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Mobtown Beat

Arthur Murphy

1950-June 14, 2008

Tom Chalkley

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/25/2008

Art Murphy, who died June 14, has been rightly commemorated as a master of Baltimore politics, a campaign operative whose knowledge of local players and precincts was deep and finely grained. He was also, incidentally, one of the most enjoyable human beings I've ever known: Funny, shrewd, a fount of electoral anecdotes and up-close observations of Maryland's political elites. It was my honor and pleasure to count him as a friend, and my good luck to have him as a journalistic source.

We met 15 years ago, at an awkward time in both of our lives. I'd gone back to work at the Maryland Citizen Action Coalition, a nonprofit group I'd helped found in 1984. After nine years, the organization was in bad shape, and Arthur had been hired to serve as its executive director. The dispirited coalition needed a caretaker, and Art needed a job.

Technically speaking, he was my supervisor, but we rarely talked about work. Instead, we'd have lunch, and he would chat about his latest project, a book (never finished, to my knowledge) about West Baltimore's bygone political machines. Or he'd confide in me about the ups and downs of his personal life. I'm a talker, but with Arthur I was a dutiful listener. I loved his voice, his turn of phrase, his wealth of stories.

We made each other laugh: At the time, Marc Steiner was just getting started at what was then WJHU-FM, so Art and I brainstormed ideas for radio comedy sketches. We pitched them to the newly minted talk-show host. Fortunately for all our reputations, Steiner never encouraged us.

We talked about his famous family, a dynasty going back to John Murphy, the ex-slave who founded the Afro-American newspapers. People who didn't know Art would sometimes stop him on the sidewalk and say, "You favor Mr. Murphy," referring to his better-known brother Billy, the lawyer, activist, and (thanks to Art's electoral skills) judge. "We have the same parents," Art would quip, "but we're not related."

And we talked about race. From Arthur, whose family had been instrumental in the civil rights movement, I learned about the unintended consequences of integration: Once blacks were free to shop wherever they chose, they largely abandoned the black-owned businesses that used to line Pennsylvania Avenue and other Baltimore thoroughfares. It was a cautionary tale for activists of any kind. Once when I opined that racial differences were a cosmic joke on humanity, he gave me a brief lecture on the evolutionary importance of skin pigment. I learned not to predict what he'd say about anything.

Sometimes Arthur came to work looking the wrong color, with red eyes and a grim expression on his face. This was multiple sclerosis, he explained. He had good days and bad days; it was what he lived with. He told me that several of his boyhood friends from Cherry Hill had developed the same condition. He blamed it on the toxic chemicals that were buried under the vacant lots where he and his buddies played as children.

Our nominally professional relationship didn't last long. The Maryland Citizen Action Coalition collapsed sometime in the mid-90s. Frankly, it would have taken a heroic effort to rebuild it, and Art Murphy wasn't hired to be such a hero. He returned to political consulting; I went back to freelancing, and we got together when I needed a source and a sounding board for City Paper assignments and satires. I counted on him to tell me when my assumptions and conclusions were off-base, especially regarding black politicians known to me through white news media. He had a great way of telling me I was wrong without making me feel stupid.

I loved Art Murphy not just for his quirky wisdom and sly humor, but for his capacity to take things earnestly and lightly at the same time. He was a liberal Democrat by instinct and upbringing but never an ideologue. He enjoyed the passing show too much; he'd seen careers rise and fall, and he savored the ironies and contradictions of politics. Sometimes, allies and colleagues complained that he didn't take things seriously enough, that he dropped the ball, failed to return calls.

His illness certainly put some limits on his energy and passion. He dealt with it philosophically. I last saw him two years ago--it was the first and only time I ever saw him in a wheelchair. When I expressed my dismay, he just said, "Shit happens." And he meant it; he was devoid of self-pity.

Earlier this year, I tried to track Art down, hoping to pick his brain for a story about Maryland's presidential primaries. His colleagues told me he was in a nursing home, and gave me the phone number. But life was hectic and I was, frankly, shy about intruding. For months, I kept reminding myself to give him a call or pay him a visit, but I never did. The last such self-reminder came the day after his obituary ran in The Sun. I'd missed it.

Since then I've wept but also laughed, remembering his cracks about important persons now living and dead. I'd love to know what he had to say about Clinton v. Obama, or how he might have deconstructed the mayoralty of Sheila Dixon. I can hear his bemused drawl, but as to the content of the conversation, well, Art Murphy took it with him.

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