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By Kristen Clark
Patrick Murphy talks frequently on the campaign trail about income inequality and the middle class.

It can seem like a tone-deaf talking point, coming from a two-term U.S. congressman whose personal and political success has largely been borne from his South Florida millionaire family.

After all, how could someone who grew up attending elite private schools, had guaranteed job security through a family business and whose father has helped bankroll his political career ever relate to the average Floridian?

While his family’s wealth and influence has certainly boosted Murphy’s career, there’s actually more to the upbringing of this Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate than he has let on before.

The son of divorced parents, Murphy as a toddler lived for a time with a single mother who was addicted to drugs. The conditions grew so bad that his paternal grandfather took him away from his mother so Murphy could be raised by his father instead.

Murphy’s formative childhood years were spent moving around the Florida Keys, as the construction company his dad founded grew. During that time, he didn’t see his birth mother much as she grappled with her addiction.

It wasn’t really until he was entering his teenage years that Murphy saw the comforts of stability and wealth that his father’s success produced. By then, Murphy’s own hard work was paving a path for his future.

The story of his earliest years is a part of Murphy’s life that he’s kept guarded until now. He shared the details for the first time publicly with the Times/Herald in recent interviews, three months before a contentious Democratic primary that will decide whether Murphy — considered a front-runner in the race to replace Marco Rubio — advances to the general election in November.

“I’ve grown up in a very diverse background,” he said. “One side of the family that no one talks about or knows about is my birth mom’s side of the family. My grandmother lives in a trailer; it’s as lower income as it gets. My birth mom has certainly not lived a life of means in any stretch of the imagination, nor does she want to. It’s exactly where she wants to be.”

Rough early years

Patrick Erin Murphy was born in Miami in March 1983 to Tom Murphy Jr. and his second wife, Kathleen.

“(They) had a great relationship, fell in love, were living in the Keys together,” Patrick Murphy said. “Shortly after I was born, she started to develop a drug problem. Because of that, my parents spent less and less time together and started to separate.”

Kathleen and Tom divorced in November 1987, and Patrick went to live with his mom in Homestead. Being not far from the Keys, it was easy for his father’s family to visit.

His grandfather, Tom Murphy Sr., stopped by one day and found an alarming sight.

“My mom was in pretty tough shape; he literally just grabbed me at that moment — didn’t even get clothes or anything — just grabbed me and drove me home to the Keys to live with him and my grandmother,” Patrick Murphy said.

Shortly thereafter, Tom Murphy Jr. met his third and current wife, Leslie. They married around the time Patrick was 6, and she legally adopted Patrick so he could be raised with her and his father, Patrick Murphy said.

It was “so admirable for Kathy, my birth mom, to have given up her rights to me,” Murphy said. “I think that’s rare for anybody to do, but she was always such a great person and knew that she was in no position to raise me.”

Kathleen was “in rehab on and off for the greater part of my life and childhood,” Murphy said. She got clean, though, when Murphy was in college and they now have a “great relationship,” staying in touch by phone or text almost daily, he said.

“It’s one of those things you don’t think about,” said Murphy, now 33. “But I look back at my high school years and college years and 20s and all that growing up — I’ve never tried a drug in my life; I’ve never even smoked weed. No one believes me when I say it, but if they know my story and they know about my mom, it’s obviously more believable because of what I saw growing up.”

Kathleen, now remarried and living in Wisconsin, declined to be interviewed for this story. Tom Murphy Jr. did not respond to requests for an interview.

A kid in the Keys

Patrick Murphy — or “Erin,” as he was known by friends and family until his foray into politics five years ago — lived all over the Keys in “honestly 16 different houses or apartments growing up.” He joined his dad as Tom Murphy Jr. moved to where the work was and to grow Coastal Construction, now one of the largest building companies in South Florida.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, business boomed for Tom Murphy Jr.

The Murphys moved to the blossoming Broward County suburb of Weston so Patrick could attend better schools. The elementary school in Key Largo was too laid back for his parents, Patrick Murphy said.

“The teacher showed up in flip-flops and board shorts. It was a funny, unique childhood,” Murphy recalled.

The family was in Broward less than two years before moving to Kendall and later Miami, so Patrick could start seventh grade at Palmer Trinity School — a top private preparatory school.

While at Palmer Trinity, Patrick excelled in academics and athletics. As a baseball player and a starting running back on the football team, he was one of the popular kids in his class, teachers and classmates recall.

“He’s very genuine and pretty much what you see is what you get,” said Maria Vanegas, a math teacher at the school who taught Murphy his junior and senior years. “He was very friendly to all. That was one of the things I noticed about him immediately.”

Murphy went on to be president of his senior class in 2000-01 — a “natural leader,” close friend Wes Farrell said, although neither Murphy nor his friends at the time predicted a career in politics.

“People looked up to him the way he carried himself and the way he treated people. People respected him for that,” Farrell said.

Murphy was a driven athlete but injuries dampened his prospects. He tore three knee ligaments during the opening football game of his junior year, a critical time for potential college athletes to show off their skills.

By his senior year, Murphy said he was in conversations to play baseball at the University of Miami and a few other schools. But instead, he opted to take a “post-graduate year” after graduating from Palmer Trinity. Murphy went to the elite Lawrenceville School in New Jersey in 2001-02, where tuition, room and board this year is about $58,000 a year.

“I didn’t know which sport I wanted to play in college,” he said. “So Lawrenceville gave me another opportunity to play sports another year, take my SATs again, get a great educational experience.”

But more injuries — a broken shoulder and a concussion — sidelined his athletic future permanently. Murphy went to the University of Miami on an academic scholarship to pursue business school, so he could be near his family and work through college, he said.

That’s when Murphy first joined the ranks of his father’s Coastal Construction company.

Working at Coastal

Billed as “Privileged Patrick” by his harshest Republican critics, Patrick Murphy is used to the more public aspects of his upbringing — the expensive private schools and his jobs at Coastal — being used against him in political attacks.

But it seems an internal struggle for him on the campaign trail. When reporters ask questions, he bristles slightly and deflects in an apparent effort to downplay the influence his family’s success and wealth has had on his personal and political career.

But he’ll also acknowledge he’s been “blessed that I have a family that worked very hard” and admits, “quite frankly, I never would have (run for Congress) if I didn’t have a family business. I was lucky enough to have that.”

At 19, Murphy started as a laborer, “drilling holes and pouring concrete” for Coastal. He later worked in the estimating and purchasing departments and as an assistant project engineer, he said.

As a freshman at Miami, Murphy had a run-in with the law that became fodder for attack ads in his first U.S. House race in 2012, and it has again in the current race. In February 2003, Murphy was arrested for having a fake ID and for disorderly intoxication outside a Miami Beach nightclub. The charges were later dropped. Murphy has called the incident “the biggest mistake of my life.”

He graduated from the University of Miami in 2006 with a bachelor’s in business administration. He’s come under fire recently for embellishing his academic achievement, after the Times/Herald reported that Murphy had for several years inaccurately claimed to have gotten “dual degrees.” His Senate campaign chalked it up to an “inadvertent error.”

Upon graduation, Murphy went back to Coastal to learn more from the family business. He worked in accounting for about a year before he said a Coastal executive urged him to break out on his own for a while.

Murphy took the advice and got a job at Deloitte & Touche in Miami, a nationally recognized accounting firm. He spent almost three years auditing the finances of Fortune 500 companies, he said. As a young professional, “I was as middle class as it comes,” Murphy said.

He earned his license in 2009 to be a certified public accountant. He’s licensed not in Florida but in Colorado, where the experience necessary to sit for the test is less stringent than Florida. The four-part test itself is the same nationwide.

“I was excited to get my license and to start my career,” Murphy said of his decision to get licensed outside of Florida.

Less than a year later, Murphy left Deloitte to return to Coastal. The recession had slowed business, and Murphy’s task was to help diversify the family company, he said.

After the BP oil spill in April 2010, Murphy was named vice president of Coastal Environmental Services — a new subsidiary that focused on environmental clean-up. His description of that experience is another vulnerability for Murphy, though, because he has claimed he “spent six months in the Gulf of Mexico leading cleanup efforts” but a timeline his campaign provided to the Tampa Bay Times contradicts that.

In the interview with the Times/Herald, he specified that his job focused on developing a new transportable oil skimmer in case oil got into a loop current and affected the Keys, as was initially feared.

The oil never moved south, but “we stayed in the Gulf of Mexico and a lot of my job was looking for more contracts and building these boats,” Murphy said.

Drawn to politics

It was the 2010 midterm elections and the rise of the tea party movement that spurred Murphy’s entrance into politics.

Frustrated by partisanship and extremism, Murphy decided to run for Congress. One of those from whom he sought advice was then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who like Murphy is a Republican convert to the Democratic Party.

Crist — who said he “came to know (Patrick) naturally through his father years ago” — recalled a long conversation with Murphy when Crist was still governor in 2010. (By then, Crist had disavowed the Republican Party and declared himself an independent.)

“I was an enthusiastic and early supporter of Patrick’s,” Crist said. “When he was first thinking about running … I encouraged him to follow his heart and said if he thought that’s what he wanted to do, to pursue it.”

Murphy, initially a Republican like his father, became a Democrat in January 2011, two months before he entered the U.S. House race to challenge incumbent Republican Allen West in the 2012 election.

Murphy continues to fight off criticism about his former ties to GOP, which included a $2,300 donation to Mitt Romney’s first presidential run in 2007. In Congress, he’s consistently been one of the more moderate Democrats in Florida’s delegation — voting with Republicans on some high-profile issues, such as supporting the Keystone pipeline.

Murphy describes his political ideology as “fiscally responsible, socially progressive.”

But “progressive” is a seemingly new emphasis Murphy has used to describe himself in his Senate campaign, as he faces a competitive primary on Aug. 30 against progressive firebrand and fellow U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando and Miami labor attorney Pam Keith.

In his previous races — particularly his 2014 re-election — Murphy emphasized his independence and bipartisanship, even touting how much he bucked Democratic Party leadership during his first term in office.

Murphy said he’s always tried to convey both his progressive ideals and his willingness to compromise on fiscal matters.

“There’s certain issues, as I say in my speeches, that I’m not going to compromise on; I’m not going to compromise on a woman’s right to choose and on marriage equality,” Murphy said, “Things I’ve always fought for and been an advocate for, but at the same time understanding that in government, you’ve got to be able to get things done, you’ve got to be able to find common ground.”

During his first U.S. House race, Murphy moved to Jupiter in Palm Beach County to challenge West for the 18th Congressional District seat. After a bitter, nasty campaign — and one of the most expensive congressional races in history with about $30 million spent — Murphy was elected by a narrow victory. At age 29, he became the youngest member of the U.S. House at the time.

He could be the youngest member of the U.S. Senate, too, if elected this year.

Murphy said the 2012 race taught him hard lessons about the scrutiny politicians can face. He said it’s made him more guarded when he speaks in public and “you don’t trust people as much unfortunately.”

“It showed me how negative politics can be, or how nasty things can get,” he said. “It was a sad eye-opener to see it first hand and to see how things can get twisted and to see what people listen to, what they don’t listen to.”