Attorney Billy Murphy is a smart and interesting man, and it's too bad he's not running for public office again. Twenty-three years ago, I covered his campaign for mayor of Baltimore, and at every stop, in churches and street rallies, he was an inspirational and provocative speaker - probably, next to Bill Clinton, the best I ever heard on the trail.
In 1980, Murphy had run for a seat on the Baltimore Circuit Court and won. He served three years on the bench before becoming bored and deciding he should be mayor. When he lost to William Donald Schaefer in the 1983 primary, he lost hard, with the white incumbent taking more than 50 percent of the black vote that many assumed would go to Murphy - not only because of his race but because of his willingness to speak, post-Harborplace, of the "other Baltimore" that was mired in poverty and crime.
After losing to Schaefer, Murphy returned to his successful law practice, which became even more successful, more corporate; he has won millions in civil litigation. He remains one of the most interesting men in our town, a keenly persuasive speaker who likes to challenge the status quo.
Which explains, at least in part, why Murphy, a registered Democrat, endorsed Michael S. Steele for U.S. Senate the other day. He's a "Steele Democrat."
Steele, of course, loves this. He needs this. He is a Republican, and former chairman of the GOP in Maryland. President Bush and the GOP have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his campaign against Ben Cardin.
But Steele is running in a blue state, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2-to-1 and where the GOP has lost ground in party registration since 2002.
In July, Steele told reporters that he considers being a Republican "an impediment, ... a hurdle I have to overcome. ... I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter."
A few days later, of course, Steele was calling George Bush "my homeboy."
He's working both sides.
So Steele loves it when a Democrat endorses him - particularly a well-known African-American Democrat from Baltimore like Billy Murphy.
Murphy is an ally of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., so for those familiar with that association, the attorney's endorsement of Steele the other day was not be a big surprise.
To others, it might have seemed almost shocking: Billy Murphy, the liberal lawyer who sees racism as the reason for almost every problem in our culture, endorsing a Republican?
"Like so many people who have come out today, I'm sick and tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party," Murphy said at a campaign appearance for Steele the other day. "I'm sick and tired of being relied upon for support but not respected as a leader," The Washington Times quoted Murphy as saying. "It pains me that I would stand here today in rejection of my party's refusal to embrace us in its leadership. But I am happy to be doing that for Michael Steele."
Did somebody tell Billy Murphy he can't run for office? Is he still smarting from the loss to Schaefer in the Democratic primary 23 years ago? He should get over it. He could probably finance his own campaign for U.S. Senate.
Here's part of what I think is going on, based on a recent conversation with Murphy. He's disillusioned with the Democratic Party not because it has dissed him but because, somewhere back in the Clinton years, it pulled into the ideological middle by appropriating conservative ideas and refusing to fight important battles for fear of being labeled too liberal. The party, worried about being seen as soft on crime, also supported and even expanded the war on drugs, which has achieved little but increased incarceration of black men throughout the United States. This is a huge issue among black families.
Last month, I heard Murphy speak with passion about the need to make marijuana, cocaine and heroin legal, and to end a war on drugs established by Republicans (Reagan-First Bush era) but escalated by Democrats (Clinton era).
Murphy also thinks it's nuts that the police in Baltimore, under a Democratic mayor, have arrested and jailed thousands of citizens for minor offenses that, in a high percentage of cases, prosecutors dropped. (I don't know that a Republican mayor would have done anything differently, given the demand for action against crime that Martin O'Malley answered when he ran for that office in 1999.)
There are deeper, systemic problems, particularly in American cities: More than half of young, black men living there do not finish high school. According to a study published in The New York Times, nearly three-quarters of black male dropouts are unemployed, not looking for work or in jail. By their mid-30s, 60 percent of black men who drop out of high school have spent time in prison. The "other Baltimore" that Billy Murphy described in 1983 still exists.
And Billy Murphy's saying American society doesn't seem inclined to do anything about this, and he might be right. But given all recent history, what would lead him to believe that a Republican, Michael Steele, would be any more inclined to do something about it than a Democrat, Ben Cardin? (Are either one of them going to support legalizing crack?)
Both parties have abided the "other America" while the nation prospered and the rich grew richer. Billy Murphy ought to run for office because no one wants to talk about what he wants America to talk about.
Hear Dan Rodricks on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio's The Buzz, with Chip Franklin, and read his blog at www.baltimoresun. com/rodricks.