Nate Murphy knocked on 8,000 doors and spent just $10 on his successful 2011 campaign for Pocatello’s school board, but the 22-year-old’s current bid to become Idaho’s youngest-ever legislator is exacting a higher price.
He’s running for Pocatello’s District 29 House seat as a Democrat in a Republican-dominated state. He also has a misdemeanor marijuana conviction from 2008 he knew he’d likely have to explain to voters before November.
And in March, he was accidentally outed as gay after Idaho’s only openly gay lawmaker told The New York Times that Murphy would be taking up her legacy.
That’s how his father and grandmother found out about his bisexuality.
Given those distractions, Murphy is working hard to refocus voter attention on the topics that matter to him, not diversionary issues he says distract from his core message of improving Idaho education, a theme that won him his School District 25 trustee seat last year.
“At the end of the line, I think the election is going to be my record in public service and the issues important to my district,” he said.
Until now, the youngest Idaho lawmaker was former Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, 26 when elected in 2006.
Murphy, still a junior at Idaho State University after taking semesters off to run Democratic campaigns in southwestern Idaho, aims to claim that title by telling voters he’ll fight Idaho public schools chief Tom Luna’s education reforms, passed by the 2011 Legislature to require online classes and student laptops.
Sticking to his message, however, has not been easy.
Earlier this year, Sen. Nicole LeFavour told The Times she was excited to think of Murphy becoming Idaho’s second-ever openly gay lawmaker. LeFavour, D-Boise, is the first, and the newspaper was profiling her retirement.
The only problem, Murphy said last week, he wasn’t out.
“I didn’t solicit that at all,” Murphy told The Associated Press in an interview.
LeFavour has since apologized to Murphy for breaking the gay community’s cardinal rule: Letting people come out on their own.
“I didn’t know he wasn’t out,” she said. “I felt horrible.”
Murphy has since made peace with his outing, accepting the endorsement of the Washington, D.C.-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. The group encourages gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates to address questions about their sexuality frankly – before quickly shifting to matters more important to voters.
“If a candidate spends too much time talking about their sexual orientation, they’re likely going to alienate voters,” said Denis Dison, a spokesman.
Murphy said he’s following that advice to win voters in a district where Idaho State University and his school district are the biggest employers.
“The social issues are not going to keep people in my district employed or not,” he said.
Catalina Steckbauer, the Bannock County Democratic Party’s chairwoman, doesn’t think Murphy’s bisexuality is going to matter in Pocatello, an old railroad town with a painting of its namesake Indian chief in the vacant train depot downtown.
“I really believe that is a non-issue,” Steckbauer said. “In other parts of the state, it could be, but not here.”
A mixture of union members, students and ISU academics have kept District 29 Democratic for the last two decades.
The district is important to Democrats’ strategy of expanding their reach in the Legislature beyond the scant 20 of 105 seats the minority party holds now.
“Nate’s a special one,” said state Democratic Party chairman Larry Grant. “That’s a seat we need to keep.”
During an AP review of numerous Idaho candidates’ criminal records, Murphy’s four-year-old drug conviction emerged.
In 2008, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession, paying a $471 fine.
Murphy calls it a foolish teen blunder. He was smoking along a suburban path in Eagle, Idaho, west of Boise where he grew up, and somebody reported him to police. “I was 18 and stupid,” Murphy said. “It made me re-evaluate the choices I was making then.”
Murphy’s Republican opponent this November is Dave Bowen, 59-year-old masonry contractor.
Bowen lost in 2010 to incumbent Democratic Rep. Elaine Smith by 531 votes, or about six percentage points, but believes Murphy’s youth and biography may catch up to him.
“Pocatello is a pretty family-oriented town,” said Bowen, a father of six. “Anything that goes against family values is going to be an issue. He’s a nice guy and all that, he’s accomplished a lot for a kid who is 22. But he’s still 22.”
Murphy’s Democratic supporters said they aren’t wavering, despite a few campaign hiccups.
“Some of it sounds like youth,” said Rep. Roy Lacey, a Pocatello Democrat. “Nate will be a great legislator, he lives and breathes politics.”
Download a PDF of the current issue of Wisconsin Gazette and join our Facebook community.