Bristol — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Chris Murphy said Friday that he "made a mistake" for missing mortgage and rent payments in the mid-2000s and contrasted his past financial troubles with those of his Republican opponent, Linda McMahon.
"I'm not perfect," Murphy said. "I made a mistake. And I took steps to correct that mistake."
Documents made public for the first time this week revealed that Murphy briefly faced foreclosure proceedings on his former Cheshire house in March 2007, two months after he was sworn in to Congress.
Additionally, in December 2003 a landlord began eviction proceedings against Murphy for failing to pay rent on a Southington apartment. The candidate was a bachelor and state senator at the time.
Murphy, a lawyer, said he promptly paid both sets of bills in full once lawsuits brought to his attention the overdue balances. His mortgage troubles were first brought to light by Kevin Rennie, a Hartford Courant columnist and former Republican state senator.
Murphy answered questions about the debts Friday afternoon while attending the 131st "Crocodile Club" political luncheon at Lake Compounce in Bristol. He pointed out how Linda McMahon and her husband, Vince, experienced home foreclosure and declared bankruptcy in 1976 before their wrestling business made them Greenwich multimillionaires.
Although McMahon generally slides off questions regarding details of her past bankruptcy, a campaign spokesperson during her 2010 Senate run put the size of her and her husband's debt at around $1 million.
The McMahons' bankruptcy was reportedly a result of bad investments and Vince McMahon's failed promotions, such as an unsuccessful jump by Evel Knievel across Snake River Canyon in Idaho.
"The story here is the difference between Linda McMahon and I," Murphy told reporters Friday. "We both made mistakes on our mortgages. The difference is that I took steps immediately to pay it back and Linda McMahon went to court to try to avoid paying her debts.
"That's the contrast voters are going to see. Two people who ran into trouble — as a lot of people do — one candidate who fixed the problem, and the other candidate who went to great lengths and great expense to weasel out of paying her obligations."
McMahon mingled with the luncheon crowded, but left before Murphy's late arrival. As a candidate, McMahon has highlighted her bankruptcy experience in numerous television ads, telling how she and her husband, like many families in today's tough economy, have known financial hardship.
Speaking to reporters, McMahon insisted that there is a difference between their 1970s struggles — decades before she sought public office — and what Murphy experienced in the 2000s while an elected official.
"My bankruptcy was 40 years ago. It's all said and done," McMahon said. "The issues that Congressman Murphy needs to respond to as a sitting congressman are far different than the issues of a private citizen going through bankruptcy."
She declined a suggestion to present documents pertaining to that past bankruptcy, replying, "I think these are whole different issues between Congressman Murphy and I."
Murphy said the fact that McMahon wasn't in politics during her debt crisis is an inconsequential distinction. "As soon as I found out I made a mistake, I paid back my creditors, and that's a statement about values," he said. "Whether or not she was in political life then, she's had a long time to repair her mistake, and over the course of three decades she hasn't."
Yet Murphy also gave an incomplete accounting Friday of his debt experiences, telling reporters that he couldn't recall how many home mortgage or rental payments he missed. "It was a handful of payments, I don't know exactly how many it was," he said of the mortgage. "It was during the time when I was being sworn in to Congress and setting up the new office. My (fiancé) and I were consolidating our finances together, and we inadvertently missed a few payments."
Also disclosed this week was how Murphy, despite his history of unpaid bills and foreclosure and eviction threats, obtained additional financing in July 2008 from the same institution, Webster Bank, that held the two mortgages ($180,000 and $22,500) on his Cheshire house.
McMahon's campaign charges that Murphy, then a member of the House Financial Services Committees, got a below-market sweetheart deal from Webster when it refinanced his home equity loan into a larger $43,000 home equity line of credit with a 4.99 percent interest rate.
That same year, Webster's political action committee contributed $1,350 to Murphy's re-election campaign.
"The story here is that a member of Congress who sat on the Financial Services Committee got a home equity line of credit at an interest rate that most people who walk in off the street couldn't get," said Todd Abrajano, McMahon's campaign spokesman.
Both Murphy and the bank emphatically deny any preferential treatment.
"It's ridiculous," Murphy said. "I applied to Webster Bank just like any of their customers would, and I was approved just like any of their customers."
Sarah Barr, vice president of external communications for Webster, said in a statement that all loans Murphy received "were approved with no exceptions and were priced in line with the prevailing market rates and terms."
Murphy's 2011 tax return showed him and his wife with a combined income of $220,125. Disclosure forms show Murphy's yearly income in 2006 as $77,571.
It's a long-held tradition at the Crocodile Club luncheon for elected officials and candidates to punctuate speeches with humor. Murphy didn't pass up the opportunity.
"I'm really sorry I was a little bit late," he told the group. "I had to drop my little 4-year-old off at preschool. I had to pick up the dry cleaning. … I had to pay my mortgage."
There were laughs and applause, and a follow-up joke.
"Listen, I'm kind of kicking myself now. I realize that I got this all wrong," Murphy said. "Instead of having paid back my debts, if I had just declared bankruptcy I could be running on it right now. It could be the centerpiece of my campaign."