Thirteen years ago when Democrat Willard H. Murray tried and failed to win an Assembly seat, he called Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton) a political double-dealer for supporting somebody else. Later he went to work for Dymally.
When Tom Bradley ran for mayor in 1973, Murray worked against him, designing campaign mail that Bradley branded a “vicious, outrageous falsification” of his record. Today, Murray regards the mayor as “one of my strongest supporters.”
A quintessential political survivor, Murray, 57, has spent nearly 30 years maneuvering through the twists and turns of Los Angeles County politics, sometimes as a candidate, mostly as a paid political operative known for producing the kind of campaign mail that gives opponents high blood pressure.
This year he is an Assembly candidate in the southeast part of the county, maneuvering to recapture blue-collar votes that two years ago helped elect a Republican, Paul E. Zeltner, in District 54. It’s the most heavily Democratic district in the state that is represented by the GOP.
Changed to Pro Death Penalty
Once an opponent of the death penalty, Murray now tells voters in the 54th, “I am pro death penalty.”
He denies his turnabout on the issue is a calculated move to win votes. “The people want it,” he said by way of explaining why he switched. His previous opposition, he said, was a personal “philosophical” belief. “I have matured.”
On other issues, too, Murray is sounding conservative, telling the Bellflower Kiwanis last month, “Restrictions on guns only keep guns from the good people.”
And branding it a typically “liberal” idea, he heaps scorn on a proposal by Zeltner, a retired sheriff’s captain, to give firms tax breaks for hiring gang members who commit felonies. Murray calls the idea “outrageous” when thousands of young people who don’t commit crimes or join gangs can’t get jobs.
Total spending in the Assembly contest, which is being waged largely through the mail, could easily top $1 million. The 54th is crucial to both parties, which want to be in control of the Legislature in 1990 when reapportionment takes place. Also, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) needs Murray’s vote to help him retain his post, which is threatened by Republicans and the so-called “Gang of Five” Democrats who want a new leader.
Ousting Zeltner won’t be easy even though 65% of the registered voters are Democrats. Zeltner has labeled Murray a carpetbagger, charging that he established a voting address in the district in order to run for office. And, two weeks ago, he forced the Democrat to concede that he did not have a college degree as claimed in his campaign literature.
A former Lakewood city councilman, Zeltner has strong roots in that city and in the Bellflower, Paramount and northeast Long Beach areas of the 54th. Murray’s political base is rooted in the black precincts of Compton and the Willowbook area.
Tall, balding and bespectacled, Murray is a man who usually has a cigarette smoking in one of his long, graceful hands, and orders doubles when he drinks. Though he relates well to voters, talking to them in a cheerful, off-hand manner when he knocks on their doors, his campaign staff has to push him to walk precincts. He seems happier working on political strategy.
‘Stays Upset 30 Seconds’
Compton City Councilman Maxcy D. Filer calls Murray a “consummate politician,” as well as an old friend. The two men, Filer says, have been on opposite sides in hotly contested campaigns “at least five times.” But no matter how furious the contest, said Filer, “Willard stays upset about 30 seconds because he’s a realist, a pragmatist.”
Murray, who walked his first precinct in 1960 for John Kennedy, was active in the civil rights movement and later went to work for then-Mayor Sam Yorty.
Filer fondly recalls the early ‘60s when he and Murray were active in the Young Democrats, “along with the Jerry Browns, the Willie Browns, (and now Congressmen Howard) Berman (and Henry) Waxman.
The Young Democrats from Beverly Hills, Filer remembers, were the only ones who had enough money to fly to Sacramento for meetings. He and Murray, says Filer, would fill a station wagon with Young Democrats from the Compton-East Los Angeles area and drive to the capital.
One of the group would register at a motel, Filer remembers, and the rest would slip into the room to sleep--if they didn’t stay up all night listening to Murray tell political war stories and secrets about how a particular campaign was won. “He would keep us in stitches,” Filer said.
Murray’s strategy for ousting Zeltner is to capitalize on broad backing from labor groups such as the state AFL-CIO and to convince the blue-collar voters who elected Zeltner two years ago that the GOP assemblyman has not been representing their economic interests.
“He does not vote like someone representing a working class district,” Murray said. “He votes like somebody representing a conservative, upper-income district.” Murray criticizes Zeltner for opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage and for not opposing the elimination of interest ceilings on bank credit cards.
Besides projecting a tough law and order stance, Murray is touting a long list of endorsements from law enforcement labor groups, including the Police Officers Research Assn. of California, the Assn. of Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs and the Long Beach Police Assn.
‘This Man Is Lying’
“I’m endorsed by almost all of the statewide or more prominent law enforcement groups,” Murray said. He scoffs at similar endorsements that Zeltner claims, saying they are from management groups--not the rank and file.
Zeltner’s campaign was the first to take the offensive, making a well-directed attack that landed in mailboxes two weeks ago. The mailing showed a picture of Murray over the caption, “This man is lying to you.”
Inside, Zeltner charged that Murray didn’t have a mathematics degree from UCLA as he claimed, that he really didn’t live in the district and that he didn’t work as a congressional legislative assistant as he had stated on the ballot next to his name.
The university confirmed that Murray was a student there for a semester in 1954 but did not get a degree. Murray issued a statement saying he was sorry if he had misled anyone and that from other schools he had collected more than 150 credits, more than many colleges require for a degree. Since then he and his campaign staff have declined to answer questions or return telephone calls to Times reporters.
Murray and his wife have owned a home in Baldwin Hills for years and, as Zeltner’s mailer states, Murray’s driver’s license bears that address. The Democrat established an address in Compton two years ago when he ran unsuccessfully in a divisive, nine-way Assembly primary that many people believe enabled Zeltner to win the general election.
This year, Murray’s voting address is a Paramount apartment. In 1975, he established a voting address in yet another Assembly district, the 47th, in time to run unsuccessfully in a special primary election. He did work for eight years as an aide to Dymally. But Murray told Kiwanis Club members last month that he took a leave from Dymally’s staff two years ago to run for the Assembly and has been living on his savings ever since.
One prominent Democrat who lives in the 54th but asked not to be named says Zeltner’s offensive against Murray was well-executed. “I think he (Murray) is in deep trouble. . . . I think it’s over.”
But Rose King, a statewide Democratic campaign consultant who steered Ernie Kell’s successful mayoral campaign in Long Beach this year, disagrees. “I don’t believe that in a district that’s 65% Democratic that it’s over,” King said.
Known for Slate Mailer
Though he has held jobs as a political aide for liberals such as Dymally, as well as for former Los Angeles Mayor Yorty, Murray is best known for the slate mailer he produces at election time under the name of the United Democratic Campaign Committee.
Candidates pay to be listed on the voter slate, which is similar to one produced on the Westside by Murray’s political associates, consultants Michael Berman and Carl D’Agostino. Their firm, known as BAD Campaigns, is directing Murray’s election effort. BAD recently came under fire for the way it had been directing the campaign of Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who has been positioning himself to run against Mayor Bradley.
A memo to Yaroslavsky, written by BAD and leaked to The Times, disparaged Bradley’s intelligence and talked about using money from wealthy Jewish contributors to wage a campaign against him. When Bradley and others reacted with outrage, BAD was fired as Yaroslavsky’s adviser.
Murray says he doesn’t worry that the BAD memo will hurt his effort to get a heavy turnout in Compton, which has the district’s largest bloc of black voters. “I haven’t heard any comments on it. . . . No one has mentioned it to me,” he said.
Yaroslavsky’s campaign gave the Murray campaign $15,000, according to contribution reports on file with the state.
“Willard is a longtime friend of mine,” said the councilman. Yaroslavsky insisted that it is not unusual for him to make contributions of such magnitude. And the contribution does not imply that Murray would support the councilman if he challenges Bradley for mayor.
“We’ve worked together on issues of common interest, most notably, Proposition U (a slow-growth initiative) two years ago,” Yaroslavsky said. “But, basically, he is a friend of mine and I think he’d make a great assemblyman.” Yaroslavsky noted that he and Murray also worked together in the ‘70s on an initiative that divided the Los Angeles Unified School District into election districts, and that they are working together now on the initiative that would prevent oil drilling in Pacific Palisades, though Murray’s contribution report shows he received $5,000 from Occidental Petroleum Corp. in June.
Shrugs Off Charge
Almost all of Murray’s campaign money has come from the treasuries of Democratic legislators aligned with Willie Brown, but he shrugs off Zeltner’s often-repeated charge that the real opponent in the 54th is Brown.
“Let them run against Willie Brown rather than me,” Murray said, adding that if elected he will support whomever the Democratic caucus wants as Speaker.
Most of Murray’s money is coming from outside the district. Of the 25 contributions he received between July and the end of September, only one of the donors, the Bellflower Democratic Club, which gave $200, has an address inside the district. Twelve of the contributions came from the campaign coffers of other Democratic politicians, five came from labor groups and seven from individuals.
The largest contribution Murray has received to date was the $60,000 he got in June from Assemblyman Michael Roos (D-Los Angeles). Among the other large primary contributors were Assemblymen Terry Friedman and Bert Margolin, both Los Angeles Democrats who sent $30,000 each from their campaign treasuries. Murray estimates he will spend $500,000 on his Assembly campaign and says he expects Zeltner to spend $1 million.
The Democrats are counting on a heavy turnout in Compton to get Murray elected. Two years ago, however, as Murray points out, the turnout in Compton was light, which put Bradley 200 votes behind Gov. George Deukmejian in the 54th District, even though the mayor had run 10,000 votes ahead of the governor four years earlier.