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Springfield’s Mike Murphy announces early retirement from Ill. House

Mike Murphy

State Rep. Mike Murphy (R-Springfield) will resign from his 99th District seat in the Illinois House on Tuesday night ahead of his scheduled start date as head of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

The Republican had already announced he wouldn’t be running for another term in General Assembly earlier this fall, and his selection as the new president and CEO of the chamber was made public in early November. But Murphy is leaving his term 13 months early, triggering a 30-day deadline for Sangamon County GOP officials to choose his successor.

Murphy on Tuesday told NPR Illinois he would miss representing the southwest half of Springfield and most of western Sangamon County in the General Assembly, but was thrilled with his new role.

“I can hardly wait to go to sleep tonight because I really want to wake up tomorrow morning and just get to work,” Murphy said. “[Springfield has] a lot of potential, but we have challenges. Those challenges — all we’ve got to do is overcome them and then we’re going to be one of the great cities in the state of Illinois, if not the Midwest. I think we have unlimited potential.”

Murphy is no stranger to the chamber, having served on its board for years before leaving in 2020. He spent much of his career in the restaurant business, and owned Charlie Parker’s Diner in Springfield for eight years before he and his wife sold it in 2017.

He’d has served in the House for a little less than three years, but as a Divernon native who settled in Springfield, Murphy has been around the Capitol for most of his 68 years. As a teen, Murphy delivered mail for the former Illinois Department of General Services, sometimes catching legislative debates on the House floor, where — five decades later — he’d take part in debates of his own.

“I was thinking how special those people were,” Murphy said Tuesday. “I learned in my lifetime they’re not special people. The job they do is special but they’re just regular people. That’s obvious because here I am, a guy who was flipping pancakes for a living, was one of those 118 people who served on the floor.”

Murphy was elected to the General Assembly in 2018, replacing Sara Wojcicki Jiminez (R-Springfield), who didn’t run again after three years in the House. Though political polarization in once-chummy Springfield is catching up with the deep divides in Washington, D.C., Murphy repeatedly cited times when he worked and voted with Democrats as moments he was most proud of during his term in office.

At the end of his first legislative session in 2019, Murphy voted with Democrats — and more than a dozen other Republicans — to double Illinois’ long-stagnated 19-cent-per-gallon motor fuel tax to fund construction and maintenance of roads and bridges. But that vote, plus an affirmative vote on that year’s state budget that included GOP-demanded business tax incentives, earned the freshman lawmaker critics from his own party, who Murphy said called him a RINO — an acronym for “Republican in Name Only.”

“When people call me a RINO, I kinda like that,” Murphy said with a laugh. “I think, well, ‘I’m not a purist.’ You know, I’m willing to listen and work with people on the other side of the aisle.”

And as Murphy sees it, political purity tests are harming both parties. Murphy has some parting advice for his fellow GOP members.

“I think we need to be more open-minded and we can’t be purists,” Murphy said. “So many in our party feel like if you’re not with them 100% of the time, you’re a RINO...The other side of the aisle I disagree with a lot, but there’s some smart people over there too. They’ve got some good ideas. We just maybe need to come at it from a different direction, but we can’t do that if we’re not talking.”

Murphy said that to him, fiscal conservatism shouldn’t mean a near-total rejection of government and the taxes that support public spending — a libertarian notion that’s influenced the modern GOP for decades — but rather an emphasis on accountability attached to that spending.

“I’m a conservative guy. I’m not an ultra-conservative,” Murphy said. “I don’t mind spending money but I hate wasting money…I understand we do need revenue to accomplish things; I just want to make sure it’s wisely spent.”

Murphy pointed to one of the first pieces of legislation he sponsored as more evidence of bipartisan work resulting in a win. In his first weeks in office, Murphy filed a bill to nix algebra from Illinois’ high school math requirements. The Republican admitted he stumbled over his initial presentation to Rep. Michelle Mussman (D-Schaumburg), then-chair of the House committee concerned with public school curriculum.

Read more: The X Factor: Should Illinois Nix Algebra Requirement?

But another Democrat, Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville), asked Murphy if the two could work together on the bill, even though “I had never even spoken to Katie before that day,” Murphy recalled.

Stuart, who holds two mathematics degrees, plus an additional math certification and taught math for years, wasn’t on board with eliminating the state’s algebra requirement. But the pair reached a compromise, which is now state law, allowing schools to include traditional math subjects in applied skills or career training courses, like teaching geometry as a component of a carpentry class.

Murphy said he approached Mussman after his bill received approval in committee to thank her, who he remembers saying, “You worked too hard on that bill not to have it hit the floor.” It passed unanimously out of both the House and Senate, and Gov. JB Pritzker signed it into law.

“And it wouldn’t have [become law] if I wasn’t willing to work with Democrats,” Murphy said. “On the other side, if Democrats weren’t willing to work with me, it wouldn’t have happened. I will always remember that because [though] there were days we didn’t work together…I think it showed me how government can work and how it should work.”

But despite his optimism, Murphy isn’t blind to political realities — especially the one that prompted his early exit from the House.

Democrats’ supermajority control in the General Assembly meant control of the once-per-decade legislative remapping process, which landed him in the same newly drawn House district as fellow GOP Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville). Instead mounting a primary challenge against Bourne, a rising star in the Republican party, Murphy accepted an offer to replace outgoing Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Hembrough, who announced his plans to leave the job in August.

Murphy has a bright outlook for Springfield’s future, telling NPR Illinois he already met with Pritzker’s office last week to discuss revitalizing downtown Springfield — the key to the city’s success, he said. Murphy is especially optimistic for the eventual payoff of the years-long downtown 3rd and 10th Street rail corridor projects, including making Springfield a destination for its medical district, not just in Illinois but nationally.

“I believe that wholeheartedly to the core of my body,” Murphy said.

Murphy will attend one final constituent services event on Tuesday evening — a financial aid seminar at the University of Illinois Springfield — before officially resigning at 11:59 p.m.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capital News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at outlets including WILL-AM/FM, Law360, The Daily Line and a temporary stint at political blog Capitol Fax before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.