By Betsy Rothstein - 12/11/07 07:11 PM EST
On a bright winter afternoon last week, Laura Murphy breezed into the office of former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and greeted him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. It’s a greeting few inside The Livingston Group would ever give him.
“How are you, Cuz?” she inquired as she entered his expansive corner office on South Capitol Street with its picture windows that offer a stunning view of much of political Washington.
“Cuz” isn’t a nickname she has casually bestowed upon him. Murphy, who is black and the former top lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is a distant cousin to Livingston, who is white. The former House Appropriations Committee chairman, who almost became House Speaker in 1998 but resigned after admitting to marital infidelity, now runs The Livingston Group, a lobbying firm.
Livingston announces today that his “cousin” will serve as a consultant to the firm. She will address issues such as homeland security and port business and broker ties with members of Congress. She comes with 30 years of political experience, having started on Capitol Hill in the late 1970s as a legislative assistant to then-Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.).
Murphy also brings Livingston’s firm a client she shares with another lobbying firm, The Mattox Woolfolk Group. The client is the Coalition for the Protection of Interstate Commerce, which includes Citibank, American Express, Chevron, J.P. Morgan and Disney.
Murphy plans to continue her affiliations with Democratic firms even as she promotes her engagement with The Livingston Group. “It is ancestry that brought us together, but it is our mutual professional respect and business sense that will sustain this collaboration,” Murphy said. “I will not surrender my principles as a condition of working together. … No one has to worry about me becoming a Republican anytime soon.”
Their working relationship is new. Their friendship, however, dates back a decade, to when Murphy’s nephew undertook a genealogical investigation and discovered that Livingston’s ancestors owned slaves on a plantation in Claremont, N.Y. Her mother had always told her that her grandmother had letters that hinted that the Murphys were related to a prominent white family.
After finding out that there was a family relationship, Murphy attended the Livingston family reunion in upstate New York in 1996; Livingston did not attend. “People were just really lovely and warm,” Murphy said of the reunion at the Claremont Estate, beside the Hudson River.
The details of how Livingston and Murphy are related are complicated; there are many Livingstons, and many named Philip or Robert.
Livingston the lobbyist is a direct descendant of Robert Livingston, elder brother of Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Philip had a grandson (also named Philip Livingston) who impregnated Barbara Williams, a Jamaican slave. The daughter produced by this union is Murphy’s great-great-grandmother, Christiana Taylor Williams.
Historians say sexual relations between slave owners and slaves were mostly not consensual.
“There is a lot of conjecture about how Philip Livingston’s grandson had a child with Barbara Williams,” Murphy said. “I doubt it was consensual. … It could have easily been a matter of being lashed or killed if the woman dared to refuse.”
For Murphy, however, the information about her ancestry does not engender hard feelings. “It represents success over adversity,” she said. “I’m a history major. For me, it’s the truth.”
“It’s an American story,” said Livingston, who calls the institution of slavery “terrible” and “inhuman.” But, he added, “I daresay that a majority of African-Americans were Republicans. America is the great melting pot, and now, we’re melting.”
Livingston names other politicians with African-American ties — DNA evidence confirms that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with a slave at his Monticello plantation; the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) fathered a black daughter, Essie May Washington; and Vice President Dick Cheney is a distant cousin of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
“People just don’t know this stuff,” Livingston said. “Certainly I didn’t. Frankly, we’ve come a long way.”
Murphy mentions that former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), who is black, has a Scottish grandfather. “The Livingstons had slaves,” she said plainly, “and a lot of people thought slaves were only in the South.”
When asked what it is like to know that his family owned slaves, Livingston replied, “What’s it like to have cucumbers for lunch?” then added: “It’s a fact that I can’t do anything about.”
Murphy first informed Livingston about the family tie by having an intern deliver a document to his Capitol Hill office in 1997. Within an hour he phoned her. “Hey, Cuz,” he greeted her the first time they spoke. “Come on over, I would like to meet you.”
Now, when dining out at restaurants along Pennsylvania Avenue such as The Capital Grille, they like to amuse themselves by calling each other “Cuz” just to watch other people’s surprise.
“One of the more radical issues is not ‘We’re working with my black cousin’ but ‘We’re working with the ex-lobbyist of the ACLU,’ ” Murphy explained.
“That gets more eyebrows!” Livingston agreed.
Beyond the inside jokes they often share in public, there is the very real issue of race. “There is an addiction to political segregation in this town, and I’m not into that,” Murphy said. “It’s just a harsh, cruel reality that some of us came here voluntarily, some of us came here on slave ships. My attitude is, racism is your problem. It’s not going to interfere with me working with anyone who is reasonable.
“I’ve even worked with unreasonable people,” she added, laughing.
While their relationship has solidified over work, there were wrinkles to get past. While Murphy was at the ACLU, Livingston had a fractious relationship with her boss, Ira Glasser. He and Livingston exchanged heated letters throughout 1996.
Needless to say, telling Glasser that Livingston was a blood relative was not easy. “Are you kidding?” was Glasser’s response.
Glasser wasn’t the only person who appeared not to like the news. There were others, whom Murphy won’t name, who were dismayed.
Livingston and Murphy have ignored such reactions and gradually became closer — so much so that when she left the ACLU in 2005 to care for her aging mother, Livingston spoke at her going-away party in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Shortly after that, he asked if she’d consider working for him. At the time, she told him not yet, but maybe later.
And here she is. “Has it been like family?” she asks. “It’s been more like work, [but] I have cousins I have had less contact with than I have with Bob.”
Livingston agreed. “I do not know some of my cousins,” he said, adding that one of these years he may show up to the Livingston Family Reunion.