Ian Murphy made headlines with a prank call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Now he’s campaigning for a spot in Congress.
Ian Murphy, editor of the Buffalo Beast, has made a career of duping elected officials, from Hillary Clinton’s “superdelegates” to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. But if the chips fall his way, Murphy might be a congressman himself later this spring.
Last month, Murphy announced his candidacy for the open seat in New York’s 26th District, the seat vacated by Craigslist charmer Chris Lee. But while his prank call to Walker in February thrust him into the national spotlight, Murphy is fighting an uphill battle to win votes in his home district against three millionaire opponents.
We’ve written before that the impersonation was ethically questionable from a journalistic standpoint, but the motive behind it—a desire to deconstruct corporate influence in American politics—is vital to democracy. Murphy’s running his campaign around just that ideal, promising to represent the working class, a promise he believes that his wealthy opponents can’t match. He insists they’ll only further the demise of the American political system instigated by corporate greed.
We sat down with Murphy to discuss the impact of corporate greed, citizens’ access to politicians, and where he sees his campaign going in the month before the election.
Thanks so much for talking to me. Like you showed in your article and I explore in my look at Congressional correspondence, there seem to be separate channels for the rich and the powerful to talk to government officials. What do you think the Walker situation says about American Democracy?
It says American democracy is fucked, basically. … The amount of money that’s in the campaign process and whatever backdoor deals besides that is just hard to overcome at the ballot. What you end up getting is these corporate centrist Democrats and Republicans who are a hair’s-breadth difference in their ideology because they’re both backed by the same enormous corporations who need the same tax breaks and the same write-offs and same unfair advantage.
Since those parties are so closely aligned and have such a monopoly on campaign funds, do you think it’s possible for a third party like your Green Party to emerge a legitimate challenger?
It’s possible, it’s just hard as hell. In the same way the call was kind of a culture jam, kind of a judo move, we’re going to have to do the same sort of thing campaign-wise because obviously we don’t have $3 million to burn. I’m not going to spend a million of my own money because I’ve never seen a million dollars in my life, and I probably never will. So we’ve got to be creative, and there’s a chance. Realistically, it’s not a huge chance, but I also think it’s important to cheerlead that we do have a chance, because if people think you have a chance, then you have more of a chance.
So an effective campaign tactic is culture jamming—do you have any specific tactics in mind that you wouldn’t mind sharing with me?
[Evil laugh.] Put that in brackets—“evil laugh.” I really can’t talk about it, it would kind of ruin everything. Sorry.
You do have something in the cooker, though?
We do have a few fun tricks planned. But I will say that, generally, stuff like social media, Facebook, and Twitter really help with actual populous movements. Back in the day, there was no way you could hook up with other disaffected people, and now you can.
In the piece you wrote following the Walker “conversation” you wondered if it could really be that easy to get through to him. Were you expecting to slip through as quickly as you did?
As I was planning the project, it seemed unrealistic. I didn’t think I’d get through, I really didn’t. That’s the short answer, I guess. I didn’t expect it to actually work. But the second I got through to the assistant executive governor Dorothy Moore, it seemed like it was possible because the name Koch just carries so much weight with these people.
What do you think was the most significant thing to come out of your conversation—was it the fact that Walker admitted to considering using “troublemakers” to make protestors to look bad? Or was it the fact that you were able to get through so quickly?
I’d say it was both. I mean the fact that I was able to get through at all, the fact that he spoke to me like a giddy schoolgirl for 20 minutes—I think Thom Hartman put it really well when he said it sounded like he was applying for a job.
If you want to take it piece by piece, I think there are a couple of important things that happened. One, he kind of revealed his plan to trick the Democrats back into session, so hopefully when that broke, the Democrats said, “Hey, we’re not going to listen to this guy no matter what he says,” even though they ended up cramming through the bill illegally anyway. I just think that was important. Another important thing was the “troublemakers” thing was how I led the piece because I thought that was atrocious.
And you know, at the end, when he’s kind of accepting a trip out to Cali to have a good time, I mean, that’s completely illegal. You can’t do that.
But I guess they still passed the bill illegally anyways, so legality matters little to them.
And it’s really atrocious because they passed the bill illegally; they didn’t give the two-hour notice that they have to, right? And they crammed it through the assembly the next day. I was in Madison that day—it was a fucking madhouse. … The Capitol was mobbed with thousands of people within, like, a half hour. It was really an amazing thing to see, and kind of inspiring to see people acting so, uh, cool and on top of it. But also depressing because they did cram it through.
And since, a judge has issued a temporary stay against the law because it was done illegally, and they’re ignoring the judge.
But they were able to do this despite not only your effective culture jamming, but also the mass movement in Madison. Is there any hope, then, that we can actually rally and stop things like this?
Yeah. First of all it proves that they’re illegal, unethical, illegitimate crooks, and that they have no business being in power. Second of all, it’s really not over. It’s not over. A lot of the senate republicans there face recalls … there’s going to be a couple people who get recalled. And unfortunately the law is that Walker has to be in office for a year before an official recall can be mounted, but I think that’s going to happen because he basically lied about what he was going to do once he got into office, and he’s pissing everyone off. I’ve got to hope that there’s going to be some repercussions for this.
I talked to a former congressional letter writer who said it was extraordinarily difficult to get through to a senator—in your experience, would you say that’s true?
IM: Yeah, I’ve never talked to a senator in my life. I’ve tried, I’ve tried to interview plenty of senators; no one’s ever gotten back to me yet. One time I did actually get through to a bunch of Congress people. We did a cheap Hillary Clinton soundboard [impersonating Clinton when she sought “superdelegates” to win the Democratic nomination]. We got on the line with a few people, but that was just silly fun, and we weren’t even trying to prove anything.
Is there a better way to handle constituent-politician interaction though? Considering the scale of our democracy, it makes a kind of perverse sense that the people who hold the most power are going to get straight through to others in power. Is there a way to limit that possibility?
I don’t know, man, I really don’t. I’ve never even tried to contact someone like Kucinich or Bernie Sanders, and I think they might actually talk to you because they’re cool. And some of these guys with their Twitter accounts, you could “@anthonyweiner” and maybe he’ll tweet back. But I don’t know. Practically they can’t talk to everyone, so I can even understand some of that. But access is what this is all about? I don’t know how to change that. Publicly funded elections?
Can you effectively run a democracy with 300 million people?
Yeah. I don’t see why not. I don’t think the amount of people holds back the principle of democracy. There might be more disagreement among people … but the real problem is money in politics. Money is the killer of democracy. It’s not people. I mean, in theory the whole world could be a democracy and everything would be fucking awesome, but right now it’s about who has the bucks.
What inspired your campaign, then? What made you want to run?
Because the country is not doing well, and there’s a lot of bullshit out there I want to cut through. Specifically, in this area, the census numbers came through and they confirmed what everyone already knew: everyone’s leaving because there’s no jobs, there’s no economic opportunities … it’s completely backward, the lines we’ve been sold about how to get jobs here, you know, “tax cuts to corporations” and stuff like that. Short of winning, the idea of running is just to bring some of these commonsense issues to the fore.
Let’s say—hypothetically—you did win, how would you handle contact with your constituents?
I would never talk to them.
No, of course I would. I’m sure I’d have at least one dude on staff who answered everyone’s emails and if someone really, really wanted to talk to me and I had the time, I’d talk to him. I’d probably talk to a lot of people, frankly. I’m pretty accessible as it is and I don’t think that were to change if I were in Congress, because that’s important. You’ve got to talk to your constituents. If you’re supposed to be representing these people, you’ve got to talk to them and know what they want.
No kidding. And you’re right, money is a core issue. I wonder what can be done to stop that.
Well, on my campaign website, I have sort of a silly suggestion, but the idea of transparency and accountability is really important to me. What I propose is that every elected official should be mounted with a 24-hour webcam, so not only do we know what they’re doing, but we can sort of communicate with them.
So you do have some tongue-in-cheek ideas like that, and your campaign video was, uh, atypical. Are you running earnestly? Do you think you can win?
Well, you’ve got to think you can win to win, right? But I’m doing this for all the earnest reasons. I can’t say who’s going to win and who’s not. It’s a seriously Republican district—in reality, do I have a huge chance? No. But there’s a perfect storm.
This interview first appeared in Buzzsaw magazine.
—Photo via MurphyCanHasCongress.com