About two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, state Sen. Steve Murphy walked into a Marine recruiting station in St. Paul. He was single, in good physical condition, and he was an ex-Marine. Fellow Marines were soon going to be in harm’s way, he figured. He asked to re-up.
“They said I was too old [at 44],” he recalled recently, though he insists he could have run a faster mile then than any of those recruiters. “I would sign up today, if they would let me in.”
Meet Steve Murphy: passionate, judgmental, perhaps excessive. He is not known for subtlety, for an incremental approach, especially when it comes to transportation issues in the Legislature. No, the Red Wing DFLer likes the frontal attack, words and actions, if not guns, blazing.
There is no more ardent advocate for a massive infusion of tax dollars into Minnesota’s roads, bridges and transit systems. And there has been no legislator’s voice more critical than Murphy’s of the Minnesota Department of Transportation operations and its commissioner, Carol Molnau, especially in the wake of the August I-35W bridge collapse.
He wants Molnau gone, now, back to her constitutionally elected job as lieutenant governor. He has been quoted as calling Molnau’s watch as commissioner a “disaster” and a “travesty.” In a recent MinnPost interview, he was more circumspect. “Yes, I have asked for Carol Molnau’s resignation as transportation commissioner, but to be fair to her, I don’t believe that 99.9 percent of the population of Minnesota could have two full-time jobs and do an adequate job at both.”
What Murphy thinks and says about Molnau and MnDOT is important. The five-term senator is chair of the Transportation Committee, making him a primary architect in bills that fund and direct transportation projects around the state. Last session he was the prime mover in a funding bill that would have raised $1.5 billion annually in new revenue. It was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an action with which Molnau concurred.
Asked what she thinks of Murphy, Molnau was dismissive. “You know, I don’t think about him a lot,” adding that Murphy’s actions “may be politically based.”
That’s entirely possible because Murphy will play a big part in the 2008 legislative session on whether Molnau keeps her MnDOT job. She has not been confirmed yet by the Senate. If Murphy pushes a confirmation vote and it fails, Molnau would be sent packing from her transportation job. She would continue, though, as lieutenant governor.
But he says funding is paramount. Murphy sees a need for almost $2 billion annually in additional dollars for roads, bridges, transit, waterways and airports. Whether the public support is there for such a substantial amount is questionable. Some polls have indicated opposition to tax hikes. The Murphy-backed bill vetoed by the governor included a 5 cent gas tax hike, plus another 2.5 cent later, increases in annual tab fees, a wheelage tax and a half-cent hike in the metro area on the general sales tax. All of this would have been funneled through MnDOT, a department that Murphy has been denigrating as ill-advised spenders of transportation dollars.
“Steve characterizes the needs of the Minnesota transportation system as he thinks they ought to be,” said Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester. “I’m not going to say he’s not right. But there’s a practical side to how much you tax people.”
Others, too, say Murphy is trying to take too big a bite, but he doesn’t see it that way. “We’re only going to have one shot at it because people are going to say, ‘Now you’ve solved that problem, you don’t have to do it again.’ If you’re telling people you’re going to pass a tax increase, well then [they assume] you won’t have to increase taxes again for a long, long time.” A gas tax hike alone wouldn’t do the job, he said.
Transportation-funding is not a new passion for Murphy. He was first elected to the Senate in 1992. He beat Lyle Mehrkens who then was the ranking Republican on Senate transportation-funding issues. Murphy, a political neophyte in a Republican-leaning district, was critical of Mehrkens for not getting enough highway dollars into the district to fix accident-prone Hwy. 61 in the Hastings area. He hasn’t stopped beating that drum.
Murphy, who turned 50 in September, was born in San Francisco, one of four children. He grew up in Decatur, Ill. In 1976, he joined the Marine Corps, married his first wife while stationed in Japan, and moved to Red Wing after he mustered out with the rank of corporal in 1980.
“Between you and me and the fence post, it was the second time I was a corporal,” he said. Walk into his office and you’ll see the trappings of his military past — a Marine Corps flag, a brass Marine Corps emblem, a picture of him, trim, in uniform.
That he lost his stripes once would surprise few people. Murphy is feisty; some would say more than feisty, and his emotions boil over from time to time.
Former Senate DFL Majority Roger Moe remembers when Murphy showed up, without elective office experience or a policy-making background. “He was kind of like a diamond in the rough.”
Murphy learned fast, and always wore his emotions on his sleeve. “I can think of more than once when he would come into my office to vent,” Moe said. “I was the safety valve for his emotions, which prevented him from doing something or saying something that he would have regretted later.”
Scott Lambert, executive vice president of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, has a similar assessment. “If he’s on your side, he’s a great advocate. If he’s not, he’ll run right over you. I’ve been on both sides, and I prefer to be on his side.”
Murphy has worked at Xcel Energy in Red Wing for more than 25 years, most recently at the refuse-to-energy steam plant where he welds, runs a forklift truck and even cleans plant locker rooms. In return for the jack-of-all trades existence he gets flexibility in his Xcel work schedule to fit his work at the Capitol. Until he was elected, he also was a union steward.
Dealing with concerns of local 949 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was a factor that led him into politics. He considered some votes by Mehrkens to be anti-union.
In 1991, he called a friend against whom he had played town baseball over the years, then-Rep. Steve Sviggum, a Republican from Kenyon south of Red Wing. Sviggum generally encouraged Murphy to get involved, to run. But the conversation lacked specifics, Sviggum recalled. “I didn’t know he was going to run [as a DFLer] against my senator.”
Murphy received party endorsement, and in a good year for DFL Senate candidates, he won with almost 53 percent of the vote. He was married at the time, the father of two sons, now in their 20s. He later divorced, and was married again last March 3.
Moe calls him a political moderate. Abortion-rights advocates see him as a pro-choicer. Gun control advocates don’t count on him, unions do. In 1993 he voted “proudly” to include gays and lesbians within the protections of the state Human Rights Act. “I consider myself as one of the new progressive,” Murphy said when asked where he fits on the spectrum, “not liberal, not moderate, definitely not conservative.”
Transportation funding is widely expected to be a major issue for the 2008 session. Murphy is sure a funding bill can pass in the Senate and the House. He almost certainly will have to scale it down to win Pawlenty’s signature, though Murphy could try for override votes in the two houses. That effort failed last year in the House.
Then there’s the confirmation vote of Molnau as commissioner. He didn’t push it last session. “I was trying to play nice guy,” he said. “We needed the votes to be able to pass a comprehensive transportation plan. We needed to get Republican votes. Some of those Republicans are her friends.”
What about 2008? “That could be a different story,” he said. A bridge has collapsed since the 2007 vote on funding. And according to Murphy, a least two House Republicans told him they will vote for a funding bill regardless of Molnau’s confirmation. But Murphy said he won’t use that confirmation vote — or lack of a vote — as leverage with the governor over a funding bill. “It doesn’t make sense to tie up the commissioner’s job with the bill,” he said.
Molnau’s not the only change Murphy wants. He is not satisfied, he said, with the DFL leadership in the Senate, particularly Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis. He stops short of saying he will challenge Pogemiller before the start of the 2008 session, but he wants some new directions in the way the Senate does its business. Murphy put his name in the hat before his caucus picked Pogemiller.
“I want the Minnesota Senate to be as effective as possible. I don’t think we were [in 2007],” he said. “I know there has been a lot of talking about switching leadership. If that’s what it’s going to take, that’s what it’s going to take… If Sen. Pogemiller is up to the task, then we ride that horse.”
Robert Whereatt writes about state politics and the Legislature. He can be reached at rwhereatt [at] minnpost [dot] com.