies researching gun violence and firearm injury prevention.

Immigration was another issue near and dear to her heart. She continually co-sponsored and forced a vote on the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act in the House to assist young people brought illegally into the country when they were children. Despite this effort, she also supported a controversial measure known colloquially as “Kate’s Law,” which provided that “an alien who has been excluded, deported, removed, or denied admission, or who has departed the United States while under an outstanding order of exclusion, deportation, or removal, and who subsequently crosses or attempts to cross the border into the United States, shall be fined, imprisoned not more than two years, or both.” The bill was never enacted, but her position incensed progressives who denounced the punitive approach to illegal border crossings. Despite the criticism from progressives, the self-professed “girl rescued at sea” insisted that she favored "reasonable" immigration restrictions. She then posted a photograph of herself online wearing an “I am an Immigrant” t-shirt.

In keeping with her business background, Congresswoman Murphy also focused on making it easier for small business owners to access low-interest loans. Although she was in the minority party during her first term, she managed to have one of her pet projects signed into a law. President Trump approved a bill that Murphy pushed to allow small businesses to receive a portion of federal government contracts.

When Murphy stood for reelection in 2018, political scientists observed that she had one of the most competitive districts in the country because Democrats and Republicans were so evenly divided. It was difficult to garner support when she was criticized from the left and the right. Progressive Democrats were upset because Murphy had voted to keep the government operating at the end of 2017. Many Democrats had threatened to vote against any funding proposal that did not include a provision on DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the meantime, Republicans were upset because she constantly voted against their measures to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's health care initiative. Summing up the congresswoman’s reelection challenge, University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus remarked that “I think she has one of the toughest districts in the country. It's very difficult to please everybody in a swing district, and that’s why it’s so challenging.”

Her district was challenging, but Murphy handily won reelection with more than 57 percent of the vote, defeating Republican State Representative Mike Miller. The 2018 midterm elections were a blessing for Democrats, who seized control from Republicans. Congresswoman Murphy immediately benefited from the change. She won an appointment to the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, the 20th woman to serve.

In 2019, she was elected a co-chair of the Blue Dog coalition, the first woman of color to assume the post. Her selection reflected her peers’ recognition that Stephanie Murphy was an effective legislator. “She’s a low-key negotiator and power broker but don't mistake that for not having a lot of power,” Congressman Ben McAdams of Utah, a fellow Blue Dog Democrat, commented when speaking of the woman sometimes called the “velvet hammer.” “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.”

As of this writing, Stephanie Murphy is poised to become one of the most influential House members in her class. A moderate in an era of political extremes, she is a fulcrum for change, sometimes supporting Democratic causes and on other occasions, especially in matters of fiscal policy, supporting Republicans. If she continues walking a fine line between party zealots on both sides of the aisle, her future in Congress appears to hold almost limitless promise.

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