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Murray Stirs Controversy as Freshman in Assembly

Times Staff Writer

As the public pressure mounted early this year to ban assault weapons, freshman Assemblyman Willard H. Murray, an opponent of further gun controls, decided to arm himself with first-hand research.

The Paramount Democrat, who does not own a gun, contacted officials of the National Rifle Assn., who arranged for him to test-fire an Uzi, an AK-47 and several other rifles. Murray, who later joked that he was “no great shot,” retrieved his bullet-riddled target to hang on his Capitol office wall.

Murray has taken down his trophy, but it was an appropriate symbol for the lawmaker, who has become a highly visible political target since last November when he defeated one-term incumbent Republican Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner of Lakewood.

Even before he had a chance to figure out Assembly procedures or win passage of a bill, Murray had drawn fire from officials in his district, his friends in the gun lobby and Republicans angered by Zeltner’s defeat.

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In his short tenure, Murray has emerged from the shadows of back-room politics and become one of the most controversial members of Los Angeles County’s legislative delegation. “It’s my good looks, my great wit, my obvious intellect,” Murray joked.

Murray’s victory had impact well beyond the boundaries of his Southeast Los Angeles County district. His win, coupled with those of two other Democratic challengers, gave Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco the bare majority he needed to retain his leadership post.

But two weeks ago, Murray broke ranks with most of his Democratic colleagues on gun controls, the issue that has dominated the first few months of his term. He voted to oppose a measure to ban certain assault weapons. The bill, by Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), was narrowly approved.

Stand Fueled Criticism

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His position on gun controls fueled criticism in his district, especially Compton, which is plagued by gangs armed with assault rifles. It was the first city in Los Angeles County to ban the sale or possession of semiautomatic rifles. Even before the vote, Mayor Walter Tucker had warned that Murray would be “a one-term assemblyman” unless he changed his mind.

More recently Tucker seems to have softened his criticism, saying he does not want “to have a vendetta” against Murray.

After the Assembly action on the Roos bill, one Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified, termed Murray’s vote politically damaging and a “most serious mistake.” Murray dismissed the criticism, saying calls and letters to his office overwhelmingly urged defeat of the bill. Said Murray: “I don’t doubt that there will be many instances where I disagree with some of my colleagues on what is politically smart and this might be one of those instances. But I don’t consider myself dumb politically.”

The dapper Murray, 58, is a battle-scarred political insider. Until now, Murray was best known for sending out slate mailers to voters in South-Central Los Angeles. It was partly through these mailers that he became a close ally of Westside political strategist Michael Berman, who acted as his campaign consultant. He also served as an aide to former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton).

Before winning his seat, Murray lost two previous bids for the Assembly.

His winning 1988 campaign was not without controversy. During the race he acknowledged that he had never graduated from UCLA despite claims in his campaign literature that he received a degree in mathematics. At the time, Murray said he had “no intention to misstate or mislead.”

Murray’s campaign received a crucial last-minute boost when the National Rifle Assn. endorsed his candidacy. But after the election, officials of the gun lobby blasted Murray for sending out an endorsement letter without their permission. They also have asked Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to investigate the mailing of the letter. Murray has denied that his campaign did anything improper.

Republican Target

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Meantime, Murray’s win prompted Republicans to take aim at the rookie lawmaker with an unusually heavy salvo of attacks for a non-election year. For one thing, the state Republican Party this month announced it has set aside $110,000 to study the feasibility of recalling Murray and Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Mateo). Frank Visco, state GOP chairman, assailed Murray and Lempert for “serious ethical and moral shortcomings.”

Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), a Murray ally, suggested that Murray, Lempert and Robert Epple of Norwalk, a third Democrat who last year defeated an incumbent Republican, “have become symbols” to the GOP of its “declining political fortunes” in the Assembly.

Despite the Republican attacks, Murray is getting high marks from his Democratic colleagues for studying issues and introducing a broad range of bills. Among other things, he has proposed a scholarship program to encourage college students to become teachers and several bills to improve services for veterans.

Murray’s main focus is on anti-crime bills, including one to increase penalties for possession of a machine gun.

Murray predicts that this bill would be far more effective in curbing crime than proposals to limit possession of assault weapons. “It puts people in jail where they can’t commit crimes,” Murray said.

Even if Republicans do not follow through on their threatened recall, Murray, who won his seat with a 3,361-vote margin, expects to be targeted for defeat when he runs next in 1990. “The Republicans will pull out all stops next year,” predicted Murray, who noted that the party in power after 1990 will control the critical redrawing of legislative districts.


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