Erin Murphy is a nurse, teacher, and union leader who has been fighting for Minnesotans “bright futures” for decades. First elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2006, she served five terms (including one as Majority Leader of her caucus) before running a powerful, statewide campaign for Governor in 2018. She is also the first woman to represent District 64 in the Minnesota Senate.
Known for her infectious “politics of joy” and organizing prowess, Sen. Murphy has been a longtime partner in Women Winning’s work to uplift and invest in pro-choice women’s leadership. As she embarks on the next step of her political journey, we were thrilled to speak with her about organizing during a global pandemic, the nurse who helped inspire her fight for reproductive freedom, and what she calls “the magic of door knocking”.
Women Winning: Folks who know you have heard you talk about “the politics of joy” — something that feels especially important during what has been a pretty dark, daunting winter. What does politics of joy mean to you and how will you carry that with you in the Minnesota Senate?
Sen. Erin Murphy: I am a natural optimist. I have always believed in our capacity, together as people, to solve the hard problems in front of us. When we lead with purpose, hope, and a shared vision of how to tackle those challenging problems, people come along and join us. That’s the root of that politics of joy.
Instead of using the levers of division to win short-term fights, if we use levers of hope and unity, we will get more done for the people of Minnesota. That is the joyful fight for our futures that I’m very excited to be a part of.
WW: You’ve been on the campaign trail for 15 years and have become known statewide for your incredible organizing — and you’re especially known for your door knocks! Of course, COVID required campaigns to completely rethink voter outreach strategies in 2020. How did you adapt?
Sen. Murphy: I got into this Senate race in October of 2019, before we really understood the virus and before it made its way to Minnesota, so we were door knocking right away. The very first time I ran, I learned quickly the incredible power of door knocking. On the doors, I was no longer thinking about the “right answer” to a question, but instead hearing about people’s lived experiences. That’s the magic of door knocking. I have found over and over again that it creates the space to hear each other and room to move one another, which is what we need more of in our politics.
As COVID took hold, we stopped door knocking. We spent most of the campaign on the phone and sending texts, ran a postcard program, and prepared people to lead within their own communities. People connected with others who lived right in their neighborhood, right on their block — knowing that we are the best messengers when we are talking with people we know and the people who know us. There is a lot of power embedded in relational organizing. We also Zoomed together a lot!
Our goal was to turn out the vote in Senate District 64. To defeat Donald Trump and re-elect Tina Smith, we needed to turn out every vote we could. I want people who live in and represent districts like mine, democratic based districts, to recognize the power we have to win up-ticket races and the value of governing when you’ve turned out every vote you can. We committed to that, we worked hard, and we turned out thousands of voters who didn’t vote in 2016. I feel really great about that.
WW: In addition to driving record voter turnout in your own district, you also organized for candidates in really tight races. What was the impact of that work and who are some of the new leaders you’re most excited to work with at the Capitol?
Sen. Murphy: This cycle was filled with scrappy women who, despite all the hurdles in front of them because of this pandemic, fought their hearts out. It’s a powerful story.
We partnered with Lindsey Port and Ann Johnson Stewart, who both flipped seats — I’m so excited to serve with them in the Senate. I’ve also known Aric Putnam in St. Cloud for years. This is the third time we’ve campaigned together and I’m so excited that he flipped that seat and won. We worked with Rita Albrecht in Bemidji, a tremendous leader and campaigner in a very competitive district. Gretchen Piper and Bonnie Westlin in the West Metro, and Aleta Borrud and Sara Flick in Rochester — they all showed up in the most powerful ways. Candidates who ran against incumbents during COVID were absolutely facing a headwind. It was much harder because we weren’t at the doors, in coffee shops, or holding house parties, so voters couldn’t get the same sense of who we are. The fact that Sara, Aleta, and others swung their districts [by 20 points] is a testament to their work. It’s really hopeful. These districts will continue to be very competitive territory in the future.
WW: You are one of five new pro-choice women joining the Minnesota Senate the session! Still, only 14 of 67 members (20%) are pro-choice women and the Senate majority is anti-choice. As recently as 2018, we saw the Senate pass a 20-week abortion ban that included criminal penalties for providers and last spring we saw senators exploiting the pandemic to push an anti-choice agenda. How will you fight to protect reproductive rights in the anti-choice Minnesota Senate?
Sen. Murphy: When I first moved to Minnesota, I was a really young nurse. I was in a meeting with nurses who were much older and one of them pulled me aside and said, “Your job is to protect women’s rights. I’ve lived before [Roe v. Wade] and I know what happened to women when they pursued the care they needed, even when it wasn’t legal. We can’t let that happen again.” She was giving me my marching orders and I’ve taken that very seriously. I will work to protect reproductive freedom — now and until I can’t do it anymore.
We have to be unabashedly honest about what we’re facing and, across that country, the anti-choice agenda is on the march. We’re going to be using our powerful voices and mobilizing people to fend off and defeat any efforts to limit choice. And going forward, reproductive freedom can’t be relegated to the “we won’t talk about it” category of hard issues. Young people, in particular, aren’t interested in that anymore. For a while, we’ve been in a place of some paralysis — there’s an idea that if we have a pro-choice majority, we should hold and not inflame the other side. It is time for us, not to intentionally inflame the other side, but to make sure we’re doing everything in the law to protect people’s reproductive freedom. I hear a lot of clarity around the fact that it’s time for us to get rid of barriers, and make sure people think of abortion care and reproductive care as healthcare — because they are.
WW: You mentioned your nursing background, and nurses have really been in the spotlight recently because of their heroic work caring for COVID patients. How will your experience as a nurse inform your leadership in the Senate? What are you going to be working on in 2021?
Sen. Murphy: Seeing photographs of nurses in different states being the first ones to get the COVID vaccine, I’m just cheering them on. Nurses don’t ever walk away from hard problems. If you have a patient who’s in trouble, you stick with them. That is an ethical commitment I’ve made to my work. I’m drawn to the hard problems. That’s the value of [our work in the legislature]… we’re tasked with solving hard problems that aren’t being solved in other places. That’s what we’re signing up for, and nursing is a strong foundation for that.
I’ll be carrying pieces of legislation, working on the budget. I hope to get to work on redistricting. I want to use my leadership capacity to engage people and rebuild our faith in one another, both in the political operation and in government and governing. I learned about these tools as a kid at my grandma’s table and they are powerful.
WW: 2020 was a whirlwind and so many people, especially women, worked so hard — as marchers, volunteers, organizers, donors, and voters. What do you see as the next big fights? What advice do you have for women who are looking for their next way to make an impact?
Sen. Murphy: We allowed something to take hold in this country that facilitated the election of Donald Trump, and his presidency has been all about trying to undo our democratic institutions. I don’t think those forces go away with a new president — they still exist. That is the hard, hard work in front of us. We have to offer Minnesotans and Americans a different vision — one of coming together, rather than a vision of alienation, which is what Donald Trump and his forces are peddling — and it’s so dangerous for us.
So, rest up — because the future that we fought for in the 2020 election is only ours to build if we’re there doing the work. Know that the work, in whatever form that you do it, whether it’s organizing, supporting candidates, showing up and testifying, reaching out to your neighbors to say “this issue is important to me, let’s get involved”, running for office (and women, run for office!) — these things build our power and our capacity to move an agenda. We will accomplish more if we do it together. I am so in for the work. Join me.
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