Erin Murphy’s opponents in the DFL race for governor include a sitting member of Congress, the mayor of Minnesota’s second-largest city and other big party names, but this relatively low-profile state representative has quietly carved out a spot as a candidate to watch next year.
A nurse from St. Paul who rode union activism into a political career, Murphy announced her bid last November — the first candidate for either party to get into the pivotal 2018 governor’s race. Since then she’s been on a marathon tour of Minnesota, speaking in living rooms and parks and marching in small-town parades as she pitches herself as the candidate best positioned to tackle the biggest issues of the moment, especially her top concern: health care.
“I’m in the race with a lot of determination,” Murphy said. “I feel like Minnesotans have entrusted me with a story, and with their hope for our future.”
DFL insiders keeping tabs on the developing race see Murphy as one of the strongest contenders for the party endorsement, which would be a major boost in what’s likely to be a contested DFL primary next August. U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of Mankato has emerged as an early front-runner, and candidates or potential candidates like St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Attorney General Lori Swanson are also people to watch.
But Murphy’s quiet, determined style is making an impact. It doesn’t hurt that she’s well-liked across the DFL base, especially among the activists who watched her rise from uncertain state legislator to House majority leader in 2013-14 on the strength of a personable approach that won her plenty of fans, even among Republicans.
“I think clearly in her first or second term, that’s when people started taking notice of her. In terms of: ‘Wow, this person has something to say,’ ” said DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, who has not yet endorsed a candidate.
First elected in 2006, Murphy early in her second term took a leading role in cutting a bipartisan deal to save the state’s General Assistance Medical Care program after then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed its funding. Murphy called it one of her proudest moments in the Legislature.
But in a time when Minnesotans are cleaved along political and geographic lines, Murphy faces a challenge in winning over voters who view the Legislature at large with frustration, and with rural voters who might be wary of a big-city politician’s vows to listen to their concerns.
“Erin Murphy has firmly embraced the radical, far-left wing of the Democratic Party,” said Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, in a taste of how the state GOP would treat Murphy if she emerges as a general election candidate. “She’s far outside the mainstream of most Minnesotans, so it would make sense that she could gain some traction among Democratic convention delegates, particularly among their deeply divided field.”
Murphy’s two years as majority leader coincided with full DFL control at the State Capitol. That period brought state income tax increases on the wealthy, a statewide minimum wage increase and the legalization of same-sex marriage and medical marijuana.
Murphy said part of the reason she got in the race so early was to give her time to transcend some of the divisions that define state politics.
“People say you can win a statewide race if you win the Twin Cities and the suburbs and the regional centers, but you can’t govern that way,” Murphy said. “And it’s important for me to build on the relationships that I have with people all over the state.”
Murphy, 57, said she approaches conversations on the campaign trail like a nurse talking to a patient. After a decade in public office, she’s still more comfortable listening to other people tell their stories before she shares her own.
A Wisconsin native, Murphy was born in the small town of Columbus, near Madison, and spent her teenage years in Janesville. She was one of five children of a union autoworker father and a mother who worked in a canning factory and cleaned houses — jobs that, at the time, were enough to provide the family with a solidly middle-class life, she said.
Murphy is eager to highlight those small-town roots and blue-collar upbringing on the campaign trail, seeing them as shared traits with the kinds of voters the DFL has struggled to win over in recent years.
After beginning her nursing career in Wisconsin, Murphy and her husband, who runs a painting business, moved to St. Paul so she could work as a nurse on the University of Minnesota’s transplant team. She later worked for the Minnesota Nurses Association, eventually serving as its executive director, giving her an up-close look at how deals are made at the Capitol.
It was that work — and the frustrating experience of helping her mother navigate the health care system after a cancer diagnosis — that prompted Murphy to run for the state House.
“When my mom got sick, she had to fight for coverage and care,” Murphy said. “And that made me mad.”
In the Legislature, Murphy pushed for more money for Minnesota’s health care programs, and now advocates for a switch to a single-payer health care system. She would extend the state-run MinnesotaCare insurance program to all residents, rather than just low-income people.
Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, is one of the Republican candidates for governor. He and Murphy worked together on the General Assistance Medical Care deal; he said she kept a “cool head” during a particularly tense time at the Capitol.
“I think particularly within health care, I think she and I probably both agree that the overly partisan responses are not good for our state, and they’re actually not good for either party either now,” Dean said.
In addition to Murphy, Walz and Coleman, the DFL field for governor includes state Reps. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis and Tina Liebling of Rochester, and State Auditor Rebecca Otto of Marine on St. Croix. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is not running again.
Murphy’s efforts on health care recently helped her land the first major labor endorsement of the race: from her old employer, the Nurses Association.
Darin Broton, a public relations consultant and former DFL strategist who hasn’t yet picked a favorite candidate, said long hours on the road helped Murphy build an early edge over bigger-name candidates in greater Minnesota and among party activists. But he said she’ll have to work hard to get around a challenge that has flummoxed many legislators aiming for higher office.
“If there’s one thing that there’s bipartisan support on, it’s that no one likes the Legislature,” said Broton, who isn’t backing a specific candidate yet. “I think the fact that she was there, and part of leadership, during the government shutdowns — even though not of her doing — that’s a piece she has to overcome.”
Murphy supports broader public investment in early education programs, rather than scholarships and vouchers she says can’t keep up with demand. She wants to raise the state’s minimum wage further, and protect workers from sexual harassment. But her work on health care is front and center in many of her colleagues’ minds.
Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, endorsed Murphy though she disagrees with her on single-payer health care. Despite that, Franzen said Murphy is most qualified to lead the state through a time of uncertainty in the federal government on health care issues.
“Her background as a nurse is very relevant,” Franzen said, “and how you tackle an issue with that perspective of going into triage, that’s what makes her stand out as a leader, working with others as a team.”