Come to the Labor Temple on Thursday, Sept. 9, when the Central Labor Body will be celebrating Rep. Mary Murphy and her accomplishments from 5-6:30 p.m., before the CLB meeting.
Marathon legislative sessions have been the norm recently, and at the end of the latest one, Rep. Mary Murphy (District 3B) hit a milestone — she became the longest-serving female member of the state house, in addition to the longest-serving active House member.
A former teacher, Murphy has been a friend of Labor since winning her first election in 1976. She’s been redistricted several times but has always won over her constituents, winning handily.
Minnesota faces redistricting in the coming months which could bring more changes: “The population is shifting around,” she said. “My district, as it stands now, is kind of a growth area in Northeastern Minnesota, and that’s rare.”
Murphy then corrected herself — “It’s not MY district. It’s that of the constituents I serve and how it was drawn. No representative should think of themselves as totally owning the district in any way. We’re elected to serve, and the constituents have to assume they’ll be well-represented by whoever is elected.”
Murphy got her start in politics in college, when she and the president of St. Scholastica, Sister Edward, would sit down as two history majors and discuss politics. “She was a strong Democrat out of Proctor, and so I was always urged to do things politically at college,” Murphy said.
At her first District 8 convention, she took party leaders at their word when they said “anyone can be a delegate to the national convention. “I didn’t know they had a slate, so I went through the process,” she said. By that time she had graduated, was teaching, and had a little money in her pocket, and started getting attention. “There were people who had been in line a long time, and in particular two or three Labor leaders stepped aside and said, ‘Mary can go.’”
She was an alternate in the 1964 convention in Atlantic City. Twelve years later, she was running for the state House in Cloquet.
A strong friend of Labor
Murphy’s father was a steelworker, and she says that experience helped her understand Labor issues. “It’s what I grew up with. From time to time there was a strike, and then you knew times were poor. Not only did Dad go to the picket line, there wasn’t money coming in, and we talked a lot about the union during those times.”
As a teacher, she was a member of the DFT and became a union officer, serving as vice president in the late 1960s into the ‘70s. She also served as vice president of the Central Labor Body.
“When I was elected, I was known within the AFL-CIO and by the leadership, and i worked with them on many bills and issues. It’s been good for our area and good for the state.”
It’s hard to find someone to disagree. “Some years ago Mary was trying to help pass a pension reform bill for public employee pensions that required a higher contribution from employees an employers to ensure long-term financial viability of the funds,” said Alan Netland, president of the North East Area Labor Council. “AFSCME had taken a position against the bill. I sat down with Mary to talk about it and she said AFSCME had to come around or it wouldn’t pass, and that it was essential to do it before problems arose for the funds.”
Netland said he went back to then-director Eliot Seide to discuss it, and they came to the conclusion that if Murphy thought it was necessary, then they had to go back to the board to reconsider. “Mary had always been our friend and had such great respect from our members that we did change our position and worked to help the bill get passed that session,” Netland said. “It turned out that the timing for that reform was critical and helped ensure the solvency of the funds and our pensions. It would not have happened without Mary’s guidance.”
“The most tragic day I’ve experienced was the day she died, nine years ago,” said Mike Sundin, the representative from District 11A, retired Painters Union business agent and Building Trades member. “I was in a Building Trades meeting, and a text came through on my phone saying ‘you no longer have a state representative.’ I got a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Mary died? The meeting went on, and then someone said the magic word: Redistricting.”
Sundin eventually ended up running for the seat that represented part of Murphy’s old district, and winning.
“She commands the respect of even people in crowds,” Sundin said. “We get catcalled during parades, it happens, but not Mary — she’s respected in all the communities. On the floor, in the community, when she’s chair or a member, it’s always with respect. It’s not because she’s older and wiser — it’s because she’s earned it.”
Sundin remembered a time when he spoke on the House floor about fair employment and racial equity. “She came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m glad the people I used to represent are in such good hands now.’ I am not going to forget that — it’s a reward you can’t put a value on.”
Many current Labor leaders first met Murphy as students. Bernadette Burnham, former president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers and current vice president of Education Minnesota, said she took a high school history class from Murphy at Duluth Central High School. “We sure missed her while she as in St. Paul and I’m guessing as teenagers, we had no idea of the important work she was undertaking.”
When Burnham herself became president of the DFT, she reconnected with Murphy, “and she remembered me after all those years! We loved it when she popped into our office for a visit. We loved it even more when we had the opportunity to visit with her in her St. Paul office, as a state legislator. Mary welcomed us with open arms and always posed with us so we could share her picture back home proudly.”
Like an excellent teacher, Murphy has built strong partnerships, Burnham said. “She listened to her constituents and led with passion, and still does to this day. When I became the vice president of Education Minnesota, she was one of the first to reach out and congratulate me. Imagine how honored I was, my teacher, now a state legislator, still making time to support and encourage her former student.”
Catherine Nachbar also had Murphy as a teacher at Central, in the early 1990s. “It was difficult for me to conceive how she could do both jobs, but I was proud that a woman was representing our region,” Nachbar said. “It struck me that I had never met a female representative.”
“Mary has put education as a priority during her tenure,” Nachbar said. “Mary was at the forefront of supporting the Duluth teachers transitioning to the TRA, trying to increase funding formulas to improve budgets, aware of the transitions happening with the Board of Teaching being reformatted to the new tier licensure under PELSB, and so many other topics. Her years of public service are appreciated and I dare say she influenced future generations to take active roles in their community to create positive change.”
Even though Murphy is no longer a teacher, “I work all year long,” she said. And during the past 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic, the work has been especially difficult. Murphy shepherded a massive bonding bill through passage in 2020, a crowning achievement for any career — but then she could hardly run on it. “I had 15 days to put a campaign together, and nothing I could do. I had planned on three mailings and ended up with two, there wasn’t time to get ads together, and we were still working on the 2020 legislative session.”
Other highlights from her career — not yet finished! — include:
Library funding that goes beyond property taxes.
In the Legacy Finance Committee, she works on exploring whether the funds re doing what they were supposed to do, 10 years after the program started. “We’re going to see what can be done to make it better before 2035 when it’ll be over, or not.”
One of the first major bills she passed, setting guidelines for the wind industry. “We were one of the first states to do so and it was recognized nationally,” she said. “That was the first time I got any attention outside of Minnesota — and in some parts, any attention inside Minnesota too!”
“I’m very proud that I carried the bill that decided that tips belong to the wait persons — that’s been a discussion from time to time, and was a major legislative accomplishment with the mid-80s.”
Murphy said one of the biggest changes over the years has been the rise of women in both chambers. “There weren’t so many women when I started, they weren’t as diverse as they are today, or as mouthy,” she said. She also said the balance between urban and rural representation has shifted as well.
Phyllis Kahn was the longest-serving woman in the state house before Murphy broke her streak. “She was my seatmate — she was a mentor and was there before I got there,” Murphy said. “We certainly had respect for each other and each other’s way of life. She was a guide at the legislature, someone to question and follow.”
As Murphy’s career continues, she said she brings her attitude as a teacher to the legislature every time. “Every school year, it’s a new opportunity with new kids and a chance to make an impact on people’s lives. It’s the same philosophy I have with every election term; every day is an opportunity for doing something different and better. You can’t afford to coast; people are counting on you even if you don’t know them. It’s an opportunity and a gift to be able to work as long as I have.”