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Stephanie Murphy keeps winning a purple district. Should Florida Democrats take notice?

The Orlando Democrat shares her political lessons of 2020 and explains why she doesn’t want Joe Biden to forgive college debt .
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando.
[AP Photo | John Raoux]
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando. [AP Photo | John Raoux] [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Dec. 22, 2020
Updated Jan. 5

The following first appeared in the Buzz newsletter, a weekly dive into the power, politics and influence shaping Florida from Political Editor Steve Contorno and the Tampa Bay Times politics team. To subscribe and receive it in your email inbox each week, click here.

The Rundown: U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy coasted to re-election last month, defending one of the state’s most competitive seats in an otherwise bad year for Democrats in Florida. How has she done it? By burnishing a reputation as someone willing to work across the aisle that appeals to many in her competitive Orlando-area district. As Florida Democrats rebuild their party, many have pointed to Murphy as a model to follow.

Murphy is also in the mix to make a play for statewide office in 2022 by challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis or U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. We recently caught up with Murphy, who chatted with us from Washington, D.C. Here’s what she said about the 2020 election, her future plans, the coronavirus relief bill, forgiving student debt and Joe Biden’s healthcare plans.

What are the political lessons of 2020?

It was clear that voters rejected Donald Trump. But they also reflected that they didn’t have a clear understanding of what Democrats stand for as a party. I’ve been listening to the infighting between progressive and moderate Democrats. My constituents don’t care what I call myself, they want me to be effective. For me to be effective in a divided government is to be bipartisan. We should prove we can be bipartisan and deliver results for people who elected us.

How can you do that after an election where one side doesn’t accept the results?

My family and I escaped a communist dictatorship. I’ve never taken American democracy for granted. The president;s claims of election fraud have been discredited and they’re dangerous. The fact that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have been silent, I’m ashamed of their behavior. We swear to defend the constitution against threats foreign and domestic. Our country needs them to show some moral courage and put country over party.

That being said, when we have the new Congress in place with a President Joe Biden in the White House, I’m confident we’ll be able to work together. Maybe we’ll finally see that long-rumored infrastructure bill. There’s so much that if we set aside the partisan nonsense.

Are you considering a run for statewide office in 2022?

I think it’s a little early for that right now. I just got re-elected in the middle of a deadly pandemic. What I would say is Florida would benefit from having leaders not focused on their next election and serving their community in the role that they’ve been elected for. When all the dust settles, there’s a lot I can share from my experience flipping and maintaining a once-red seat. There will be a time for politics and I think I have some experiences I will be able to share from my time flipping and serving a purple or red district.

What have you learned from running and winning in a purple district?

It’s hard to deny that the message that Republicans painted the Democrat with inaccurately played a role in determining the outcome of our races in Florida. The socialism label is toxic for Democrats. I was one who countered that narrative aggressively and early on and not just because of my own background. I also did it because I wasn’t afraid to say what I stood for. I penned an op-ed in 2019 in the Washington Post that explained why I was a Democrat who wanted to improve our capitalist system. Our system has flaws that have created enormous inequalities but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of it. I was emphatic about who I am and who I’m not and that’s one of the main reasons I won in a purple district and turned it blue.

The coronavirus relief package Congress is now debating is about $900 billion — far, far less than figures that were discussed before the election. Did Speaker Pelosi negotiate poorly?

I’m disappointed that in the current negotiations these two provisions (Employee Retention Tax Credit expansion proposal and the Clean Start Act) aren’t currently being discussed. In so far as it was a missed opportunity, I wish we had gotten those provisions and I’m going to keep working hard to make sure those provisions cross the finish line. There was no serious proposal from Republicans earlier this year in addition to Democrats being unwilling to compromise. Both sides are to blame but the time for finger pointing has passed. We should look at this as a down payment to help families that are desperate.

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren are urging president-elect Joe Biden to forgive some or all college debt for millions of Americans. Do you support that?

I just don’t know how you cancel out debt for one part of the population using the taxpayer dollars from another part who didn’t have a chance to go to college. The spending we do should help all Americans. There are ways to address it short of cancelling out everyone’s debt. And that’s allow people to refinance or allow student debt to be treated like other debt and discharged in bankruptcy. And then we have to work to find ways so education is affordable and you can actually work your way through college. I went to college on Pell grants and work studies and now our Pell Grants aren’t enough to cover tuition as it did when I was in college. We have to modernize the financial aid system and ensure people do have access.

Should Biden’s pursue a public health insurance option?

I think that we will need to look at a wide variety in solutions that match the level of need but first and foremost we need to get through this moment of crisis. There are healthcare workers that are overworked. We have to make sure we stabilize the current health care system that we have and find ways to improve it. Health care touches so many lives and so many Americans across this country that change to it has to be careful and calibrated. We have a system that is a four part system: Medicaid, Medicare, employer-based and the individual market. We should strengthen the existing health care system we have to ensure we get closer to universal health care.