Murphy's gift was knowing people

The Baltimore Sun

Sub It Out" Murphy.

That's the name I gave Art Murphy after he summed up his position on the war in Iraq. Murphy died last week. During his years as a political consultant in Baltimore, Murphy would take occasional trips to Jordan, a country he had great affinity for. (A college buddy of his was from that country.)

Murphy had come to know the Jordanian mind and knew Jordanians detested Saddam Hussein. President Bush didn't have to send American troops into Iraq to depose Hussein, Murphy felt.

"They could have subcontracted that job out to the Jordanians," Murphy said. "Sub it out."

Murphy knew the mind of Baltimore's voters - and voters in general - as well as he knew the Jordanian mind. Take, for example, his theory on why senior citizens vote in greater proportions than younger voters. You can officially call this the Art Murphy Theory of Stuff.

"It's because senior citizens have more stuff," Murphy told me. By "stuff" Murphy meant Social Security benefits, Medicare benefits, retirement homes. And that, Murphy reasoned, is why voters age 25 and younger don't turn out in great numbers to vote.

"They don't have any stuff," he concluded.

Art Murphy must have known what he was talking about. Numbers don't lie. Of all the candidates he acted as political consultant for, 85 percent won the offices they were seeking. He got his start working on the political campaign of his father, District Judge William H. Murphy Sr., better known to some Baltimoreans as Big Bill Murphy. Big Bill was one of the first black judges in the city. His son Art helped change the political landscape of Baltimore.

Most of the candidates Art helped get elected were black, and he made no apologies for blacks taking political power. The truth is, Art Murphy insisted on it.

I didn't meet Art Murphy until five years ago, but I was familiar with the family. I went to high school - City College - with his younger brother, Houston. I remembered Houston as a runt of a feller, not very physically imposing at all. Big brother Art was quick to bring me up to date on that bit of Murphy family history.

Houston, Art told me, had grown a few inches. And he's been pumping iron. "Little" Houston Murphy is today a hulking mass of a man. I got my first glimpse of Art's older brother, Billy Murphy, in 1970, during the great Baltimore school uprising.

In the winter of 1970, some girls at Eastern High School staged a demonstration against racism. Cops were called in, the girls were arrested and the charges of brutality flew. Who told the truth and who didn't mattered little in the aftermath. The high-school student revolt of 1970 was on.

During one of many student demonstrations, Baltimore police arrested several guys and charged them with carrying deadly weapons: their Afro pick combs. This really happened. And only six years after the notorious Veney Raids, during a time when Baltimore police obviously had no shame to speak of.

Billy Murphy was the attorney for one of the kids arrested. During a community meeting, he sarcastically held aloft a pick comb and brandished it as the "deadly weapon" that his client had been arrested for possessing.

So I was no stranger to the Murphy clan when I met Art. It was through an e-mail. Murphy told a story about one of his trips to Jordan, when Palestinians at a refugee camp hurled rocks at an African-American journalist.

The significance of the story, Art said, was that this was unheard of in previous years. Third-World people sympathized with the black American struggle for civil rights, but the presence of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice changed all that, Art told me. And I should hear some of the things those Palestinians were saying about Powell and Rice.

"Like what?" I asked him. And he told me.

Very specifically.

"No, no, Art, you don't understand," I told him. "I was kind of looking for something I could use in a newspaper."

That's when I learned to appreciate Art for both his candor and his wit. His storytelling skills were superb, and most of those tales were about growing up Murphy in Baltimore. I heard many of 'em, about brothers Billy and Houston, sister Laura, mother Madeline and Big Bill. And no one had a better knack for one-liners. Every one I heard from Art was an absolute corker.

To say I'm going to miss Art Murphy would be the understatement of what is only a very young century. And miss him I will.

Rest in peace, bro.


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