Of independent mind in law and Md. politics

Baltimore Democrat supporting Ehrlich

October 09, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

It's a Thursday afternoon and William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., as is often the case, seems to be doing 10 things at once.

The phone rings. And he's spouting off about Mayor Martin O'Malley's response to a radio ad in which Murphy is featured, accusing the Baltimore Police Department of unlawfully arresting thousands of black residents. Murphy paces.

"Did you hear what O'Malley said today?" he booms incredulously into the phone. "He said that Governor Ehrlich was lying about this! He didn't say disagreeing. He said lying!"

Fiery as ever, Murphy, 63, is a force to be reckoned with in courtrooms and legal circles, and has earned a reputation as being one of the more experienced and high-profile black lawyers in the nation.

He is also a political operative, a man whose blessing or curse holds considerable sway in Maryland circles. And the Democrat has thrown his support behind the re-election effort of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's senatorial bid, disappointing some but surprising none. Murphy, after all, is a political enigma.

"He's always been really independent," says former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now dean of the Howard Law School. "He's not a guy that you can predict where he's going to land on political matters."

Or as his brother, Arthur W. Murphy, a Democratic strategist puts it: "Billy marches to a different drummer. But he marches so well."

On this day, the salty-tongued attorney is pontificating on topics that include jazz (he plays drums in a band), the war on drugs and the logic behind his support of two Republican candidates, despite his family's long-standing Democratic roots.

Billy Murphy is a talker. And he has an answer for everything.

"It's not the man, it's the plan," he says, feet casually propped up on his desk in his plush Mount Vernon law office.

Murphy, sporting his trademark ponytail and a dark pinstriped suit, pink shirt and tie, is surrounded by pictures of Muhammad Ali whispering in his ear and Don King grasping his hand after he won an acquittal for the boxing promoter on federal wire fraud charges in 1998.

A cluttered mantel is filled with awards and pictures of heavyweights as varied as first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich, former Rep. and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the late legendary attorney Johnnie Cochran.

Murphy is in the spotlight this campaign season with Ehrlich ads attacking O'Malley's management of the Police Department. He inspired further political fury a day later when he compared the tactics of Baltimore police with those of the Nazis.

"Billy is like an Eveready battery," says King, a friend and client. "Takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'."

In his office, he is continually in motion, answering his phone, signing a check, accepting a package, and declaring his commitment to being a Democrat. Yes, Murphy is a Democrat. Always has been, always will be.

"I will never be a Republican," he says. "I will never support a George Bush. I would have never supported a Ronald Reagan or a Clarence Thomas or any of the things that they stand for philosophically.

"I base my decisions on what I view to be the best interests of black people and women," he adds, citing Ehrlich's appointments, pardons and commercial anti-discrimination bill as evidence of the governor's support for the African-American community.

"I don't have permanent political friends or permanent political enemies," says Murphy. "I have permanent political positions."

Blazing trails

Some talk about Murphy's rise in Shakespearean terms. In the past, he was always ready to buck convention, whether it was leading a silent revolt against singing "Old Black Joe" in middle school, joining anti-war demonstrations or defending Black Panther members. Now, some say, he has morphed into the very antithesis of that - a white-gloved corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies and living the high life.

"Billy was a Democrat. He had no Republican in him," says Anton J.S. Keating, a Baltimore defense attorney and former candidate for city state's attorney who was a classmate at the University of Maryland Law School. "William H. Murphy Jr. is a Republican. He is the establishment."

Or perhaps, some say, Murphy reflects a new class of African-Americans whose politics are slowly shifting.

"Billy came out of that world of civil rights, and a lot of angry nationalist feelings came out of that period," says Marc Steiner, a WYPR talk show host who helped run Murphy's unsuccessful 1983 campaign for mayor. "And I think that Billy's motivations are fueled by the way he looks at the black world and the white world, and by his new wealth and corporate wealth and who he's involved with. I think that's changing a lot of African-Americans in terms of Democratic [versus] Republican politics."

Son of the late William H. Murphy Sr., a Baltimore district court judge, and Madeline Wheeler Murphy, a well-known activist, Murphy grew up the eldest of five children in Cherry Hill.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.