'I am still trying to find a balance'

House Democratic leaders Tuesday  turned to a group of lawmakers with military experience to start debate on the Iraq resolution, including Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).

Referencing his experience as an Army captain serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad for six months in 2003, the 33-year-old lawmaker nodded toward the Vietnam Memorial.

“[Half] of the soldiers listed on that wall died after America’s leaders knew our strategy wouldn’t work,” Murphy said on the House floor. “It was immoral then and it would be immoral now to engage in the same delusion … sending more troops into a civil war is the wrong strategy.”

Murphy’s remarks were showcased Tuesday in network evening news broadcasts and above the fold in his hometown newspaper.

The narrative arc of Murphy’s rise from obscure candidate to prominent freshman Democrat has been swift. He started as an unknown candidate, cold-calling Philadelphia Democratic Party barons to get their support.

He overcame disorganization among his campaign staff and a GOP-backed, $1 million negative advertising campaign. While many Democrats with military backgrounds lost in 2006, Murphy won in the most competitive area in the country.

Even though polls showed him trailing in early September, Murphy prevailed by 1,500 votes.

“He was new to the electoral process and he had to learn a lot,” said Jim Mulhall, a consultant with Squire Knapp Dunn. “My sense is that he does not make as many mistakes as a lot of people new to politics. When he does, he doesn’t go looking for scapegoats. He moves on.”

Comebacks are nothing new to Murphy. As a high school senior, he applied to Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he wanted to play hockey. But he was rejected and had to attend junior college for a year. He tried again and was accepted.

In Congress, he hopes he won’t have to make another such comeback. And he wants to avoid the fate of ex-Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.), a one-term wonder from the Philadelphia suburbs whose experience haunts new lawmakers. She lost in 1994 after casting the deciding vote in favor of President Clinton’s 1993 budget.

Murphy’s mentors, Pennsylvania Democratic Reps. John Murtha, the powerful appropriator, and Robert Brady, an old-school city politician, are skillful backroom pols. He talks to them almost daily.

Murphy arrived in Washington with a big political advantage. Hailing from Pennsylvania, he would not make enemies supporting Murtha for majority leader.

In his first meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had been to his district twice during the campaign, he let her know he wanted to serve on the Intelligence Committee.

He also worked to get to know Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who lobbied Pelosi on his behalf, said a Democratic leadership aide. In January, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, called Murphy to tell him Pelosi appointed him to the Intelligence panel and the Armed Services Committee.

Murphy has also become a more sophisticated politician in subtle ways. Walking out of the Democratic Caucus meeting last week, four reporters cornered Murphy to ask him about Iraq.

In the middle of the hallway interview, Murphy paused and declared that what he was about to share was “off the record.” He continued only when the reporters nodded.

Murphy has worked as a prosecutor and taught law at West Point. But now, he’s working on bringing a veterans’ cemetery to his district, getting federal money for a training academy for volunteer firefighters, and trying to bring an ethanol plant and a wind-turbine manufacturer to the district.

The toughest part about being in Congress for most members is the constant travel away from home. During the campaign, Murphy married his girlfriend, Jennifer. They had a baby girl, Maggie, on Nov. 24, 2006.

“It’s the little things like that. I miss my dog,” he said. “I’m lucky that my wife and daughter can come down here and that I’m only three hours away.”

In Washington, he rents a room from Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) on D Street near the Capitol. Walz, like Murphy, has a new baby, a boy named Gus.

They first met last August at a fundraiser for veterans on Long Island. Walz had heard about Murphy, who organized veterans for Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign.

“Man, this guy is young and he looks young, too,” Walz remembered thinking. “But he’s older than his years [because] he’s got that real steady, piercing gaze.”

Walz, a National Guardsman and high school teacher, does not cook; Murphy keeps a stocked kitchen. Over Super Bowl weekend, Walz raided Murphy’s stock of Hot Pockets.

Both men speak highly of each other, but they rarely cross paths. Walz said he is out the door at 6 a.m. to hit the gym; Murphy keeps promising to tag along but keeps later hours and sleeps in.

“I was there once, late at night,” Murphy said. “I am still trying to find a balance.”