Murray Appears Secure in Assembly Seat : Politics: Democrat breezes past token opposition in primary, appears headed for easy repeat victory in November.
When Assemblyman Willard H. Murray (D-Paramount) said last year that he would oppose legislation banning the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, constituents picketed his district office.
This year, while Murray enthusiastically supported malathion spraying to eradicate fruit flies, city councils throughout his district passed resolutions opposing aerial spraying.
While most black political leaders were supporting San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general in last week’s primary, Murray was backing Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who lost.
Murray also has received poor ratings in his first two years in the Assembly. The California Journal, a Sacramento political magazine, rated him as the worst member of the Assembly, based on its annual poll in which Sacramento-based political observers are asked to rate legislators on integrity, intelligence, energy and effectiveness.
Despite his lackluster legislative reputation and some unpopular stands on issues, however, Murray’s only challenge in the Democratic primary last week came from a political unknown, Fred R. Baisley of Lakewood, a registered nurse.
With only a token campaign effort, Murray won 71% of the vote, raising speculation among some Democrats that he has a lock on the 54th Assembly District seat, which he narrowly won two years ago from Republican incumbent Paul N. Zeltner, a former Lakewood city councilman.
In what was considered a fluke in the heavily Democratic district, Zeltner won the Assembly seat in 1986. Only 27.5% of the voters in the 54th are Republican, but Democratic voter turnout in the 1986 general election was anemic after a bitter, divisive Democratic primary election.
Even a Democratic candidate would have an uphill fight trying to dislodge Murray now, some political observers say.
“As long as the Democratic leaders that control the Legislature continue to support Willard, he’s there for life,” Long Beach City Councilman Les Robbins said. “It’s very difficult for a challenger and an outsider to overcome that type of influence.”
Murray enjoys the support of Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, whom Robbins admiringly calls the “single most powerful politician in the state of California.” Brown was in a leadership fight in 1988 and heavily supported Murray’s campaign.
Robbins said he considered running for the Assembly in 1988, but opted instead to run for Long Beach City Council when Murray received Brown’s support.
In November, Murray faces Republican Emily Hart-Holifield, a Compton College trustee who is not well known outside of Compton. The 54th District also includes Lakewood, Bellflower and part of northern Long Beach.
Two years ago, when he first won election to the Assembly, Murray spent a total of $750,000 in his primary and general election campaigns, he said. This year he plans to spend about $250,000.
Hart-Holifield said she is not deterred. A teacher in the Compton schools, she says she is highly visible in the community and that the contest will offer voters a clear choice between two different types of candidates.
“I’ve been living in Compton for the last 20 years. I’ve been teaching here. The people respect me for living in this district,” she said.
Murray’s residency became an issue in the 1988 contest, when Zeltner said Murray owned a home in Baldwin Hills. Murray has an apartment in Paramount and says he has voted in the district for four years, but does not deny that he still owns his home in Baldwin Hills.
Some Democrats speculated that Murray may face stronger primary opposition in future years.
One local politician said the Democratic leadership in Sacramento feared that a strong primary challenge to Murray this year might endanger Democratic interests in the reapportionment fight that looms next year with Republicans.
Compton Councilwoman Patricia A. Moore and Paramount Mayor Manuel E. Guillen say they were asked by constituents to run against Murray in the Democratic primary.
Moore, who was elected to the council last year and organized the picketing outside Murray’s office, said she was not interested in running because of her council obligations.
Guillen also said he was not interested in running, but added that he believes Murray is vulnerable and can be beaten. “He’s always been considered kind of a carpetbagger. That’s why I think a good strong candidate from the district could beat him,” the mayor said.
“I’m still a believer that if you go out and knock on doors, you can win. It really doesn’t take that much money,” he added.
Murray said he did not face a strong primary challenge because his constituents believe he is doing a good job, “and as long as I do a good job they will continue electing me. I’m doing an outstanding job. Everybody tells me that.”
In a recent interview, Murray said he had introduced more than 90 pieces of legislation and that more than 20 of them became law. Many of his bills address criminal justice issues such as stricter sentencing for specific crimes and funding for new prisons.
He acknowledged that his opposition to gun control produced vocal criticism, but said that there was strong support in the district for his position.
“My mail ran two-to-one against gun control,” he said.
The district has a large number of members of the National Rifle Assn., Murray pointed out. Two years ago, the organization supported Murray after incumbent Zeltner, a retired law enforcement officer, came out in favor of gun control. Zeltner lost the election by about 2,800 votes, and said the NRA’s support of Murray was a critical factor in the outcome.