Being a public servant is not for everyone, but Willard Murray, Jr. embraced the role. Throughout his career, he sought opportunities to help others and most importantly, uplift African Americans.
This defining characteristic of Murray’s endeared him to the Black community and prompted scores of tributes as news of his passing traveled throughout greater Los Angeles. A revered strategist, civil rights activist, and political maverick, Murray died on December 20, at the age of 90.
Although his physical presence is gone, he left an admirable legacy as a public servant. Many remember Murray’s achievements during his tenure as a state assemblymember from 1988 to 1996. But he actually began working on behalf of the people more than a quarter-century prior to his election.
On a local level, he worked to aid others while serving on the staff of former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and Councilmembers Robert Farrell and Billy Mills. He gained even more valuable insight on securing resources for the community during his time as a trusted deputy to former Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Congressman Mervyn Dymally and as an advisor to the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Once he won an assembly seat, Murray continued to apply his astute political knowledge to support the people as chair of the body’s Budget Subcommittee. In addition, he contributed to the betterment of society through his service on other committees that emphasized his priorities of education, criminal justice, economic development, homeless veterans, and healthcare.
Murray’s life after the legislature still distinguished him as a public servant. Elected in 1998 to the board of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, he served 10 years as WRD president.
He also served 10 years on the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. But wherever he served, helping people remained his number one focus, and several prominent leaders credit Murray for assisting their careers.
“Willard Murray was one of the most prominent African American activists and campaign experts in the City of Los Angeles. With the New Frontier Democratic Club, he helped organize support for many early Black politicians like Julian Dixon and Mervyn Dymally,” said U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
“I was sometimes at odds with Willard, but as my career progressed, we became friends and together helped develop strategic tools like the mass mailer sample ballot, which helped many successful candidates. He was considered one of the best at creating campaign messaging tailored to specific demographics in California!”
Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., president of The Bakewell Media Company and executive publisher of the Sentinel, insisted, “Willard Murray was not only a friend but was also one of the most effective legislators in the state’s history when it came to advancing public access and opportunities for Black people. He was unwavering, uncompromising, and unapologetic about his passion for advancing the rights and opportunities for our people. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on through his children, grandchildren, and all who benefitted from his tireless work.”
Dr. Mike Davis, president of the New Frontier Democratic Club, offered similar comments about Murray’s expertise in the political arena and his contributions to aspiring elected officials.
“The numerous people that the Honorable Willard Murray helped to get elected to public office added much-needed diversity to the leadership in California. His most recent work on the Water Replenishment District is a reflection of how important it is for people from our community to help make a difference in improving and sustaining our environment. We will cherish his legacy and know that we are a much better society because of his leadership,” Davis said on behalf of NFDC.
By all accounts, Murray provided treasured support to the political campaigns of Dymally, Mills, the late U.S. Congressman Julian Dixon, former Assemblywoman Gwen Moore, and retired U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson. He also assisted in the elections of Bill Green, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Teresa Hughes, Curtis Tucker, Sr., Rita Walters, Ira Reiner, and Frank Holomon.
“Willard Murray, Jr. was one of the last ‘old school’ politicos. Always known as a straight shooter, he studied the issues and did not suffer fools. He is and will be missed,” said his cousin, John Murray, Jr., who served the Los Angeles Board of Public Works as well as on the MWD board with Willard.
While enthusiastic about public service, Willard Murray was also a devoted family man. Married more than 60 years to the former Barbara Farris, he was the father of Kevin and Melinda; both attorneys who appear to have inherited the “public servant” gene.
Kevin is the president and CEO of the Weingart Center Association, a heralded nonprofit agency that provides comprehensive services to at-risk and homeless individuals. Melinda is a deputy district attorney and a member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
Also, Willard and Kevin Murray hold the distinction of being the first father and son to serve in the California State Assembly concurrently. When Willard represented the 52nd District, Kevin was the 47th District Assemblymember. Later, Kevin was elected as a state senator representing the 26th District.
Recalling the qualities that he most appreciated about his father, Kevin said, “He was very direct, very thoughtful and very strategic. You’ll notice that throughout his career, he spent most of his time as a strategist in the political realm.”
As a father, Kevin said he valued the positive reinforcement to and did the work. He believed in education as the path. He always told us that education was the great equalizer and I think that turned out to be true,” remembered Kevin.
Murray’s ethics impressed his daughter-in-law, Janice Jamison Murray, too. Reflecting on the man’s devotion to family, she shared, “Willard was more than a dedicated public servant, he was a dedicated family man. He cherished his grandchildren and reveled in every family celebration. His enduring legacy will be his children and grandchildren.”
A native of Los Angeles, Murray was born on January 1, 1931, to Willard Sr. and Vivian Murray. After graduating from Jefferson High School, he attended East L.A. College before matriculating at UCLA. Murray, who was a professional engineer, was also a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He was enlisted from 1951-1958 and saw action during the Korean War.
His career as a public servant extended right up until his death, where he remained a member of the WRD board due to his reelection in 2018. Noting Murray’s impact on the water agency, current Board President John Allen described Murray as “a beloved member of the WRD family.”
“Willard made an indelible imprint on water supply reliability in Southern California. The region and state are lasting beneficiaries of his many contributions,” Allen said as reported by the Daily Breeze.
Dale Hunter, executive director of the California African American Water Education Foundation, said to California Black Media, “Willard had a long, distinguished career as a leader and public servant in our state. He was giant in the water industry and a champion for the districts he served.”
“Willard truly made a difference,” Hunter continued. “He was not afraid of diving into policy and making changes that needed to happen. I’m thankful for his contributions and saddened by him leaving us. I’m also grateful for his teaching. I definitely would not be where I am if it were not for his influence.