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Rhetoric of campaign cools in reality of legislating


Politics is a lot simpler when it doesn't count. And what works on the stump doesn't always work in real life.

That, says Donald E. Murphy, is one of the biggest lessons he has learned since arriving in Annapolis as a delegate 56 days ago.

As a member of the largest freshman class of legislators in at least two decades, Mr. Murphy came to the State House from Catonsville with some clear ideas about reforming government and making Maryland safer.

Over the past eight weeks, however, the Republican delegate from District 12A has found the issues to be far more complicated than he had thought. In some cases, he has even voted against the kinds of bills he had expected to support.

"On the campaign trail, it's black and white," said Mr. Murphy, who used to lease office space for a living. "But you get down here, and it's all shades of gray."

As an example, Mr. Murphy cites House Bill 63. A populist, tough-on-crime measure, the bill would have allowed police to confiscate the cars of people who picked up prostitutes.

Mr. Murphy said he planned to support the bill until he learned that police could confiscate a car even if the driver wasn't convicted. That didn't seem fair, he said, so he helped vote the measure down in the House Judiciary Committee last month.

When a fellow committee member proposed a bill that would take away the professional licenses of people who did not pay child support, that, too, seemed like a good idea, Mr. Murphy said. The measure would have affected people in various professions, including doctors, lawyers and plumbers.

Then the bill's sponsor explained that losing a license could not only cost the offender a job, but also those of the people he or she employed. Mr. Murphy voted against the bill, he said, because he didn't want innocent people to lose their jobs.

Mr. Murphy says he realizes that 3 1/2 years from now, a political opponent may dredge up those votes to argue that he is soft on deadbeat parents or prostitution.

"I've already voted against 10 bills that, twisted, could hang me," said Mr. Murphy, a lanky, 34-year-old who wears black-rimmed glasses and resembles Buddy Holly.

Like many candidates, he ran last year pledging to get tough on crime. But as a legislator, he says, he can't support politically popular bills that sound good but aren't fair.

"Judiciary is serious business," he said of the House committee on which he sits. "Somebody can go to jail because of what we do. I don't think I could sleep at night if I voted the political way and some people got hurt for it. This job isn't worth that."

Although Mr. Murphy's recent positions may not endear him to some voters next time around, his willingness to consider issues on their merits has earned him the respect of fellow committee members.

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said that Mr. Murphy, like other members of the Class of 1995, seemed to arrive in Annapolis with a sense of mission and fixed ideas about some issues. During hearings, however, he has watched Mr. Murphy carefully consider the pros and cons of proposed legislation.

"He's a very refreshing addition," the Baltimore Democrat said. "What is most interesting is to see the anguish on his face when he's confronted with these things," he said.

"My sense was, he came in thinking that things were clear-cut," ** said Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore delegate who is the Judiciary Committee's Democratic vice chairwoman. "I think he, as all of us, started to realize there's the other side of the story."

Mr. Murphy appears to be approaching his job with diligence. During several hours of committee hearings last week, he remained in his seat, listening to sometimes repetitive testimony while other legislators drifted in and out of the room.

Occasionally, he asked questions that revealed he had read the bills -- a less common occurrence in Annapolis than one might think. One bill that interested Mr. Murphy would require convicted sex offenders to register their addresses with police after their release from prison.

He noted that a line near the bottom of Page 2 gave sex offenders a week after release to register. He asked why they shouldn't have to do so immediately.

The bill's sponsor, Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat, explained that the purpose was to give sex offenders enough time to find a permanent residence.

Although Mr. Murphy has opposed some so-called tough-on-crime bills, he says he has held fast to another campaign promise -- voting against what he considers pork barrel projects. Thursday, for instance, he opposed a bill designed to help Baltimore become eligible for $750,000 in matching state funds for construction at the B&0 Railroad Museum.

It is a political axiom that if a legislator wants support for projects in his own district, he must support those in his colleagues' districts. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Murphy cast one of two votes in the House against the museum bill, while 130 delegates supported it.

Fellow legislators have warned him that such votes could be costly if he ever wants to get a similar project for his constituents. "Some people have already said to me, 'I hope you're not looking for anything down here,' " Mr. Murphy recalled.

But he said he can think of better ways to spend state dollars. "We've got schools that need roofs," he said.

Mr. Murphy describes himself as politically conservative. He says he opposes further gun control legislation, is against abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy and believes in less government.

He grew up in a largely apolitical household in Linthicum. As a teen-ager, he worked on President Gerald R. Ford's 1976 campaign. While a student at Andover High School, his only political experience came when he attended a model United Nations meeting in New York City.

"We were Yugoslavia," he recalled.

His first real venture into politics came in 1990, when he became president of his community association in Baltimore County. After voters showed lackluster support for Democratic delegates his district that year, he started thinking about a run for the State House.

In 1992, his wife, Gloria, stumbled onto an armed robbery at a convenience store, and he finally decided to run, he said. "It shook us up and gave us the determination," he said.

Although he had never campaigned for public office before, he took aim at Kenneth H. Masters, a 16-year incumbent and Democratic majority leader of the House of Delegates.

Mr. Murphy started more than a year before the general election. He waved signs along roadsides during rush hour traffic and preached welfare reform.

On Nov. 8, he finished first in a field a four with 27 percent of the vote. Although a re-election race is three years away, he already is thinking of how he might defend some of his decisions in Annapolis.

If in 1998 someone attacks him for voting against bills that sounded good but didn't work well, he said, he plans to respond: "I voted for common sense."

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