WASHINGTON — Last week, Sen. Chris Murphy couldn’t get the new will.i.am and Britney Spears song “Scream & Shout” out of his head.
So, the freshman Democrat from Connecticut took the only action that made sense: He tweeted about it.
It’s the kind of thing a mom, reaching for common ground, might say to a carpool of middle-school girls. But even if Murphy isn’t that cool, he has little choice but to keep trying.
As the youngest member of the United States Senate — an institution whose average member is, at 61, more than 20 years Murphy’s senior — Murphy, 39, often seems to be juggling authenticity and professionalism with a certain expectation of hipness. Having recently joined what he calls a “new, young nucleus” of rap-quoting, basketball-playing Senate Gen-Xers, he faces the daily challenge of fitting his admittedly dorky persona into the new mold of the Capitol Hill cool-kids club.
“I care deeply about juvenile justice reform, and gun policy, and health care delivery system reform,” he said in an interview with BuzzFeed. “But I also really care about the Boston Red Sox, and good pizza, and —” Murphy paused and looked up at the ceiling as he tried to settle on an appropriate musical artist. “I’m trying to pick which — I’m not going to say Nick Lachey.” He giggled, seemingly in on the joke, then relented. “And Nick Lachey as a legitimate mainstream pop artist.”
Name-dropping Nick Lachey might be a bit off-trend, but it is the manifestation of a belief Murphy shares with his younger colleagues that Senators are “not supposed to be robots who care only about detailed policy debates.”
“We’re supposed to be representative of the public, and one of the ways that we show that we are truly representative of what people think is we care about important policy, but we also care about the mundane subjects of life,” Murphy said. “If regular people are talking about food and parenting and music and sports, then I think it’s appropriate but also probably important that their elected officials talk about the same things too.”
On a recent day, that philosophy was evident in a tweet about pizza:
Within minutes, one Capitol Hill reporter on Twitter labeled Murphy a “bro” for using the word “crushing.”
Murphy laughed off the allegation.
“I can’t try to be too cool in the way I talk on Twitter, or I’m going to screw up,” Murphy said. “I’m the youngest member of the Senate, but I’m still 39 years old. I’m still far removed from the modern lexicon of people who are actually cool. So, I’m very careful not to try to use lingo that’s above my coolness pay grade.”
It’s a balance being sought by Murphy’s peers in the Senate, including Sens. Mike Lee, Martin Heinrich, Marco Rubio, all 41 years old; Sen. Brian Schatz, just one month older than Murphy; Sen. Ted Cruz, 42; and others. Like Murphy, they all strive to appear young and relatable while trying to get serious work done.
It remains to be determined whether the Senate’s youngest members will be able to channel a shared appreciation for overdone fads like the “Harlem Shake” into a collaborative push toward policy changes. But Murphy thinks it might at least shore up comity, and at best improve legislative outcomes.
“My hope is that because there are both young members on the Republican and Democratic side, we can really work to get to know each other and work together on issues that affect our generation,” Murphy said.
Still, in a legislative body best known for its inertia, affecting change through camaraderie is a tough process.
Cruz, for example, although just a few years older than Murphy, sits on the opposite end of a broad political spectrum, and their political differences have so far hindered substantive bonding.
“I’m not sure Ted Cruz and I have found our common ground yet, but we frankly have a lot in common when it comes to our personal lives, and the hope is that those connections will become the platform for policy collaboration down the line” on issues like filibuster reform, Murphy said.
It’s early yet. Murphy is still staffing up. He works, along with other newcomers to the Senate, out of a temporary, miniature space in the basement of the Dirksen Senate office building, pending the office lottery next month. His new digs likely won’t be much better: Murphy is 91st in seniority.
But already, Murphy has found himself enmeshed in one of the preeminent issues of this Congress: gun control.
Roughly one month before Murphy moved from the House to the Senate, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary rocked the town of Newtown, Connecticut — part of Murphy’s House district. His agenda as a freshman senator was quickly decided for him.
“These parents in Newtown are all my age. My kids are the same age as their kids,” Murphy said. “I feel a special responsibility to speak up for these parents, and a lot of them feel very passionate that there has to be change.”
He devotes most of his time to the issue — in meetings with families, staging an event at a gun range, advocating bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Trying to bring about policy change, he says, is “part of the healing process for those families.”
But beyond Connecticut, most people still don’t know Murphy. He is perhaps most widely recognized for his supporting role in a video that went viral: During Murphy’s ceremonial swearing-in, his 1-year-old son Rider gained notoriety for mimicking his father as Murphy took the oath of office.
Murphy’s other son, Owen, had a memorable star turn of his own during the ceremony, when Vice President Joe Biden kneeled down to greet him and asked 4-year-old Owen if he was 14 years old. The boy corrected him.
“Whenever I talk about Biden, my 4-year-old son still says, ‘Oh, that funny vice president!’” Murphy said.
Murphy embraces quirky stories like that because he’s not overly concerned about being taken seriously. Instead, he insists that his constituents “are desperate to” know more about him and other lawmakers as people.
“I think, to way too many people, we are game show hosts, we just look like caricatures of ourselves,” Murphy said. “And, listen, there are some not-so-great people here, but by and large, members of Congress are regular people.”