Meet ‘Obi’ Murray, the conservative campaign Jedi who ran Bob Turner on the cheap

E. O'Brien Murray (Bob Turner's facebook page)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Around the time Bob Turner's campaign released an internal poll showing they were within striking distance of the Democratic candidate in New York's Ninth Congressional District, there was another set of numbers that were closely guarded.

"I think I had about $2,000 in the bank," said Turner's campaign manager, E. O'Brien Murray, known to friends and colleagues as "O'B."

Talking on the phone Friday morning as he walked through the soon-to-be-cleared-out Turner campaign office in Howard Beach, Murray said the release of their paltry financial figures at the time could have led to two possible outcomes.

"Either we would have gotten a ton of money, or withered on the vine," he said.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

I asked him what that second scenario would have looked like.

"The staff would have walked out," he said, for the benefit of the people around him.

A woman's voice in the background yelled, "We did!"

She laughed, and so did Murray.

The Turner campaign never actually had much money to play with, notwithstanding the fact that Turner, a retired cable TV executive, contributed $65,000 of his own money to the cause early on.

The campaign only aired one television ad, attacking the Democratic candidate, David Weprin, for not opposing the "mosque at Ground Zero."

"I had scripts for other ads but I had no money to produce them," said Murray. "It would have been attacking Obama on jobs, and Weprin on jobs and a positive piece about Bob."

What the campaign did have, however, was a battle-hardened campaign manager. According to other Turner aides I spoke to, it was Murray, 45, who kept the staff, and candidate, from straying off message. The campaign's spokesman, Bill O'Reilly, said Murray "had a hand in every area." One person on the campaign told me that, despite what was an ultimately comfortable margin of victory, Turner might not have won at all if were not for Murray.

"The hardest thing to find is a campaign manager," said Nelson Warfield, a Republican ad man who worked with Murray in Washington. "Basically everyone thinks they should be a consultant, giving thoughtful advice and sitting around a conference table. What you need is a guy to be hands-on."

THE "E" STANDS FOR EDWARD, A FIRST NAME MURRAY has all but discarded.

"Filling out his report card, it was O'Brien Murray," said John Cahill, who taught Murray's sophomore religion class at Archbishop Stepinac in White Plains before himself becoming secretary and chief of staff to Governor George Pataki.

Murray was a smart, outgoing student, Cahill said. (Cahill also coached the J.V. soccer team, and described Murray as a "not great—very solid player.")

Pollster John McLaughlin said, "I always called him O'B, like Obi-Wan Kenobi."

"Everything I have, it's all E. O'Brien," said Murray. "I've been called O'B since I was three months old."

Murray was born in Briarcliff Manor, in Westchester. His father, Richard, was an advertising executive on Madison Avenue, and at home, was president of the school board and trustee of the village (an elected but unpaid position).  Murray's mother was a patient advocate at a local hospital. They are both retired.

Most of Murray's immediate family avoided politics. His brother runs a country club in Colorado and his sister works at an investment company in Philadelphia.

(By contrast, his cousin is Shailagh Murray, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter who is now the communications director for Vice President Joe Biden. They're close, but they hadn't talked since Turner's win, as of this writing.)

Murray's first work in politics was doing "lit-drops" for Sandy Galef, then a Democratic county legislator who Murray describes, by way of explanation, as a "family friend." Murray was 13 years old.

In 1988, while studying and doing R.O.T.C. at Providence College, a small Catholic liberal arts school, Murray did some advance work the Republican governor of Rhode Island Edward DiPrete.

Later that same year, Murray ran the Rhode Island State Republican Party's operation in support of the Bush-Quayle ticket. The state was small and Murray wasn't given much money, or guidance.

"Make as much of a problem as you can for Dukakis" was the mission, he recalled. 

In 1990, Murray worked on DiPrete's re-election campaign (it was a two-year-term). This time, Murray's job was opposition research.

"That was pre-internet," he said.

Murray was putting himself through college working at night and was doing R.O.T.C. training during time off from school, but he found time for politics. He was the president of the College Republicans for Rhode Island. One day hour got a phone call from a student who said he wanted to start up a Republican organization at Brown University.

"I hung up," he said.

Then, to see if the inquiry was serious, Murray dialed the caller back.

"It was Bobby Jindal," Murray said, laughing at the memory. "He's doing great. I hosted a fund-raiser for him at Georgette Mosbacher's."

When he got back home, that family friend, Galef, asked him to manage her campaign for the Assembly. (The incumbent she eventually replaced was an upstart Republican assemblyman named George Pataki, who was running against a member of his own party for a State Senate seat.) Looking to get back into the New York scene, Murray took the job.

After that, he went to Connecticut to be political director for Brook Johnson, the G.O.P. Senate candidate who ran unsuccessfully against Chris Dodd. 

After the loss to Dodd, Murray decided it was time to make some real money. He went to work for casino developer Steve Wynn, starting a real estate career that he has pursued concurrently ever since then with his lower-paying political work.

In 1993, Murray worked under former state G.O.P. chair Bill Powers for the New York State Republican Party's Victory Operation, handling phone banks, absentee ballots and, for the first time in the state, "ballot security."

The candidate Murray's team was helping to protect was Rudy Giuliani, a former prosecutor then making his second run at City Hall.

The Victory Fund deployed "roving attorneys" to wherever they thought things were fishy. (Democrats, in New York and elsewhere, have accused Republicans over the years of using ballot security to intimidate voters, particularly minority voters.)

The way Murray explains it, "Ballot security is to make sure your opponent doesn't steal the election."

Murray, though, used them for more than troubleshooting.

"You also use roving attorneys to call in turn-out numbers," said Murray, which can determine where Election Day resources need to be sent.

And "if your opponent has 90 percent turnout in one area at 10 a.m., you have to send your lawyers."

Giuliani won, and the state party was learning now how to better identify voters, and deploy field resources, heading into a gubernatorial election year.

Murray had gotten the job with the state party thanks to a connection he had with an ambitious legislator in New York. "George Pataki recommended me," Murray said. "A friend of mine from Rhode Island is a friend of his."

The two met when Pataki was an assemblyman, around the time Murray worked for Galef.

While at the state party, Murray came to consider himself a "Pataki guy," back before that was a common thing. And everyone around him knew he was a Pataki guy, too.

At the state convention in 1994, Murray was on the stage, helping the Pataki forces shut down any would-be challengers from attain the 25 percent of delegate votes needed to get onto the ballot automatically. The next day, an unflattering newspaper editorial decried the undemocratic process. It was in the New York Times.

"I thought it was a badge of honor," Murray said of the editorial.

By 1996, Murray was in Atlantic City, doing real estate and public relations for the project that would later be known as The Borgata. Murray was part of team whose key achievement was getting approval for a direct route connecting the expressway to the casino.

"Without it, you couldn't have built it," he said.

After that, it was off to Las Vegas for another project, getting a monorail built. Murray, by this point, was working for Hilton Gaming under the late Arthur Goldberg, a noted figure in real estate development and the casino business.

The commute from New York to Las Vegas, every other week for a week at a time, proved too grueling. Murray eventually let up and settled back in New York full-time. He enrolled at N.Y.U. to get a Master's in real estate. (One of his teachers there was Larry Silverstein; one of the guest speakers was Donald Trump.) He got married and divorced. 

In the spring of 2002, Murray attended a fund-raiser in the home of Mallory Factor, a major figure in Republican and financial circles. Factor was connected to a key Washington conservative outfit known as the Free Enterprise Fund, and organized the legendary Monday meetings. The Free Enterprise Fund was founded in early 2005 by economist Stephen Moore, who had started another, similar group called the Club for Growth. By July of that year, Moore left Free Enterprise to join the Wall Street Journal editorial board.