Judge Dick Murphy hosts mayor campaign party at Gaslamp Quarter art gallery

He had given this speech before

— What do you do if you're a superior court judge and you want to be mayor of San Diego? You take an unpaid leave of absence and ask your friends for campaign money. On a Thursday evening in September, Judge Dick Murphy stood beside a "Closed -- Private Party" sign in the entryway of a Gaslamp Quarter art gallery. Across Fifth Avenue, the pedicab drivers lounged in front of Dick's Last Resort waiting for the evening's tourists and revelers. A few steps to Murphy's side, two campaign workers, young women in sweater sets and longish skirts, lingered beside a table set out with brochures and contribution envelopes. Murphy moved toward the door to shake the hand of an older woman. Murphy's wife Jan stood beside him. Her short-sleeved powder-blue jacket and pleated skirt sent a softer message than Murphy's navy suit and patterned navy-and-white tie.

"Scott Cummins," Murphy smiled and moved on to the next arrival. Cummins and Murphy turned to face John and Kathy Collins, the gallery owners. "Scott," John Collins shook Cummins's hand and slapped him on the back the way athletes do off the field.

"This is the culprit," Murphy explained to Collins. "It was Scott's idea to have this reunion at your gallery."

In the late '70s and early '80s, Murphy and Cummins and Collins began their legal careers as attorneys with the downtown law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps. Murphy left the firm in 1981 to go on the San Diego City Council. In 1985, Governor George Deukmejian appointed Murphy to the municipal court bench. He was elevated to superior court judge in 1989. Now Murphy had invited Luce, Forward alumni to a fundraiser to support his mayoral campaign.

As more men and a few women all dressed in business suits made their way into the gallery, the gathering took on the air of an elite class reunion. Between sips of wine, old friends and colleagues discussed career moves, new homes, and the latest college graduation or wedding in their mostly grown children's lives.

At the door, Murphy shook hands and made introductions. He apologized to a fellow judge and the judge's fiancée for not sending in his RSVP for their wedding. As the time between new arrivals lengthened, the light slanting through the metal gates at Dick's Last Resort reflected off the sequined crown of a doll in the gallery window. Murphy began working his way toward a larger room at the gallery's rear. A tall, thin man with white blond hair and weathered skin walked into the entry. His wife, a shorter woman with gray hair and a smart blue suit, walked with him. Murphy turned around. "Ed, Barbara," he greeted them, "I've been waiting until you got here to give my speech."

Ed Luce shook Murphy's hand. The grandson of Luce, Forward's founder, Ed Luce was managing partner when Murphy practiced at the firm. Luce's handshake turned into an arm around Murphy's shoulder. "We've got the chance to elect a really great mayor in this city," Luce announced. "We haven't had one for a long time. I've even got the slogan. 'Murph for Mayor.'" Murphy enjoyed the moment, then headed toward the inner gallery. He paused and looked around the room for the best place to speak. "On the stairs," Jan Murphy stage-whispered to her husband and pointed toward a staircase that led to the loft. John Collins preceded Murphy to the stairs and found a place two steps up where a spotlight aimed at one of the gallery's paintings illuminated his face. Looking down at the now-hushed crowd, Collins said, "I'm glad we had this opportunity to get good friends together. Even though, as a citizen of El Cajon, I can't vote in the San Diego mayoral election."

The crowd chuckled.

"If you really cared, you'd move," Murphy interjected.

Collins continued over more laughter. "I don't know if it's appropriate in a situation like this, but I'd like to raise a toast to Dick Murphy."

Forty-five well-dressed arms rose. Wineglasses gleamed in the gallery's warm track lighting. A few voices said, "Hear, hear."

Dick Murphy stepped into the spotlight. His narrow face, thin, black-rimmed glasses, and salt-and-pepper hair lent him an air of approachable authority. He spoke like someone addressing a group of close friends at a wedding reception or anniversary party. "I'd like to thank John and Kathy Collins for hosting this get-together," Murphy began. "And I'd like to introduce some people. Scott Cummins," Murphy's eyes searched the crowd for Cummins, who gamely raised his hand. "This fundraiser for Luce, Forward alums was actually his idea. Over there by the wall is my wife Jan, the same wife I was married to when I was at Luce, Forward."

Murphy introduced his campaign manager, his media and community relations coordinators, and his campaign coordinator. He briefly noted his background: Stanford Law; Luce, Forward; city council; municipal court judge; superior court judge. "In April, I took an unpaid leave of absence to run for mayor," Murphy continued. "Some of you might ask, 'Why would you do that?' Because I think San Diego deserves leadership with 20/20 vision. Most politicians are nearsighted. They can only see as far as the next election. San Diego's next mayor needs to look to the year 2020."

The crowd relaxed as Murphy warmed to his task. Although his words didn't sound canned, it was clear Murphy had given this speech before. Between last May and the primary election this coming March, Murphy's campaign will hold between 15 and 20 fundraising events. Of those 15 to 20, 7 are formal fundraisers like the Luce, Forward gathering where someone hosts and people pay to attend. By law, campaign contributions can only come from individuals and are limited to $250. The Luce, Forward alums each paid $125 to attend this September fundraiser.

The remaining fundraising events are referred to as "friendraisers." The campaign invites 50 people to come out and meet the candidate. The 50 people may live in a particular geographic area such as a retirement community. They don't have to pay to come, but the candidate makes a big pitch for money at the end of his speech. Murphy estimated he has one "friendraiser" a week from this month to the end of the year.

Speaking on the phone after the fundraiser, Murphy said it was initially hard for him to ask his friends for money. "But I guess I've done it so much, I don't feel so bad anymore. In 1981 when I ran for city council, I raised $150,000. It was a record at that time for a city council race." In early August, Murphy reported $101,783 in campaign contributions for the first half of 1999. That placed him third among mayoral candidates. City council member Ron Roberts reported $356,571, and Roberts's colleague Barbara Warden reported $264,867. Others familiar with the mayoral campaign attribute Roberts's fundraising success to his close ties with the development industry. Warden's total included over $60,000 transferred from funds she raised to fight off a fizzled recall attempt and a $50,500 personal loan to her own campaign.

Back at the Luce, Forward fundraiser, Murphy outlined his plans to deal with traffic, housing, and the airport. He fielded a few questions, then stepped down to enthusiastic applause. As Murphy moved through the gallery, he stopped to chat with the small, cozy groups that filled the room. "The speech is evolving," he told one knot of old colleagues. A few people said good-bye and wandered out onto Fifth Avenue. In the gallery, below the rise and fall of conversation, you could almost hear the soft rustle of money.

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