Friday, August 19, 2005

State Sen. Chris Murphy Interview

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Cheshire) is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress. The following is the text of an interview I conducted with Sen. Murphy between 12-1pm on Friday, August 19th, 2005.

Hello, Senator Murphy, and welcome to Connecticut Local Politics. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us, today.

First question: Not too many people outside of your district know who you are, yet. Please tell us a little bit about yourself, and why you are running.

First, let me say how grateful I am for this opportunity to chat. I'm a big fan of the site (it's a great excuse to avoid being on the phone raising money) and I apologize in advance for typing/spelling errors.

I am currently a State Senator from the 16th Senate District, including the towns of Cheshire (where I live), Waterbury, Wolcott, and Southington. I was first elected to the Senate in 2002, and before that I spent two terms in the House representing the 81st District. In the Senate, I am Chairman of the Public Health Committee, and I also serve as Chair of two Appropriations Sub-Committees, and also as a member of the Housing Committee and Environment Committee. I got into politics back in 1994 when I was in college (I'm beginning to date myself...), when I first met a little known candidate for Congress named Charlotte Koskoff. I eventually became her campaign manager for her near win 1996 race, and I ran for the State House two years later. In my non-political life, I am an attorney for a small law firm in Hartford, and I'm desperately trying to keep my lawn mowed in my first summer as a homeowner.
As for my decision to enter the race for the 5th congressional seat, I have spent the better part of my last seven years trying to make change here in Connecticut - improving access to health care, repairing and protecting our environment, and making sense of our state's backward tax structure. Unfortunately, our ability to make real change here in Connecticut has been hamstrung over the past several years by our federal government's blind drive to turn our health care system over to for-profit marketeers, strip away decades of environmental policy, and cut federal funding to states to the bone. We are left with half a box of tools to fix the most pressing problems in our state because Congress has simply left Connecticut behind. To be honest, I simply couldn't stand it anymore. I decided to run for Congress because I believe that change happens one person at a time. If I can go to Washington and be part of a movement that turns back the right wing's assault on affordable health care, quality education, and fiscal responsibility, then I know that I am making a bigger difference than I could if I stayed in the State Senate.

You hope to run against 12-term incumbent Nancy Johnson. Now, you’ve faced her before, when you managed Charlotte Koskoff’s campaign in 1996, which almost managed to defeat her. What lessons did you learn from that campaign that you hope to apply to your own race against Johnson?

I've made sort of a cottage industry out of taking on well-intrenched incumbents. As you mentioned, I ran Koskoff's near miss race in 1996, but I also won my House seat in 1998 by beating a 14 year incumbent, and in 2002, I beat a wildly popular 14 year State Representative in an open Senate seat race. What I learned in 1996 is that Johnson's support is very broad, but not terribly deep. More importantly, we found out that as people began to understand the extent of Johnson's ties to the right wing of her party (that year she was dogged by her ties to Gingrich), they were increasingly less likely to give her a "pass" because they liked her as a person. That same story will play out next year, and it may be even stronger than in 1996. The new Gingrich is Tom Delay, and Johnson's support for Delay is unconditional. Even in the face of Chris Shay's condemnation of Delay, Johnson's silence was, and is, defeaning (see for more details). Our task will be to make independent voters understand that Johnson is no indepedent herself. We did that in 1996, and we can do it again this election.

Second, I learned that whether we like it or not, money can win or lose you an election. We didn't even have enough money to run one TV commercial in 1996 and we still only lost by under one percent. This time, we won't make that mistake. In the first 20 days of my campaign, I raised $100,000, and that's just the start. We won't match Johnson in fundraising, but we will undoubtedly have enough to win.

You are running against at least one other person (Alderman Paul Vance of Waterbury) for the Democratic nomination. Why do you feel voters will support you in the primary?

I actually don't see it that way. Paul and I are friends, representing the same city, and I believe we both have the same goal in mind - winning back the 5th district for our party. I don't plan on spending any energy running against anyone except Nancy Johnson (or whomever runs in her place should she decide not to run), and I at this point, I don't expect their to be a primary. I believe our party will get behind one candidate, sooner rather than later, so we can focus all of our energies where they must be - on winning back the 5th.

If the party seems to be backing Paul, then, will you drop out?

If the party seems to be backing either of us, I do think it would be wise for he and I to sit down and figure out how we can work together. That goes for both of us. Until then, I'm just keeping my eye on the ultimate goal (which is a tall enough mountain in and of itself!)

Fair enough! You mentioned earlier that the federal government has been hampering efforts to change things in Connecticut. If elected, how would you help to turn this around? Is there any specific legislation you would propose/back?

I could probably take up the rest of the afternoon with this one, so I'll try to focus on a few examples. First, let's take health care. Nancy Johnson and her friends in Congress believe wholeheartedly in the private market's ability to deliver health care - and in its ability to suck enormous, unconscionable profits out of the system. For instance, the Medicaid Part D drug benefit bill, which Johnson co-authored, unbelievably specifically prohibits the federal government from using its bulk purchasing power to negotiate lower drugs prices for consumers. This means that the cost of program has ballooned (and grows every day as seniors refuse to sign up for this convoluted, confusing benefit), and where does this cost get passed down to? You guessed it - the states. Connecticut seniors will actually enjoy a less generous benefit than they currently have under our state's ConnPACE program because the feds have forced states to pick up the extra cost if we want the Medicare drug benefit to be as comprehensive as our current state program. One of my first acts as a congressman will be to introduce legislation to allow the federal government to negotiate bulk discounts with drug manufacturers.

Second, let's look at education. Sure, the No Child Left Behind Act sounds like a wonderful idea. But here in Connecticut, where we already have the highest test scores in the nation, it has become a costly, burdensome, unfunded mandate. It forces unnecessary testing when children should be learning how to think rather than learning how to take tests. It requires schools to make costly investments without any money to back up these requirements. And it purports to level the playing field between rich and poor schools, without any real investment mechanism to make this happen. When I get to Congress, I will work on legislation that allows states like Connecticut more flexibility in implementing the act, and make sure that there is funding to back up each and every mandate.

Give us your thoughts on the recent session of the General Assembly. Do you feel it was a success or a failure, overall? Are you satisfied with the amount of money that will be spent on stem cell research? Were there any disappointments or issues you felt weren’t addressed?

For me, it was likely one of the most satisfying sessions of which I have been a part. Three of the issues that I care deeply about - stem cell research, juvenile justice reform, and mental health funding - got more attention than ever before. I do believe the 10 year, $100 million state investment in stem cell research is enough to provide the seed money for real private investment to come in and take over this field. It was never my intention for the state to fully subsidize stem cell researchers. At first, we may be the biggest financial players in the field, but our existing research infrastructure (Yale, UConn, our private pharmaceutical labs) will eventually grow and subsist on a mix of public and private investment. As for juvenile justice, I was lucky enough to author the law establishing the new Office of Child Protection, which will better coordinate advocacy for the hundreds of abused and neglected children in our state. And we passed legislation, which I have been working on for three years, establishing the new Behavioral Health Partnership, which will coordinate the efforts of three state agencies to better provide seamless, community-based mental health care for the citizens of our state.

Were there disappointments? Of course. As a long time supporter of publicly financed campaigns, I was heartbroken that we couldn't reach an agreement by the end of the session (although it's nearly impossible to do that when you have eleventh hour conversions from certain people). Also, I fought like heck all session to make a dramatic investment in our nursing home system through the implementation of a unique, creative federal matching program. Unfortunately, we implemented the matching program, but the Governor pushed to steal a portion of the federal money for other health care expenses. I wish we had used the money to provide the long-awaited investment in long term care that we so desperately need.

Thank you very much for your time, Sen. Murphy. The Q&A section is posted here.


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