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Murphy: a new force in the House

G.R. Anderson, Jr.//March 24, 2010

Murphy: a new force in the House

G.R. Anderson, Jr.//March 24, 2010

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Before winning election to the Minnesota House in 2006, Rep. Erin Murphy worked as a nurse, a health care lobbyist, and a staffer in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Second-termer Erin Murphy makes a name for herself in GAMC battle at Capitol

If there’s anything to the notion that all politics is personal, then it’s not hard to see how Erin Murphy wound up in the Minnesota Legislature. Murphy, the DFL state representative from St. Paul, is a nurse by profession. She comes from what she describes as a “big Irish Catholic family” that lionized John F. Kennedy.

“I wanted to find an intersection between health care and politics,” Murphy says.

But where that intersection might lie wasn’t clear until 2005, when her mother, Kathleen, died of cancer. Murphy had had her eye on a Ramsey County commissioner’s seat, but decided to let that race pass by while she helped her mom through her illness.

“She died 11 months later,” Murphy recalls. “My mom’s sisters all came to me and said, ‘You should run for office. Now.’”

She found her opportunity when then-House Minority Leader Matt Entenza gave up his House District 64A seat to run for Attorney General. Murphy won that seat in 2006. Now just in her second term, Murphy, 50, has stepped into the spotlight by helping to steer reforms of the state’s health care system. In particular, Capitol observers have noted her prominence in the apparently successful fight to save the state’s General Assistance Medical Care program for poor single adults.

(Earlier this month, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he would sign a version of the bill that was hammered out after an override failed. The Senate passed the new agreement, but as this issue of Capitol Report went to press, the House version’s fate remained uncertain after the passage of the federal health care bill.)

But to Murphy’s lawmaker colleagues in both chambers and on either side of the aisle, it’s not too surprising that she would grab the reins on what became the hot-button issue at the Capitol early in the 2010 legislative session. For starters, there is her health care background. But she also has experience at the Capitol, as a onetime staffer in the Attorney General’s office and a former executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

“She’s definitely got some game,” says Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who is the GOP lead on the Health Care and Human Service Finance Division and worked closely with Murphy on finalizing a GAMC deal. “She’s a straight shooter. The thing that people trade on around here is integrity and trust. Then it doesn’t matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on.”

“She’s become a key part of the DFL caucus team,” says Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who is vice chair of the HHS committee. “It’s unusual for a second-termer. I can only see her becoming more prominent. The planets seem to be lining up for her.”

Not that Murphy’s rising star would be evident to those who don’t follow the in-the-trenches operation of legislative committees. She is, by her own admission, a bit of a wonk, and though she doesn’t want to be seen as a single-issue pol, she is crystal clear on what she’s doing at the Capitol.

“I decided to run because I was frustrated with the stagnated debate on health care,” she says. “It can be frustrating, but I love the problem-solving nature of my job.”

GAMC certainly presented enough of a problem. The program, which in an average year serves some 70,000 poor and chronically ill adults who earn less than $8,000 a year, has long been in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s sights for what could charitably be called reform. At the end of the last session, Pawlenty took his line-item pen to GAMC funding, and all GAMC recipients seemed destined to be automatically enrolled in the state’s MinnesotaCare program.

At the time, GAMC supporters — doctors, nurses, hospitals and a good many lawmakers — cried foul, saying that the move would prove costly to patients, providers and the state, eventually bankrupting the Health Care Access Fund that pays for MinnesotaCare.

The program was set to end during this session, on April 1. Murphy went to work. “The governor was saying we had to do some reform here, and I was drawn to that,” she says, adding that she sought out House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis. “Within a day or two, I went to the speaker and said we really need to do some work here. She said go for it, let’s get some work done.”

Many assumed the GAMC bill this session would be carried by Thomas Huntley, a DFLer from Duluth who chairs the Health Care and Human Services Finance Division, but Huntley was all too happy to clear the way for Murphy.

“I’ve known her for a long time, and she’s hugely talented,” Huntley says. “She’s an RN, she’s been in health care all her life, she really understands the issue, she is extremely organized, and she knows all different groups.”

Sen. Linda Berglin, the DFLer from Minneapolis who is the Capitol’s health care guru, paints a slightly less sunny picture. “Tom Huntley delegated this to her in part because he didn’t want to work on it,” Berglin notes. “But I do think she’s done a good job.”

Whatever the case, DFL leadership apparently had no qualms about having a relatively new legislator carry the water on the GAMC bill this session.

“I trust her implicitly on it,” says House Majority Leader Tony Sertich. “She’s passionate about it, and she has a good temperament. She’s new as a legislator, but she’s been around this building.”

“A traffic cop”

Murphy’s role at the Capitol has been mostly behind the scenes until now, but by all accounts she knows how to navigate the political currents in St. Paul.

She grew up in Janesville, Wisc., as one of five children to Kathleen, a homemaker, and Bernard, who worked on an assembly line for General Motors. After graduating from the nursing program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, she practiced medical surgery and operating room nursing at a large hospital in Marshfield, Wisc.

“It’s where most of us start,” Murphy says. “It’s chronic conditions like renal failure, heart failure, liver failure.”

By 1988 she had moved to St. Paul and was working at the University of Minnesota hospital in Minneapolis. Soon enough, she joined the staff of the Minnesota Nurses Association and was at the Capitol lobbying on behalf of all sorts of health care issues. (Murphy lives in the Summit Hill neighborhood. She and her husband, Joe Faust, have twin daughters who are gearing up to leave home for college.)

“Lobbying is great work, because it’s very relational, it’s very information-rich,” Murphy recalls of her earlier days. “And you learn very quickly that the value of your word is important. It’s a small community around here, and if you’re not careful, you can get yourself in trouble.”

After that, she went to work in Skip Humphrey’s Attorney General’s office, working as a legislative director during the height of the 1998 tobacco trial. “That was mostly in the courts, but it spilled over into the governor’s office and the Legislature, and I was kind of like a traffic cop,” Murphy says.

The trial grabbed national headlines, of course, but Murphy saw it through a different prism.

“Working for the Attorney General allowed me to work for someone who believed in something important, and he stuck his neck out for something for Minnesotans,” Murphy says of Humphrey. “He had a real strong belief that this was the right thing to do.”

Working across the aisle

Murphy might have learned a personal lesson from Humphrey, but she also learned the art of deal making at the Legislature. With that in mind, as early as last August, Murphy reached out to Matt Dean, who had been somewhat of a mentor her first year when the two were on the HHS committee together. “He was helpful, a good guy,” she says.

“We started talking about a GAMC fix a long time ago,” Dean recalls, referring to the idea that GAMC enrollees would be booted over to MnCare. “We had to find something other than the auto-enrollment under the governor’s plan. It’s a complicated issue. It’s not something you can throw together quickly. Erin understood this, and understands that the best way to get a bill signed is to draft something both the Legislature and governor want.”

And so began a back and forth. Murphy says she met weekly with various parties, including at various times Pawlenty, Department of Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman, Berglin and Dean.

“They hit it off pretty well,” Abeler says of Murphy and Dean, “which is pretty amazing given how polar opposite their politics are.”

But Dean says saving GAMC “is not a liberal issue, and our caucus cares very much about it and the people it serves.” Reaching out to Dean, Berglin says, “was the key to her doing a good job.”

Early in the session, there was clear bipartisan support for the GAMC bill that Murphy had officially authored in the house. By mid-February, both the House and Senate passed GAMC funding with overwhelming support, but Pawlenty vetoed it.

Both chambers moved to override the veto, but this time House Republicans stood with the governor. That set the stage for more negotiations with Ludeman and Pawlenty staffers.

“We had an open dialogue going,” Murphy says. By March 5, all parties had agreed on a bill. Sure, it was scaled back from $284 million to $164 million, and many noted that the news of the deal was, in Berglin’s words, “bittersweet.”

There were a number of other compromises and technical changes in the final version. Murphy herself says the bill is “woefully underfunded,” and seems uncertain if the program will fly as is. Further, in her view, there’s far too much financial pressure on providers.

“But I got to know a lot of people in moving this through,” she says. “GAMC people. I got pretty close, in terms of my affection for them and my concern for them. I worried about making mistakes that would hurt them, or the caucus, or the House. It was a lot of pressure. But there was a lot of joy.”

Most of her colleagues figure she’ll get another chance at big pieces of legislation. Dean notes that Murphy “appeals to her base,” and Abeler says that “she’s comfortable with the voters in her district. She’s on sure ground, so she can focus on lawmaking and settle in.”

Of course, that may mean more pressure in the future as well. “Even before this, I saw her as a leader in our caucus,” Majority Leader Sertich says. “She brings a human element to it. I think the rest of the state can see now what she’s capable of. I expect bigger and better things from her.”

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