Still Murphy, a candidate in the Eighth Congressional District in Pennsylvania, wants a seat that has been in GOP hands since 1992.
On the face of it, he has much in common with his opponent, Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick: both can claim Irish heritage, both are active Catholics and members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and both are lawyers.
However, other things divide them. Top of that list are their attitudes to President George W. Bush — who was guest of honor at a Fitzpatrick fundraiser in May — stem cell research and the war in Iraq. On the last issue, the 32-year-old Murphy, a former West Point professor and army captain who served in Baghdad in 2003-4, believes that the U.S. must set a date to withdraw and station its troops elsewhere in the region.
The first-term Fitzpatrick, who’s 43, had supported the administration’s war policy until last month when he labeled the president’s open-ended commitment “extreme.” (The Echo contacted the Fitzpatrick campaign a number of times over the past several weeks, but was unable to arrange an interview with the congressman.)
The Democrats inevitably see this repositioning as opportunistic; political analysts have described it as prudent, given the latest polling that suggests the suburbs in the nation’s Northeast are the likeliest place for a big backlash against the president in November.
The Eight District, which covers all of Bucks County as well as small pockets of Northeastern Philadelphia and Montgomery County, is a “moderate” GOP seat, one that has voted for the Democratic candidate in recent presidential elections. The National Journal says it’s the 15th seat (up from 26th in recent weeks) most likely to switch parties in November.
Congressman Jack Murtha, the Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania’s 12th district, whom Murphy described as “mentor to my campaign,” was a harbinger of much of this suburban revolt with his calls for the redeployment of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.
Murtha, a former Marine, was the first Vietnam veteran to go to Congress. Now Murphy is well placed to become the first Iraq-era soldier to be sent by electors to Washington D.C. (Four other Iraq war veterans are running for Congress, three of them as Democrats.)
When Murtha won his special election in February 1974, America was out of the Southeast Asian war. His victory was the first electoral blow dealt to President Richard Nixon in the Watergate era. Nixon himself ran for Congress as a veteran first time out and won, as did John F. Kennedy the same month, November 1946, more than a year after the end of World War II.
In contrast, Murphy brings experience from a war that is still raging. He won a Bronze Star serving with the 2nd Brigade combat team of the 82nd Airborne Div.
“The Iraqis have had three elections; it’s up to the Iraqis to stand up and take hold of democracy,” he told the Echo in an interview. “It’s an Iraqi problem that demands an Iraqi solution.
“They look to the left and the right and they see it’s the Americans that are still running these convoys,” added Murphy, whose unit of 3,500 infantrymen had 19 war dead.
Murphy summed up the difficulty the armed forces face with a comparison closer to home. His unit was responsible for policing an area that had a population of 1.5 million. The Philadelphia police department, which his father served with for 22 years, operated in an area with the same number of people, but with twice the number of officers. Add to that the daily carnage, a different language and the 130-degree heat and one might appreciate the enormity of the task facing American troops, he said.
“Now we’re targets with no clear mission; that’s why we need to start bringing our men and women home,” Murphy said.
“We need leaders in America, political leaders especially, to make these decisions, to put the pressure on and say: “Bring our troops home now.”
The debate over Iraq has echoes of the Vietnam War, which divided the nation in the late 1960s and early ’70s. For Murphy, who sees Robert Kennedy as a role model, the era resonates personally. He was named for Patrick Ward, a family friend who was killed in Vietnam. The candidate’s mother, the future Margaret Murphy, who worked later as a legal secretary, was a nun in her early adult years and Ward visited her in her convent the night before he was shipped overseas.
“I grew up hearing stories about Patrick Ward, about how he would help out the Vietnamese orphanages, bringing them supplies and goods,” he recalled.
Murphy, who married fellow attorney Jennifer Safford in June, helped two orphanages as part of his work in Baghdad – one of them Catholic, the other non-denominational Christian. He organized missions on Thursday nights to both places, to coincide with services.
Thursday night was also wedding night in Baghdad. “When you get married there, they shoot weapons up in the air as a form of celebration – AK47s and everything else,” he said. The U.S. troops enforced gun control laws, which included a ban on firing in the air. “When bullets go up, they must come down,” Murphy said. “In fact of one of the 19 men that I served with got killed by a bullet that landed on top of his head.”
According to his campaign Web site, while in Iraq, Murphy also “advised on offensive operations, initiated reconstruction efforts within the justice system, trained the new Iraqi Civil Defense Corps on the rules of engagement and was instrumental in the prosecution of Sheik Moyad, a radical lieutenant of Muqtada Sadr.”
The candidate’s family has a history of service in the armed forces. Jack Murphy, his father, served in the navy during the Vietnam era, while two maternal uncles were army airborne paratroopers. His older brother, J.J., is a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and currently works at its Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base. (He also has an older sister who is a middle school teacher.)
Murphy’s own military career began when he became a cadet in the Army ROTC program at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. After studying at the Widener University School of Law, he taught constitutional law and was a values education officer at West Point. He has lectured at several other colleges at home and abroad.
In 1996, shortly after he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, he introduced Bill Clinton on CNN, during a sandbagging operation.
“It was turning point in my life,” he said. “I was really inspired for public service.”
When it was pointed out that Clinton was inspired by meeting JFK, he responded, modestly: “I am not as good-looking as either of those two guys, or as powerful.”
But Murphy added that both men ran for Congress at a young age — Clinton, unsuccessfully, at 28 and Kennedy at 29.
So when people tell him he’s too young, at 32, to make a bid for a seat in the House of Representatives, he tells them: “Well, there are some other folks that have done it and they made a big difference.”