The view is serene from Stephen John Murphy's office on the fifth floor of Boston City Hall. It overlooks Faneuil Hall and a swath of Boston Harbor in the distance on this promising late January day when the sun is a bit higher in the sky and the temperature is flirting with the 50s. Inside this dense concrete bunker, the political climate is chilling, as observers assess the damage from the storm surge of angry voters that swept Scott Brown into the United States Senate faster than you could say "All bets are off!"
"There was a flashpoint of anger," says Boston City Council Vice President Murphy, reelected last year to an at-large council seat with 18 percent of the vote, just 346 votes shy of top vote-getter John R. Connolly. "We felt it months ago. We've bailed out Wall Street, and it hasn't trickled down. Here in Massachusetts, we have approved an income tax rollback that hasn't been implemented, and voted for a Clean Election mandate that the Legislature stopped in its tracks. All this framed against the national healthcare debate. I'm not surprised."
While elective politics at the city and state level have more to do with local aid than nation-wide healthcare, sage officials these days are hedging their bets. "We just want to make sure we don't give voters a niche of anger over something that we control," says Murphy.
There's clearly much at stake - and even more up in the air - as Murphy weighs his options going forward: Stay put on the council for a likely term some day as president? Perhaps a bid for mayor when Tom Menino steps down? Announce for state treasurer to fill the vacancy of Tim Cahill, who is running for governor as an independent? Or run for state auditor to replace the retiring veteran Joe DeNucci, who has held the post since 1987.
A decision, says Murphy, who has served on the council for a dozen years, is likely as the BIR goes to press. He probably will hold his fire as long as possible, if the past is any indication. A Boston Phoenix story seven years ago, later referenced in the Dorchester Reporter, revealed Murphy's thinking on early electioneering—in this case for the big chair in the Iannella Chamber. "The race of the council presidency is much like the old Bugs Bunny cartoon," Murphy said at the time. "The first person that sticks their head out of their rabbit hole gets blasted."
"Either way, I'd hate to lose him," says Councillor Maureen Feeney, the former council president who sits two doors down from Murphy. "He's the dean of the council and a resource to all of us. Steve has a tremendous grasp of fiscal matters and a broad understanding of complex budget issues."
Chairman of the council's Committee on Public Safety and former head of panels on Ways and Means, Government Operations, Labor and Historic Preservations, the 52-year-old Murphy has a lot on his plate this morning juggling the future with the present and past as his Blackberry and office phone chime constantly during a two-hour interview,
Speaking of the past, Murphy, born in Dorchester and raised in Hyde Park, was elected in 1997 to one of four coveted at-large seats on the 13- member Council after several failed attempts, the first when he was 27 years old. Perseverance is the coin of his politics. He has run unsuccessfully for state representative from Hyde Park, losing narrowly in 1992, the year Bill Clinton was first elected president, and he has lost bids for Boston School Committee, state treasurer and Suffolk County sheriff, always enduring to live yet another day in politics. To say that public service is in Murphy's blood is to say the Irish are partial to the color green.
Early on, Murphy developed a standing as a conservative protégé of the legendary Albert L. "Dapper" O'Neill, but in time the strapping six-foot- four former hockey player from Stonehill College in Easton shifted lines to more traditionally Democratic liberal positions, forever carrying water for Irish working-class firemen, policemen, and seniors.
He cut his baby teeth in politics as a 10-year-old standing out on Gallivan Boulevard in Dorchester holding signs for a Joe Timilty council run and years later for Timilty's mayoral runs against Kevin White. When he was 12, he worked on White's 1970 gubernatorial campaign against Republican incumbent Frank Sargent, and later in Democrat Ed King's gubernatorial campaigns of '78 and '82. When he worked in former State Senate President Bill Bulger's office he was involved in Bulger's various campaigns. He participated in Scott Harshbarger's 1990 campaign for state Attorney General and, finally, in Deval Patrick's 2006 run—an effort that some assumed would land him a plum position on Beacon Hill.
"My father always had an interest in campaigning and passed it along to me," says Murphy. "I always thought politics was fascinating—the ability to pick up a phone and help someone."
Murphy's father, Stephen Joseph Murphy Jr., a fourth-generation Irish American from Dorchester with family ties to County Cork, always answered the call as a patrolman with the Boston Police Department's riot squad and later as a successful defense attorney in Boston, and, for a while, a stint as assistant district attorney. "Dad is hard-nosed," says Murphy. "As a cop, you get jaundiced. He was a practitioner of tough Irish love, but when you peel everything away, he is sensitive guy. He still goes to bed every night striving to be a little better when he woke up. He is always about self improvement."
At 48, Murphy's dad had a heart attack that forced his retirement from the police force, so he decided to go into law, earning a degree from New England School of Law while continuing to be a steady parent with his wife Marjorie to Stephen, the oldest of four; Diane, who works at UMass-Boston in student services; Kathleen, an engineer; and Michael, also an engineer. The elder Murphys moved to Centerville on the Cape with son Michael in the wake of the busing crisis, and now live back in Boston.
Marjorie (Mitchell), with first-generation ties to County Donegal, worked days in the 1940s as a teller with the First National Bank of Boston, then at Hyde Park Cooperative Bank. "She is an upbeat, optimistic woman who embraced opportunity and was never discouraged by a bad day," says the councilor, noting his personality is a blend of his folks' ways. "She has an ebullient way about her. But my mother wasn't your friend, she was your Mom, and as the oldest son, I got punished for everything." He seems to be wearing his upbringing well.
Murphy was five years old and living in the housing project in Dorchester's Morton/ Gallivan neighborhood when the family moved first to nearby Fuller Street, then on to Hyde Park where he attended Franklin Roosevelt Elementary School, then on to Boston Latin where he was a member of the last all-male graduating class in 1975. He entered Stonehill where in addition to playing hockey he studied business administration and communications. Murphy is imposing enough on Congress Street today; put skates on the guy and he'd be outright menacing unless you catch a hint of his leprechaun-like smile.
While in college, he worked as a bus driver for Autobus Inc., transporting special needs students to school, and upon graduation he joined Autobus fulltime, moving up the ranks to general manager and, in 1984, vice president in 1984. After the company was sold, Murphy worked briefly in the private sector on public service projects, then spent three years as a budget analyst in Senate President Bulger's office focusing on local aid and constituent service issues. "It was an honor to work for Bill Bulger," Murphy is not reticent to say. "He is still a mentor, and one of the sharpest people I've ever met. He understood the ebb and flow of the State House better than anyone."
Murphy moved on to two others State House posts - executive assistant in the attorney general's budget office, assistant personnel director in the secretary of state's office - before his election to the City Council.
In a recent alumni profile, the Boston Latin Bulletin credited Murphy for his work on the council in getting sidewalks paved outside senior housing projects, in gathering extra funding for prescription drug coverage, in requiring the installation across the city of state-of-the-art photoelectric smoke detectors and pedestrian-crossing signals that count down the seconds before a traffic light turns. "It takes the guesswork out of crossing a major intersection here," he told the Bulletin.
It is now early in the afternoon, and the phones haven't stopped ringing in Murphy's office. He's on the run again, charging past a wall of photographs that reflect his career in politic, including one of him with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who when he noticed during a visit that he wasn't on the wall with the councilor, had a photographer in tow take a photo of him and Murphy, suitable for framing, of course. Murphy's favorite photo is from 1962. It shows his father in uniform while standing guard over the left shoulder of President John F. Kennedy at St. Francis Chapel in Boston.
Before he heads out for another spate of appointments, Murphy picks up a birthday card from 1994 that is sitting on his desk, It was from the late mayor of Boston, John F. Collins, whose driver the elder Murphy had been. Collins had written on the card of his admiration for the younger Murphy's "core beliefs and courage." On the front of the card is a credo written by Collins, who had been stricken with polio in his younger days. Murphy says he strives to follow that credo, and he goes on to recite the ending:
"Believe in yourself and in your plans. Say not that I cannot, but say I can. The prizes of life we fail to win because we doubt the power within."
Murphy clearly has no doubts about the power within, and about the blessings that have sustained him.
Greg O'Brien is editor and president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications strategy company based in Brewster. He is the author/editor of several books and contributes to various regional and national publications.