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Former state Senate President 'Jerry' Murphy recalled as bipartisan leader

In the late 1970s, 19th District Democratic state Sen. James “Jerry” Murphy Jr. had a long-running, at times bitter political competition with an Essex senator over issues and political influence in Hartford.

But in December 1980, that rival, fellow Democrat Dick Schneller, nominated Murphy to become Senate president pro tempore. Their political rivalry didn’t end, but neither did their mutual respect.

“They sit next to each other in the Senate and still engage in cordial chit-chat,” Day political reporter Stan DeCoster wrote in one column in 1977. “They might try to stick it to each other on bills where they have competing interests. But that’s allowed under the political rules. It’s nothing personal.”

“He was very pragmatic,” Norwich Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom said of Murphy on Tuesday. “The way politics is now is so partisan, he would never have stood for that. He saw value in everyone.”

Murphy, 84, died Sunday at his home in Lord’s Point, Stonington, after a battle with bone cancer. A fighter to the end, he had traveled to New York two weeks ago to volunteer for a clinical trial for a possible new treatment, his wife of 62 years, Barbara Murphy, said Tuesday.

“His goal was to be accepted in the clinical trial,” she said. “That was one goal he didn’t make.”

Murphy had a long career in state and local politics and government service for his hometowns of Franklin and later Stonington, where he served stints on the boards of education, including for a time as chairman in Stonington. Long after his Senate career, he served on the Connecticut Siting Council, which hears complex, technical applications for power plants and cellular towers, for 14 years until 2019.

“Jerry Murphy epitomized what it means to serve in a citizen legislature,” U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said in a statement Tuesday. “He was a throwback to a time when you looked people in the eye and extended your hand. His word was his bond and he was a master legislator for working people. ‘The Man from Franklin,’ as he was called, was a country lawyer who skillfully applied his craft in our citizen legislature. He was able to size people up by listening to them, always subscribing to the saying less is better, and a wink and a nod better still. And he always kept his word. I am proud to have called him my mentor and friend. Our hearts go out to his wife Barbara and the entire Murphy family.”

Murphy, a graduate of Norwich Free Academy and the University of Connecticut, was an attorney and U.S. Army veteran, reaching the rank of lieutenant. After practicing law for several years in Norwich and serving on local boards, he was elected to the state Senate in 1970.

Though he often won re-election with easy victories, Murphy couldn’t beat the 1984 so-called “Reagan landslide," losing to Republican Eric Benson as Republicans swept into office on popular President Ronald Reagan’s coattails.

Nystrom, who had been serving on Norwich City Council, was among them, winning his first term as Norwich state representative that year. But Nystrom said he regretted Murphy’s loss.

“Losing him in 1984 was a tremendous loss to the city and to the whole state,” Nystrom said. “A guy from one of the smallest towns in the state of Connecticut, and he rose to the ranks of the highest position in the Senate. Today, a small-town senator wouldn’t even get considered.”

Murphy was described as a master negotiator, diplomat and deal-maker, working with colleagues from across the state with very different interests.

“He understood the value of working with people, particularly in politics to get things done,” Norwich Corporation Counsel and longtime attorney Michael Driscoll said. “He would agree to support things that probably weren’t a great concern in this area, but three or four years later, he could count on people to be on his side.”

Murphy helped end an eastern Connecticut political battle over where to locate a new state courthouse, the result bringing a new courthouse to downtown Norwich and downtown New London.

“The courthouse in Norwich never would have happened without Jerry,” said Dennis Riley, who worked as Murphy’s executive assistant in the Senate.

When the state received a federal grant to create new national parks, impractical in the small state, Murphy helped convert the funding to be used to preserve open space. In Norwich, the grant helped the city purchase the Norwich Golf Course from the then-Norwich Inn & Spa.

A plaque inside the main entrance at the Norwich Golf Course declares Murphy “a friend of Norwich and a good friend of the NGCA,” referring to the Norwich Golf Course Authority.

As Murphy's assistant, Riley would compile notes on complex legislation and issues to present to the senator when he arrived at his office.

“He would come and park and walk up to the third floor and by then he would have assembled all the important stuff I had worked on for a week just by talking to people,” Riley said.

Murphy’s wife, Barbara, was his “sounding board," Riley said.

They discussed issues great and small late into the night, Barbara Murphy said. “The best part of the marriage was he would come home at night and tell me everything that’s going on,” she said. “The fun things and the not-so-fun things.”

Along with raising their four children, Barbara worked for years in her husband’s law practice, first as a part-time bookkeeper and later as and full-time office manager.

Judge James Devine was a law partner in the firm with Murphy for 25 years, working with both Jerry and Barbara Murphy. After Murphy lost his Senate seat, he turned down an offer of a judgeship, preferring to continue his law practice, Devine said.

“A lot of people thought he had a terrific temperament to be a judge,” Devine said. “People like him are sorely missed in the legislature right now. He was a true believer of the system and knew how to deal with people on the other side of the aisle and come to a consensus, which is unfortunately not the case in the state legislature or on the national level.”

Calling hours will be held Sunday, Sept. 20, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Mystic Funeral Home, Route 1, Mystic, and will be open to everyone. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing guidelines will be in place and each attendee is requested to wear a mask. The funeral will be held the following day but attendance is limited to invitation only.

c.bessette@theday.com

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