Bricklayer Builds Campaign

In a race that’s drawing national attention and money, Patrick Murphy, of Lowell, Massachusetts, hopes to be the one voters in the 5th Congressional District send to Washington.

Running for his first political office, Murphy is confident that he can win. Skeptics may doubt his chances, but he has gained the respect of audiences at campaign events and even workers for his opponents. WBUR’s Fred Thys has this portrait of an unlikely candidate.

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FRED THYS: The sweat drips down Patrick Murphy’s face as he shovels dirt to prepare a work site in Newton. He’s in his work clothes: boots, blue gym shorts, a white T shirt, a green Boston Red Sox baseball cap. Murphy is a bricklayer, proud of his work, but he has other ambitions.

On another morning, he is at the counter at the Owl Diner, in Lowell. It’s not one of those fake retro diners. It’s the real thing. At 7:30, the place is pretty much empty, but soon fills up with construction workers like Murphy. This morning, though, he is wearing a dark suit. He’s getting ready for a candidates’ forum. At 25, Murphy is the youngest candidate. In fact, under the Constitution, at 25, he’s as young as a member of Congress can be. He’s running in part because he wants to do something about the war in Iraq, and he has a pretty unusual proposal.

PATRICK MURPHY: It’s a tax based on income, but separate from the income tax, which will go into effect any time a war is declared so that the sacrifice really is shared among all the American people.

THYS: After breakfast, we head for one of Lowell’s converted mills, where the city’s non-profits are ready with a barrage of questions for the candidates. It’s a competitive field. There are five Democrats: Lowell city councilwoman Eileen Donoghue, State Representatives Barry Finegold, Jamie Eldridge, and James Miceli, and the widow of former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas, Niki Tsongas. There’s one Republican: Tom Tierney, an actuary. There’s Kevin Thompson, the Constitution Party candidate. And there’s Murphy, who is running as an independent. He’s still trying to find his voice in front of crowds, struggling to summarize his positions in 90 seconds.

MURPHY: Feels a bit like I’m back in the old West End Gym on Lawrence Street, with all the bells goin’ off.

THYS: For a man who grew up boxing, Murphy seems demure. Instead of seeking out members of the audience to introduce himself, he waits to say hi to Niki Tsongas. She never looks his way, so we leave.

We go back to the place he shares with his twin brother, Dan, who is also his campaign manager. They live in an apartment over a construction company building abutting railroad tracks in the neighborhood where their parents and grandparents grew up. Patrick takes me on a tour in the intermittent drizzle, past the gym where he and his brother used to box.

MURPHY: We’re a family of fighters, I guess. I remember very early on that one of the few things we had was growing up was a pair of boxing gloves, so.

THYS: We walk past three houses where Murphy’s father grew up next to his mothers’ parents and his great aunt. Murphys’ grandfather represented the district in the state legislature. It was a poor neighborhood, but one day, a new priest told the congregation he wanted bills in the collection plate instead of coins. That was the last time that Murphy’s grandfather went to church.

MURPHY: He chose to express the basic tenets of his Catholic faith in a different way, not in an institutional way, but in a very personal and very meaningful way. So that had a great effect on me, that you don’t have to work within a system to really live your life in the way that you should.

THYS: And Murphy is definitely not working within the system. For one thing, he won’t take campaign contributions.

Over lunch in downtown Lowell, Murphy explains that has found that his outspokenness has put him at odds with the institutions in his life. He and Dan went to Philips Andover Academy on scholarship, and Patrick went on to American University, Trinity College in Dublin, and Emory University, where he says he did well, but came to a realization.

MURPHY: The last professor there said that my analysis was too passionate. I think that’s what I bring to this race, is my background, where I’ve come from, and who I am.

THYS: Murphy says he decided that college had taught him all it could, and so he left to pursue his education on his own.

We head to his aunt’s, where he explains why he is running.

MURPHY: It was really a combination of not hearing those ideas or solutions that I would recommend or talk about that I am talking about, and all the emphasis placed on money and the idea that whoever gets in, they’re not going to be bad Congressmen, but they’re not going to be able to do what I think I would be able to if I were in there, and that’s really challenging the system.

THYS: If elected, Murphy promises to work to change the way public schools are funded, relying more on federal money, and less on property taxes, and he promises to work for a universal health insurance managed by the government. By early evening, Patrick wants to go to a campaign event for a candidate for city council in his work clothes. Dan advises against it. He says: “The mason thing is great, but you don’t want to look like a bum.”

So we head back to their place, where Patrick changes into a shirt and tie.

At the event, in a backyard across the Merrimack River, Murphy is once again the shy guy, but people come up to him to encourage him and to offer advice until close to 9 PM.

Several evenings later, Patrick and Dan are gathering signatures to put Patrick on the ballot, when he meets a man who is not a registered voter. Rather than move on to people who can help fulfill his more immediate need to qualify for the election, he spends most of the time with this one man, trying to persuade him to register. As the two men talk, the quiet candidate’s charisma comes through: the shoppers leaving the supermarket are all paying attention to Murphy.

We head back to the brothers’ place to change for a road race along Lowell’s canals. Murphy takes part in as many races as he can; they give him a chance to meet people. He is a good runner, and finishes well. Patrick Murphy says running for office is a little bit like running the races: the more he runs, he says, the better he gets at it.

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