Murphy's Down-Up-Down Career in House Is Headed to a Peaceful, Dignified Close

Friday, August 17, 2012

It’s not easy to walk away from the Massachusetts legislature, especially when you’ve been there for a long time and have tasted the fruits of leadership.

Watching Charley Murphy give his farewell speech on July 31, the last day of the 2011-12 legislative session, brought that fact home again.

I know. I Know.  Within days of his “farewell,” Murphy reconsidered his decision to resign from his House seat right after the session ended.  He is now going to stay on through the end of his term in December and work part-time as a legislator and more time as an executive at a health care information technology consulting firm in his district.

I’m not sure why he changed course, whether to continue receiving his legislative pay and/or not to leave his loyal Burlington-Bedford-Wilmington constituency voiceless in state government for the next several months.  Both are good reasons.

The emotional force of Murphy’s official farewell was only slightly diminished by that later reversal.

A Democrat and lifelong resident of Burlington, Murphy was first elected to the House at age 29 and subsequently re-elected seven times.  Two thousand and twelve is his sixteenth year in the legislature.

For most of that, Murphy was a back-bencher, but in February, 2009, he was placed by the then new Speaker, Robert DeLeo, into the front ranks with an appointment as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.  Suddenly, he was the state’s chief budget writer, as all appropriations must begin in the House, and one of the most powerful figures at the State House. 

Early in the 2011-12 session, Murphy was moved out of -- and seemingly up from --  Ways and Means to Majority Whip.  In actuality it was a demotion because the Speaker no longer wanted him running Ways and Means, and the Whip (regardless of the fearsome title) casts a smaller shadow than the chairman of Ways and Means.

On July 31, Murphy said, not surprisingly, that his two years at the helm of Ways and Means were the most satisfying of his legislative career.

It wasn’t all that long ago that many observers expected Murphy, a graduate of the University of Vermont law school and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, to succeed DeLeo as Speaker, as DeLeo, a former Ways and Means chairman, had succeeded Sal DiMasi, and as Tom Finneran had succeeded Speaker Charles Flaherty before that.

As Murphy was in the Marines, so he proved to be in Ways and Means: a natural commander. 

He spoke with clarity, candor and force.  He met with all comers, made decisions crisply, and did not shy from tough decisions.  He could laugh easily at himself.  And he could say no, an essential part of chairing Ways and Means, without rubbing anyone’s nose in the disappointment.

Then he got sideways with Speaker DeLeo. 

Reportedly, Murphy’s undoing was the persistent solicitation of votes in the election of the next Speaker, only a putative event at this point in time. 

Murphy denied that he was campaigning for Speaker behind the scenes.  But there was never any denying he was on the outs with DeLeo, especially after he resigned as Whip this past December on the eve of a caucus of House Democrats.  The Speaker was planning to announce Murphy’s removal as Whip at that caucus.

In his farewell, Murphy said something to the effect that anyone expecting a Marine-like ending to his political career would be disappointed, meaning there would be no bombshells as he moved to the exit. 

It was time to go like a philosopher, not a warrior. “As I depart, I wish you all nothing but success,” etc.

The scene was rendered poignant by the gentlemanly restraint Murphy brought to it.  Did he know that, by acting the statesman, he would help encourage speculation, natural at such a moment, as to to what kind of Speaker he might have been?

“The time is right for me to move on,” said Murphy.

You sensed that he really meant it.  He was at peace, leaving wholly at a time of his choosing.

As in other lines of work, it’s always best in politics to leave before other people make that decision for you. 

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