Mayor Mike Murphy walks into the County Times office, looks around the place, smiles, and the first thing he says is: “Fall 2011.”
The mayor — who is finishing up his final term at City Hall — is obviously feeling nostalgic about the first time he came through the door to introduce himself and sit down for an interview.
It was nine years ago. We had set up the meeting to talk about his candidacy for Merced City Council. And, of course, he was seeking an endorsement.
Back then, Murphy was one of eight candidates vying for three seats on the dais. Not to mention, two of the eight were incumbents. Nobody really knew who Murphy was outside of his circle of family and friends. He was in his early 30s, just starting out as a small business lawyer. He had no “name recognition,” as the political pundits say.
But he had been a hometown kid who studied hard and went off to law school — the first in his family to earn a higher education degree. When he returned in 2009 with a wife and three kids, Merced and the entire nation was in the throes of the Great Recession.
As the economic downturn dragged on, Murphy was inspired to get involved.
“Things were not going particularly well in city government,” he remembers. “I thought we could be doing better as a city. At the time, there wasn’t much representation on the council from the private sector, other than the real estate community. I was looking at government decision-making through a small business lens.”
This perspective paid dividends for Murphy who, lo and behold, took third place in the election race and earned a spot on the City Council.
He would end up serving an extended five-year term (due to changes in the election calendar) while helping the council lower developer’s fees by a minimum of 55 percent (in some cases much more), working with UC Merced to create the pro-business Venture Lab, and coming up with a business incentive plan that provided startup capital to new businesses in the city.
Murphy, and his wife Heather, also added a fourth child to their family — a youngster who today only knows Dad as an elected official.
That’s because Murphy set his sights on becoming mayor.
A magical motto at the right time
In a tragic turn of events, the day Murphy was to officially kickoff his mayoral run — Nov. 4, 2015 — a UC Merced student stabbed and injured four people on campus in a knife attack that was later described as an act of lone-wolf terrorism.
It was an awful day, but what followed shined a light on Murphy’s growing leadership capabilities. The candidate immediately cancelled his campaign rally and transformed the gathering into a moment of solidarity for the community. He invited local pastors to say prayers, and offered shocked students a chance to embrace one another as they struggled with what happened.
A year later, Murphy was elected mayor of Merced — something he described as “a very fortunate and very humbling experience, knowing that your friends and neighbors elected you to be their representative and to lead the city.”
“It’s a tremendous responsibility,” he says today, “and one that I don’t think I ever took for granted.”
At age 37, Mayor Murphy was considered the youngest person to ever reach the position as a result of a direct citywide election. After Murphy was sworn in to office, he was asked to say a few words, and that’s when he first uttered the phrase, “City on the rise.”
Murphy didn’t know it at the time, but those words would become his trademark motto, and they would end up creating a remarkable marketing campaign for the community. Only a couple months later, Murphy would deliberately use the phrase in a “State of the City” address unlike anything the city has ever seen. He put together a production team and rented out the Merced Theater on Main Street. Then the city invited residents to the mayor’s speech and a multimedia presentation he helped put together. The optimistic mayor was hoping for a nice turnout at the event held on a weekday morning, but even he was astonished when 1,200 people showed up, including dozens of high school seniors studying government.
“Let’s elevate the way that we speak about our city,” Murphy told the cheering crowd. “I am a clear-eyed realist and know the challenges that we face, but let’s not sell ourselves short. Merced is a city on the rise.”
Today, Murphy considers his efforts to improve the self image of Merced as one of his most important contributions to the city.
“When I shared those words, “City on the rise,” I did so because that is truly what I felt in my heart. And it really gained some traction. I feel the State of the City helped elevate the way we viewed ourselves. … It was also something that carried me forward. It forces you as mayor to distill down what the vision is for the city.”
In subsequent State of the City addresses, Murphy did not shy away from the city’s most pressing topics, including homelessness, jobs, and economic development.
“My approach as mayor has always been to be very upfront about the challenges that we face and not sugarcoat them,” Murphy says. “Let’s talk about it, but not just the challenges, but also the pathway forward.”
An impressive list of accomplishments
Murphy sits in the Times interview chair, and he makes point after point about how he hasn’t reached goals and achieved success at City Hall all on his own.
“It takes council members, city staff members, local government partners, nonprofit organizations and concerned residents,” he says. “We accomplish a whole lot more when we have all levels of government moving in the same direction and looking out for the best interest of Merced.”
Nevertheless, the list of accomplishments and groundbreaking efforts in the city has been truly impressive during Murphy’s time on the City Council, which includes being re-elected as mayor in 2018 for a second and final term.
Among his favorites on the list are the most recent development projects in the so-called “Downtown Core” — or what Murphy calls, “The cultural heart of the city.”
“Only four years ago, it would have been hard to believe that we would have the Tioga building completely renovated with market-rate apartments, that the Mainzer would be renovated and reopened, and the El Capitan would be rebuilt and functioning as a modern boutique hotel,” Murphy says. “But that’s the reality in Merced today. … And we must have these catalyst projects. We need big anchor establishments to come in and allow for other ventures to start up. UC Merced is a catalyst, along with its ability to double the campus footprint and also build the Downtown Campus Center. The Campus Parkway road project is another catalyst thanks to our legislators who put the package together.”
Other highlights during Murphy’s two terms as mayor include:
- The hiring of all new charter officers for the city, including City Manager Stephanie Dietz, City Attorney Phaedra Norton, and Finance Officer Venus Rodriguez — all three happen to be female, a first in the history of Merced.
- Four local ballot measures passed, including: (2018) Measure Y — cannabis revenue; (2020) Measure K — 4-year mayoral term; (2020) Measure L — City Council stipend setting commission; (2020) Measure M — direct reporting from finance officer to City Council.
- Mayor Murphy was the first Merced mayor to visit the sister city of Somoto, Nicaragua.
- Mayor Murphy was the first Merced mayor to recognize the local LGBTQ+ community with a city resolution during Pride Week about contributions made.
- Improved representation in Sacramento and Washington. Murphy created a direct line with the current state governor and has traveled to the nation’s capital every year to meet with top federal officials. He was also invited by the Governor’s office to attend Governor Newsom’s first State of the State address along with a select group of mayors from California.
- The establishment of a Citizens Advisory Committee to explore procedures at the Merced Police Department.
Overall honorable mentions include:
- Creating additional housing stock in the city, and pursuing affordable housing projects. Says Murphy, “I really believe additional housing supply is key to affordability and will bring down the overall cost of living for Merced residents.”
- Boosting city cash reserves from recommended minimums that were the norm during the Great Recession (around $6.5 million) to about $18 million, or 35 percent of the operational budget.
- The organization of the city’s 125th Birthday in 2014. Merced was incorporated in 1889.
Recent Challenges, And Future Plans
There’s no doubt the current COVID-19 pandemic has brought on unprecedented challenges to the city. Widespread civil unrest over incidents of police brutality have also sparked tension at home. Mayor Murphy this year has played a critical role in handling tensions at City Hall and offering an open dialogue between city officials and residents.
“From my vantage point, it is very important for people to have an avenue to express themselves and that includes at City Council meetings, even when emotions run high. We have meetings that are open to the public. It’s a venue. And I understand the role that we have. I have to say, I’m very impressed by the professionalism of the Merced Police Department, and I’m honored they are part of our team at the City of Merced.”
This month, the termed-out, 41-year-old Murphy will observe a newly elected mayor — Matthew Serratto — take up the top seat at City Hall. And as Murphy bids farewell to his days on the dais, he wants to thank the community.
“Merced has been very good to me and to my family,” he says. “I’d like to think I made some positive impacts as mayor, but the truth is Merced has given me much more than I have been able to give back.”
In the near future, Murphy says he plans to focus more time with his family — “the most important thing in my life.” He also has his law practice with a partner in downtown Merced.
Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if you see Mike Murphy at a City Council meeting in the coming months or years advocating for parks in Merced. That’s another passion. And he would like to see one of the city’s 36 parks named after someone from the local Hmong community. Currently there are no city parks with such a title.
“I would like to shepard that into the process,” he says.
And yes, there might be some curiosity in the community on whether or not Murphy will continue his political ambitions. Earlier this year, the mayor did publicly explore the possibility of running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Today Murphy says he will continue to consider his options in the future. The mayor is a registered Republican, but he was contemplating running for higher office as an Independent. Murphy said he is interested in seeing the result of expected changes to Congressional district boundaries by 2022.
“I may or may not be interested,” he says. “I don’t know. Timing is always key.”