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Still King of the Slates 

Willard Murray tastes life after term limits

Wednesday, May 20 1998
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Thanks to the state’s new term-limit laws, this June’s election will give L.A.’s African-American community its first taste of competitive politics in decades. But political operator and onetime Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. casts a long shadow over the Crenshaw District: With two open seats in the California Legislature, the question is, will Murray continue to dominate?

The race for the 26th state Senate seat, being vacated this year by popular 20-year incumbent Diane Watson, features Murray’s son, Assemblyman Kevin Murray, 38 years old, against Marguerite Archie-Hudson, a former assemblywoman and protégé of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. Kevin Murray, in turn, is leaving his 47th Assembly District to an even more hotly contested campaign between Samuel J. "Joey" Hill Jr., Murray’s current chief of staff, and the well-connected newcomer Herb Wesson.

In these heavily Democratic districts, which stretch along Interstate 10 from the Harbor Freeway to Culver City, and from the Fairfax district to Manchester Boulevard, slate mailers and endorsements have often been decisive — and Willard Murray built his career as the "slate-mail king" of South-Central, gaining control over the doorknob slate cards that thousands of voters traditionally take with them into the polling booth. The family slate-mail operation, United Democratic Campaign Committee, could prove a trump card in both races. Moreover, Representative Maxine Waters is sponsoring her own mailer — and her slate touts Kevin Murray.

Which makes Archie-Hudson something of a longshot, despite a solid reputation and years of political experience. Educated at Harvard University, Archie-Hudson cut her political teeth during the 1980s on the staff of county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and running Willie Brown’s Southern California operation. Between 1990 and 1996, Archie-Hudson represented the 48th Assembly District in Sacramento, becoming chair of the Higher Education Committee and eventually being named Democratic whip. Archie-Hudson also achieved what Murray hoped to but could not: She was selected to serve on the prestigious Democratic National Committee.

But Murray is the heavy in this race. Articulate and confident — even cocky — Murray is a former entertainment lawyer who was groomed for politics under his father’s worldly tutelage. First elected in 1994, he ascended to the chair of the powerful Assembly Transportation Committee, and in a bold move, launched a dark-horse campaign for the speakership in just his second term. In the meantime, his colleagues made him chair of the Legislature’s African-American Caucus. "There is a void of leadership in the African-American community," says Dermot Givens, Murray’s campaign manager. "Kevin Murray wants to fill that void."

Both Murray and Archie-Hudson are traditional liberals, and differ little over policy. The candidates agree — along the lines of an apparent emerging statewide consensus — on the priorities of investing in education, addressing health-care reform and fixing the state’s infrastructure.

Without issues to run on, Murray is stressing his personal intimacy with the area. He was raised in View Park, and contends that a life spent inside the 26th distinguishes him from his opponent. "I am this district," Murray told the Weekly. "I grew up in this district, and I understand it. People know that." And while Archie-Hudson has herself represented portions of the district, she’s pushing the question of character. Her political mail highlights a record of service, and asserts, "We know her. We can trust her."

 

It’s a point on which Murray is vulnerable. Murray was the subject of a sweeping ethics investigation by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission in 1996. The probe resulted in a commission complaint against Murray, his father and their campaign apparatus, alleging 50 violations of the state’s Political Reform Act. The younger Murray in particular was rebuked by FPPC staffers for what they deemed a "pattern" of not filing campaign-contribution reports and failing to declare income related to the family slate-mail company. For his part, Kevin Murray dismisses the infractions as mere administrative oversights. "There was no deceit," he told Copley News Service. "It was negligence." The commission is currently considering the matter and could levy a fine as high as $104,000.

The complaint was the second major filing lodged against the elder Murray now 67 years old, and his United Democratic Campaign Committee. In 1989, the commission fined Willard Murray $12,500 for failure to disclose $76,000 in late contributions to his Assembly campaign, as well as failure to report a $12,500 contribution to the campaign from the slate-mailing firm.

Under the guidance of veteran political consultant Richie Ross, Archie-Hudson made Murray’s character the target of her first mailer, a post card accusing Murray of voting to cut Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to the elderly while using taxpayers’ money to buy a sports car. Murray calls the charges unfair, clarifying that he simply voted to approve a budget deal that had been approved by the Democratic leadership. As for the car, Murray said it was simply a matter of personal taste.

 

This type of campaign does not bode well for voter turnout in a district where recent campaigns for the Assembly have been decided by as little as 25 percent of the electorate. "When the discussion tends to be personal in a campaign, it doesn’t tend to be a motivator for people to vote," observes Raphael Sonenshein, author of Politics in Black and White. What does bring people out, Sonenshein says, especially in the African-American community, are endorsements from recognized leaders. On that front, Murray appears to have dominated. Representative Waters, always a pivotal endorsement, is backing him, as are Reverend Cecil Murray (no relation) at the First AME Church, a slew of other religious leaders and the California Federation of Labor. Archie-Hudson managed to wrangle the support of outgoing state Senator Diane Watson and former Mayor Tom Bradley, but with perhaps as much as $100,000 less than Murray’s estimated $300,000 in the bank, her campaign will be an uphill battle.

Down the ballot, the race for Murray’s 47th Assembly District seat is even more combative. Samuel Joey Hill, currently Murray’s chief of staff, is facing Herb Wesson, right-hand man to L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke for the right to represent the neighborhood in Sacramento.

Politicos across Los Angeles, it seems, are lining up for one or the other candidate. "Every Democrat is taking sides," says Dick Rosengarten, the publisher of the political newsletter Calpeek. "It’s an insider race between two well-connected guys." Locally, the race is so contentious, some say, people backing the opposing candidates have stopped speaking to each other. Aside from Murray, the key political influence belongs to Supervisor Brathwaite Burke, who is flexing her political muscle and reputation to get Wesson elected. "Yvonne would like to be able to go to Sacramento and have her former aides in office," comments political consultant Rick Taylor.

Without much name recognition, both candidates have battled for endorsements and campaign contributions. Wesson, a longtime operative in downtown politics, appears to have the financial edge. Some estimate his current war chest to be twice that of Hill, but Hill is surprising people with his ability to raise money. Still, Wesson told the Weekly he anticipates spending $500,000 in the race, while Hill’s people predict $300,000.

Chief of staff to L.A. City Council Member Nate Holden before moving over to Brathwaite Burke’s staff in 1992, Wesson has eyed public office for some years. The City Council was his first choice, and he began to raise money and support from local officials, organized labor and businessmen as early as 1994. When Holden chose not to retire, Wesson set his sights on Sacramento. "I do two things well," Wesson told the Weekly. "I am one hell of a Pop Warner [football] coach, and the other thing is serving the people. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning to serve the people."

Again, with little disagreement over the liberal agenda, the race has become a debate over who is more experienced. With a dozen years in L.A. politics under his belt, Wesson portrays himself as the candidate better able to hammer out deals. But Joey Hill, whose political career has largely been in the state capital, contends that he is the only one in the race with the knowledge of Sacramento to hit the ground running. "I don’t think Herb should be running for this seat," said Les Robeson, Hill’s political director. "He’s prepared to work in local government — not in Sacramento."

Hill, in fact, learned the ropes of state politics under the tutelage of the last two leaders of the state Senate, former Presidents Pro Tem David Roberti and Bill Lockyer. He also worked for Assemblywoman Teresa P. Hughes , who is now his mother-in-law, before joining Murray’s staff in 1994. While his backing comes largely from the state capital, he has garnered the support of civil rights leader Reverend James Lawson and retiring state Senator Diane Watson. With allegiances to both Brathwaite Burke and Murray, Maxine Waters, notably, has remained neutral.

Hill is hoping his connection to Kevin Murray proves pivotal. According to his staff, Hill has his name on nine of the 11 candidate slate mailers to be sent out election week. Wesson, meanwhile, is depending on organized labor to counter. His campaign office is also serving as a headquarters for the "No on 226" campaign, which he hopes to piggyback to victory on June 2. Opines Taylor: "It’s a good old-fashioned, knockdown, drag-out race."

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