Vogue: Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy Ran For Office After The Pulse Shooting: Now She’s Taking On The NRA And Steve Bannon
by Patricia Garcia
On June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old man with legally obtained guns walked into a nightclub in Orlando called Pulse, opened fire, and killed 49 people in what was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Two days later, as the families of the victims were making funeral arrangements, Congressman John Mica, whose central Florida district covers much of Orlando, accepted a donation from the National Rifle Association for $1,000. That became the moment when Stephanie Murphy, a 38-year-old business consultant with no previous experience in political office, decided to challenge his seat. “I never imagined running for public office, because I’m a fairly private person,” Murphy says, on the phone from Washington, D.C. “But I felt like if you wanted to change the way Washington operated, you had to change the type of people you were sending to Washington.”
Contesting Mica’s seat in Florida’s seventh congressional district initially seemed like a fool’s errand. Mica was a 23-year incumbent congressman who enjoyed popular support from his constituents, largely due to his heavy investments in local infrastructure projects. He also enjoyed financial backing from one of the wealthiest lobbying organizations in the country, the NRA. But after the Pulse shooting, Mica’s NRA “grade A” rating took on a more significant air. Murphy, then informally advising the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on possible candidates to challenge Mica for the seat, sensed an opportunity, and found support from several gun control groups, including Americans for Responsible Solutions (cofounded by Gabby Giffords); Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, an LGBTQ organization formed post-Pulse to help pass gun policy reform; and Emily’s List, a political action committee that helps Democratic women run for office. In turn, the NRA spent more than $90,000 on ads to help Mica keep his job. “Most congressional campaigns are at least a year in the making. When Stephanie entered the race, she was 18 points behind in the polls,” says Jason Lindsay, executive director of Pride Fund to End Gun Violence. On November 8, her win—which also made her the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress—was one of the few bright spots for the decimated and demoralized Democratic party. “She won by three percentage points,” says Lindsay. “That’s a lot of ground to cover in four months.”
Murphy’s story has been remarkable from the very beginning. Her family fled communist Vietnam when she was only six months old, setting off on a boat that soon became adrift in the South China Sea. (“I barely want to fly with my children across the country,” she says today. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like for my parents.”) A U.S. Navy ship eventually helped refuel and resupply their boat, effectively rescuing Murphy and her family from certain starvation, or worse. “That’s a moment of providence, but that’s also a demonstration of how great America is,” she says today, on the phone from her office in Washington, D.C. “That Navy ship was in the South China Sea on other missions and they chose to extend to our family a lifeline. It’s why I’ve always been deeply patriotic, because I’m not only grateful for the opportunities I’ve received, but also because I feel it’s part of our responsibility to extend those opportunities to the next generation.”
She became a financial consultant at Deloitte, where she happily climbed the corporate ladder until the harrowing events of September 11 inspired a change in perspective. “I felt like I needed to go into public service,” Murphy says, “I rerouted my life in that kind of way.” She quit her job, went to get her foreign service masters degree from Georgetown University, graduated in 2004, and eventually ended up working as a national security expert at the Department of Defense. As a former refugee, Murphy was troubled by the wave of xenophobic sentiment that arose during the 2016 election. “I had been watching this presidential election year unfold, and the rhetoric was—well, it didn’t align with the America I knew,” she says. And then there’s the Steve Bannon problem.
One of the first things Murphy did after taking office was introduce a bill that prohibited politicians from serving on the National Security Council. If you can recall, at the end of January, President Trump appointed Steve Bannon (one of his senior advisors and the former executive chairman of the alt-right site Breitbart News) to that very council; a few days later Murphy introduced her bill. “It wasn’t directed specifically at Steve Bannon, but he was the person currently in that role,” she says carefully. “I’ve worked at the Pentagon. I’ve been in conversations where we’ve considered sending men and women into harm’s way. The minute our all-volunteer force believes they are going to war for the benefit of one person’s political gain as opposed to the safety and security of this country, it basically causes that all-volunteer force to collapse.”
Bannon was removed from his position on the NSC by Trump in April—Murphy called it a “huge victory for democracy”—which means that now she can focus her time and energy on the issue that initially led her to run for office: gun control. She’s already introduced a bill seeking to overturn a federal law that effectively prohibits U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agencies from conducting research on gun violence and firearm injury prevention. “At a bare minimum, as legislators from the Democratic party and the Republican party, we can at least agree to have a common set of facts from which to make good decisions as it relates to common-sense safety measures,” she says. She’s also stated her support for universal background checks, and supports a “no fly, no buy” security measure, which would prohibit terrorists on the no-fly list from being able to purchase a gun.
Her surprise victory in November paired with her aggressive stance on gun reform has led Republicans to already start ramping up for a fight in 2018, when Murphy will be up for reelection. In April, the National Republican Congressional Committee bought ad space on a huge billboard on an interstate near Murphy’s home, where they have already begun to place attack ads against her. When asked how it feels to be such a feared target only five months into taking office, Murphy shrugs it off. “I’m really just focused on my job and doing the best I can for my congressional district,” she says. “Politics will take care of itself.” Spoken like a woman who knows she’s in it for the long run.