Senator Chris Murphy Visits Wesleyan for Town Hall on Environmental Policy

“At the end of each week, ask yourself: ‘Have I done this much this week as I did during the week of January 20th?'” – Chris Murphy

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Last Thursday, February 2, at midnight, I got an email saying that U.S. Senator from Connecticut Chris Murphy was coming to hold a meeting on environmental policy on the morning of Saturday, February 4 and that there weren’t that many seats left at this late stage. The town hall was sponsored by the College of the Environment and the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. The senator, notable for his Twitter takedowns of Donald Trump, took many questions on everything from general political engagement in these fiery times, to specific measures on the preservation of federal lands, and the precarious nature of environmental data in the Trump administration. He also answered a question on whether he would be considering a Presidential bid for 2020. Read past the jump for more on the town hall:

So who is Chris Murphy? Elected in 2012, he is the junior senator from Connecticut (serving alongside Richard Blumenthal). He was previously a member of the House of Representatives for Connecticut’s 5th district, which includes Newtown, CT. Senator Murphy was very outspoken proponent of restrictions on gun ownership. In 2015, he tweeted about every mass shooting that year. He also filibustered for 15 hours last year in support of legislation that would extend background checks in the wake of the Pulse shooting.

Senator Murphy says on his website that “he is proud to have co-authored the only bipartisan climate bill in the senate, the Super Pollutants Act.” He has also been a proponent of land conservation and protection measures, pushing for protections of the Farmington River, Salmon Brook, Coral Canyons and Seamounts, and Plum Island.

Land conservation and protection definitely surfaced during the town hall, as it has been a major concern that federally-protected lands might be in jeopardy in the Trump administration. Several also asked Murphy if climate data from the past 8 years collected by the EPA was in serious jeopardy, especially in light of covert efforts by EPA employees to back up this data. Senator Murphy voiced that he views data collection as a locus of potential bipartisan support and also emphasized that academia and the private sector will have to shoulder the burden of data collection going forward.

Professor of Physics Brian Stewart asked Senator Murphy to make it explicitly clear to his colleagues just how unprofitable modern energy production is.

Ben Martin, of 350CT, challenged the Senator to check members of his own party, citing examples of Democrats who voted to confirm Rex Tillerson (the former CEO of Exxon Mobil) as Secretary of State. He also cited examples of Democrats being opposed to a ‘Keep It in the Ground’ bill that was proposed last February. Senator Murphy responded by saying “I would love to have unanimity in our party” but “there are 2-3 Democrats who will occasionally vote wrong on this issue and 100% of Republicans vote in the wrong way.” To me, this comment seemed like a deflection of addressing Martin’s points, especially in light of Murphy’s partial focus on bipartisan opportunism in other segments of the town hall.

Conversation also traversed back and forth from the topically specific to general political strategy in Trump’s America. Professor Rob Rosenthal, who introduced Senator Murphy, opened by praising Senator Murphy’s efforts and saying “it is important that we have public officials [like Senator Murphy] that stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes,” comparing Trump to the emperor in the Hans Christian Anderson tale.

An ophthalmologist asked Senator Murphy about strategies to “reach people who really need to be influenced.” He stated that he would be releasing a citizen’s toolkit of sorts, focused on residents of Connecticut. In the meantime, he stressed 5 action items:

  1. Don’t stop talking to your delegation. According to Murphy, he received 13,000 phone calls opposing the nomination of Betsy DeVos and stressed how impactful these were.
  2. Double down in investment and participation in national organizations that do have reach in Republican states.
  3. Own the Internet. Murphy stated “Trump’s people did better than Clinton’s people, dominating Facebook feeds” and “putting out an alternative narrative.”
  4. Continue to take advantage of of old-fashioned strategies. Murphy referenced the resonance of the Women’s Marches held on January 21.
  5. Don’t go away.

In reference to his last action item, Murphy left those in attendance with perhaps his most poignant request: “At the end of each week, ask yourself: ‘Have I done this much this week as I did during the week of January 20th?'”

Relatively early in the town hall, someone stood up and asked Senator Murphy whether he would be announcing a run for President in 2020. Murphy’s response?

“Sit down. Sit down. Next question.”

Laughter followed.

Murphy ended the town hall by addressing his environment. He used the fact that he was currently at Wesleyan to segue into a discussion around millennial political engagement. He said that a majority of younger people are on the right side of the climate fight, but aren’t showing up to the polls. Here are his closing remarks:

I found his remarks rather detached, to say the least. Senator Murphy mentioned nothing about voter suppression in his mild indictment of young people for not voting. His comments were also rather ironic, considering he didn’t take a single question from any of the more than 30 students in attendance.

Mira Klein ’17 echoed similar concerns and also criticized Murphy for his evasion of a question regarding pipeline expansion. Here are her full remarks about Senator Murphy’s town hall:

The one potentially contentious moment in the conversation this morning was when a women asked Sen. Murphy about the current expansion of pipeline infrastructure underway in CT. He didn’t even acknowledge this question in his response, instead continuing to frame the discussion of environmental policy on legislation at the national level (despite a later comment he made about the potential for state-based action) and shielding himself from any criticism by returning to the shit-show that is our federal government. I was also put off by his comment which not-so-subtly blamed young people for not voting while then declining to call on any students who were trying to ask questions (i.e. the political engagement he wants from young people). Lastly, his non-stop emphasis on market-based solutions, public-private partnerships etc felt flat given his apparent ‘understanding’ of how drastic the current climate crisis is – but I wouldn’t say it was surprising…more like a classic political move.

Joshua Nodiff ’19 also expressed concern for Murphy’s absence of engagement with Wesleyan students and his shirking of discussions of pipeline expansion projects such as the Algonquin Pipeline:

It’s fantastic that Senator Chris Murphy is an ardent opponent of Trump, and it’s encouraging that a senator felt compelled to discuss the future of environmental policy with constituents at an academic institution. However, I was disappointed that Senator Murphy came to a college campus and neglected to take questions from any students. We, the students, are the people who will inherit the catastrophic consequences of this regime, and so our voices lend valuable insight to the conversation. Senator Murphy also avoided addressing a question about fracked gas pipelines being constructed in Connecticut. These pipelines, such as the Algonquin Pipeline, pose a severe risk to our climate while marginalizing many communities. The senator skillfully avoid the question, and concluded his remarks by patronizing students for our alleged lack of political engagement. Citing low voter turnout levels among students, Senator Murphy wondered why students “stay home” instead of going out to vote. His remarks ignore the massive movement of student-led activism that has engulfed the United States. The Democratic Party has failed to increase student voter turnout because young people refuse to condone neoliberalism. If the DNC truly wanted to engage students, they shouldn’t suppress candidates like Bernie Sanders, who garnered record levels of student voter turnout. So, it seemed ironic for Senator Murphy to criticize students’ political engagement, while neglecting to take any questions from the students in the room. We’re showing up to share our voice, but the respect isn’t being reciprocated. Nevertheless, it’s assuring to know that Connecticut has Senator Chris Murphy as an ally to resist the fascism of Donald Trump, and it’s good to know that Wesleyan has a role in affecting local politics.

I spoke to Ben Florsheim ’14 after the town hall, who works as an Outreach Assistant for Senator Murphy. I asked him about Senator Murphy’s twitter, and he told me that around half of the tweets are from the Senator himself, and the other half are from his Digital Director Lia Albimi. He assured me though that all of the good tweets were from Senator Murphy himself, saying that Albimi managed more of the policy-oriented and info-rich tweets.

Florsheim also explained that the town hall was planned with 5 days’ notice and was originally supposed to be much smaller. When I raised the issue of Senator Murphy not fielding questions from students, he assured that Senator Murphy has been to Wesleyan many times and would love to come back for an event that is more student-oriented.