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Stephanie Murphy Went from Vietnam War Refugee to Member of Congress

Image: Stephanie Murphy

In this Oct. 18, 2016 photo, Florida Democratic congressional candidate Stephanie Murphy, center, meets with voters at a senior center in Altamonte Springs, Fla. John Raoux / AP

Stephanie Murphy never imagined she'd be running for public office. It wasn't until four months before November's election that the new representative from Florida even officially filed to run for office.

"I'm a fairly private person," she told NBC News. "I guess that's behind me now."

Murphy made history on Election Night by becoming the first Vietnamese-American woman and only the second Vietnamese American elected to Congress.

The 38-year-old Democrat will represent Florida's 7th Congressional District — an area of central Florida encompassing Seminole County and a large chunk of northern Orange County, including downtown Orlando.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as Đặng Thị Ngọc Dung, Murphy is the daughter of refugees who escaped from Vietnam by boat when she was just an infant. Her family dwelled in various refugee camps before settling in Virginia, where they worked at blue-collar jobs by day and cleaned office buildings and banks at night — often bringing Murphy and her older brother with them.

Image:
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. administers the House oath of office to Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, as the 115th Congress began. Jose Luis Magana / AP

With the assistance of student loans and Pell Grants, Murphy and her brother attended college. She graduated with a bachelor's from the College of William and Mary, where she double majored in international relations and economics. After graduating, she went into financial consulting at Deloitte.

Murphy was working in Washington, D.C. during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I remember looking outside my window and seeing what looked like a scene out of a Godzilla movie," she said. "Cars were gridlocked in the street. People were running. False information was being spread everywhere."

The tragedy roused a desire in Murphy to give back to the country that had saved her family — the U.S. Navy had rescued them at sea when her father's boat ran out of fuel, she said — and given her opportunities to succeed.

She left the private sector and earned a master's degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, going on to work as a national security specialist at the Department of Defense. She moved to Orlando in 2008 to refocus on business and raise her two children with her husband.

"My parents always taught me freedom isn't free, and you pay back your debts," Murphy said.

Earlier this year, Murphy was working as an executive for Florida-based Sungate Capital, LLC, and teaching business and social entrepreneurship classes at Rollins College when she was approached by members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) seeking her advice on recruiting candidates who could challenge Republican John Mica, who had represented Florida's 7th Congressional District since 1993.

While Mica had run virtually uncontested for 23 years, redistricting by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 made the 7th District competitive. The circumstances allowed the DCCC to attempt to turn the longtime red seat blue.

"Her advice was to seek out candidates whose community reputation was that of a problem solver and someone who could work with people to get things done," Rep. Dennis Heck (D-Wash.), who is a member of the DCCC and met with Murphy, told NBC News. "The more Stephanie talked about an ideal candidate, the more I believed she was describing herself without being aware of it."

It became obvious to Heck that Murphy fit the profile. He asked her to run, an invitation she immediately declined. Murphy was heavily involved in the central Florida community, taking part in local nonprofits such as Support Our Scholars, which helps underprivileged young women attend and complete college, but she didn't see herself representing the district in Congress.

But as months passed, the commentary surrounding the upcoming presidential election began to worry Murphy.

"The rhetoric was getting darker and more divisive," Murphy said. "I was hearing things that didn't align with the America I knew."

The turning point came with the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12. During the 2016 cycle, Mica accepted $5,000 from the National Rifle Association, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Murphy announced her campaign June 26, four months before the election.

"I had given myself about four months to do all the things a normal campaign does in a year," Murphy said, laughing, "I don't recommend it."

Murphy credits her hard working staff and a canvassing team of over 100 people, as well as a campaign emphasis on change, security, and equality, for raising support and changing the minds of voters who had a long history of voting for Mica.

She also received endorsements from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who praised Murphy's support for tighter gun control policies.

On Election Night, Murphy defeated Mica with 51 percent of the vote.

Just weeks away from her official swearing-in, Murphy has plans to use her background in financial consulting to lower taxes, help local businesses, and invest more in public education (her district is home to the University of Central Florida).

While she recognizes the challenges that will arise while enacting change as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled House, and under the Trump administration, she's confident that working in a bipartisan matter with her fellow members of Congress will allow her to better aid her constituents.

"I'm willing to work with anyone who will work with me," Murphy said. "It's the American way."

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