E. O’Brien Murray could hardly contain his glee.
One evening, about two weeks before the special election in New York’s 9th district, Republican businessman Bob Turner, whose campaign Murray was managing, was ensconced in the front row of a friendly crowd at a Russian-language synagogue in Queens. Murray, tapping his BlackBerry, spotted the Democratic nominee, David Weprin, enter the back of the sanctuary.
Weprin had been scheduled to attend a debate that same evening but had pulled out at the last minute, citing logistical issues due to the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene. But here he was, making a stop at an event taking place at the very same time the debate would have been held.
Weprin gave a short speech to the congregation and then headed for the door.
Murray, who goes by the nickname “O’B,” trailed the Democrat as he walked out of the sanctuary. In the foyer, surrounded by vendors with Cyrillic signs selling snacks and tchotchkes, he repeatedly asked Weprin why he had canceled on the debate. Weprin was unresponsive.
“David, there’s a reporter here!” Murray, 45, said, seeming to relish the small act of political theater. Weprin finally turned around, gamely stuck out his hand, and with a tight grin on his face, said, “See you Wednesday,” referring to the date of the next scheduled candidate forum.
“Did you ask him about the debate?” Murray forcefully asked a reporter a moment later.
Brash, strategic and combative, Murray learned the political trade on the streets of New York and still practices it there.
“I’ve never been one to avoid confrontation,” he said in an interview.
While a taste for political theater and hard-nosed politics is as common in New York as gridlock-induced profanity, Murray’s special-election win in the middle of the Big Apple makes him an exceedingly unusual political operative.
The contours of his career haven’t followed a common path, either. Murray has melded politics and real estate from an early age.
“I started doing lit drops when I was 13,” said Murray, who has a master’s degree in real estate. “I [had] been around the politics, and I got my real estate license for the first time when I was 18.”
After working for Rudy Giuliani’s successful New York City mayoral campaign in 1993, focusing on getting out the vote and ballot security, Murray worked for the New York Republican Party. Returning to a job in a different sector, Murray worked for Steve Wynn, tackling both real estate and political issues for the casino mogul. Murray later continued in the same vein as a vice president at Hilton Gaming.
Since 2003, he has organized the Monday Meeting, a gathering of fiscal conservatives. Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) began attending those meetings before she was elected to Congress and considers herself a regular there.
“O’B is a champion at building networks, which is a critical gift” for politics and business, Hayworth said. “He has tremendous energy, a sense of humor, tact and savvy.”
In the far reaches of upstate New York, Murray’s first stint as a Congressional campaign manager was for the Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in the 23rd district special election in 2009. Hoffman lost — barely — to Rep. Bill Owens (D), and there were plenty of lessons to be gleaned.
“I learned the importance of staying focused, staying on message, confronting the opposition,” he said. “Prepare for a national race on a local race.”
National Republican Congressional Committee Northeast Political Director John Rogers recommended Murray for the campaign manager job to Turner, thinking that Murray’s business background, special election experience and fundraising connections would make him a good fit for the candidate and the short time frame of the race. He was also confident in Murray’s ability to play ball on the national field.
“We needed somebody who, if and when the race got that national spotlight, could excel in that,” Rogers said.
But even before the national spotlight reached the Queens- and Brooklyn-based district, Turner helped keep the media focused on his candidate.
“Every single time the Weprin campaign did something, we didn’t let it go unresponded to. We stayed on message, and when they tried to take us off, we knocked it down and stayed on message,” Murray said.
“I believe their strategy was to avoid the earned media, and by doing so, they gave us that playing field. I think they were just trying to protect the end zone,” he explained.
The Weprin campaign substantially outraised the Turner campaign and was thus able to put more television ads on air and engage in substantial direct-mail messaging. But the Turner campaign certainly appeared to win the earned media race in the two-month special election, garnering consistent positive coverage from the New York Post, the Daily News and even the New York Times.
The Republican went on to win in an upset victory one week ago. Murray gave credit for the victory to Turner’s relentless work ethic and the rest of his campaign team.
“It was the right team at the right time,” Murray said.
But his flair for the strategically dramatic couldn’t have hurt.
At the end of a Weprin press conference denouncing Turner for his comments opposing parts of the Zadroga 9/11 health care act, Murray thoughtfully positioned himself near the Democratic candidate.
“We’d be happy to answer questions,” Weprin said, according to video from New York’s NBC affiliate.
Murray popped up in the shot. “I’d be happy to answer questions, as well,” he chimed in.
“No, what, uh,” Weprin sputtered.
“It’s a free street, I’d be happy to answer questions for Bob Turner, as well,” Murray said, mugging to the cameras to scattered boos.
“This is our press conference,” Weprin said with exasperation.
“It is not,” Murray replied coolly. “It’s a free street, David.”