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Agent-Turned-Assemblyman Sets His Sights on a Bigger Role

Politics: Democrat Kevin Murray uses Hollywood polish to push a pro-consumer agenda as he plans an eventual state Senate bid.

February 16, 1997|MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a roomful of egos, Democrat Kevin Murray of Los Angeles can still create his own kind of sizzle on the floor of the California Assembly, even as the oratory ends and the mood turns social.

Tall, broad-shouldered, the drape of his stylish suit just right, he moves through the chamber with a big-city confidence that exudes more kissy-face Hollywood--where he once worked as a talent agent--than backslapping Sacramento.

Nuzzling up to women colleagues, engaging in R-rated banter, bachelor Murray, 36, could just as easily be partying on Grammys night, which he has also done.

But no one who knows him is fooled. Murray is not here just for the laughs.

Beginning his third year as an assemblyman, he is one of only four African Americans in the 80-member Assembly and is one of the entertainment industry's best friends in Sacramento. Now, assisted by the Democrats' return to power in the lower house, he is making serious moves to become a rising legislative star.

Acknowledging that ambition is helping to propel him, Murray said: "I've got a handle on the system. There are ideas I can generate. Certainly I am making a political statement. I have confidence in my abilities, and I think I have a bit of vision, a bit of . . . understanding how to get things done. And so I'm going to go for it."

Murray said he will run for an open state Senate seat that Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) expects to vacate in 1998 if term limits remain in force.

To demonstrate why he believes he deserves to get there, he is expanding his base in the Assembly as a shaper of policy. So far this year, he has:

* Secured the chairmanship of the powerful Assembly Transportation Committee, which holds sway over state roads, bridges, transit systems and the Caltrans budget of nearly $6 billion.

* Won the chairmanship of the Legislature's seven-member Black Caucus, three of whom are state senators and all of whom, Murray notes with satisfaction, have "fared well" in landing important 1997 committee assignments.

* Introduced a flurry of 17 mostly consumer-friendly bills in the first few days of the legislative session--more than any Assembly member has introduced, and nearly as many as Murray managed to get passed--or saw vetoed--in all of 1995 and 1996.

* Strengthened his staff by the addition of skilled legislative aides such as John Stevens, a transportation expert hired as chief consultant to Murray's Transportation Committee.

He has failed, however, at two other profile-raising attempts. He came up short in his longshot bid to become Assembly speaker, which went to Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno); and in the stab he took--halfheartedly, he says--at being named to the Democratic National Committee.

One who did get picked for the DNC was former Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson (D-Los Angeles), perhaps Murray's strongest rival if there is a race to replace Watson.

The contest is expected to be decided in the 1998 Democratic primary, with the winner likely to face no serious Republican opposition in the heavily Democratic district.

Criticism of Murray, both in Sacramento and among rivals in his district, is that he is "just another politician," is "erratic," has "no follow-through."

According to one critic, Jamie Court, advocacy director for the Proposition 103 Project, which monitors insurance issues, Murray "took a walk on his constituents" by siding with the insurance industry on the last frenzied night of the 1996 session, voting to hike auto insurance rates in urban areas.

Murray replied that his opponents misread the bill and an amendment he attached to protect minorities from excessive rates. Court disagreed.

On the other hand, said Don Fields, who lobbies for both business and public advocacy groups, Murray clearly sided with consumers on his "courageous" opposition to industry-backed earthquake insurance legislation that was enacted last year.

Murray said he comes to lawmaking naturally.

He says he represents constituents just as he represented clients as a talent agent and lawyer for the William Morris Agency and later as a children's court lawyer. As an assemblyman, he said he is still "an advocate."

In addition, he says he was born, raised, educated--bachelor's, MBA, law degree--and has worked all his life in or near his Assembly district, a racially mixed area that takes in Baldwin Hills and the Crenshaw district as well as Culver City and a section of the Fairfax district. "I am my district," Murray said.

And he has been around politics since childhood. His late mother was active in the state Parent-Teacher Assn. His father, Willard Murray, preceded him in the Assembly by six years, and both served in 1995 and 1996.

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