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New-Look District, New Challenge for Murphy

State Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, is facing a challenge from Ann Witt, a former schoolteacher and developer. With House District 133 now solidly Republican, the primary is where the attention will be.

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HOUSTON — State Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, who has represented a district with far too many Democrats for comfort, generally has a target on his back in November of even-numbered years.

But this year he’s running for re-election in a newly drawn seat that is rock-solid Republican, so November is not a problem.

It’s May 29 he has to worry about.

Murphy drew Republican primary challenger Ann Witt, a former schoolteacher and developer who ran an unsuccessful race against Democrat Scott Hochberg in 2004. A Libertarian, Gerald LaFleur, is also running for the seat.

Murphy has racked up virtually every sought-after endorsement, but Witt has poured some of her personal wealth into the race and is crisscrossing the district door to door, asking for votes one at a time.

Chances are decent that she will run into Murphy in the neighborhoods of District 133. Murphy, 54, figures he has knocked on about 6,000 doors. Witt, 71, says she has hit at least 10,000, some of them twice.

“I’ve met a lot of dogs,” Witt said on a recent walk through the Village West neighborhood.  “I’ve talked to people in all stages of dress and undress.”

Murphy, who gained his seat back in 2010 after losing it in 2008 to Democrat Kristi Thibaut, stresses his experience as a legislator, his focus on limiting the size of government and his deep roots in the district. He notes that his GOP opponent moved into Hochberg’s district to run against him in 2004, and is now in District 133  running against a fellow Republican this year.

"It's not just a question of having been in the district 50 years. It speaks to a lifetime of community service," Murphy said. "I'm vested in West Houston."

Witt acknowledges she moved into Hochberg’s district to run against him but said she chose her current location because she liked the home she purchased, and got it for a good deal.

When she’s out block-walking, no one seems surprised when Witt announces that she has eight grandchildren. She looks the part. But she has been a tenacious and often aggressive campaigner. Witt doesn’t mind talking to voters through mail slots or closed doors, and she has unleashed a negative attack on the incumbent.

Witt financed mailers criticizing Murphy for his work at the Westchase District, a state-created economic development agency that has tax-levying power. She argues the arrangement violates a constitutional prohibition against lawmakers holding down a second state job and accuses Murphy of  “ripping off taxpayers.”

Murphy notes that he operates as an independent consultant and has clients besides the Westchase District. He says the arrangement is perfectly legal. He describes the attacks as deliberately misleading and suggests they are evidence that his opponent has a “character flaw.”

The candidates are both fairly well-funded, but Murphy had far more in the bank at last count and Witt is running a campaign that is mostly self-funded. Witt has loaned herself more than $240,000 and reported $34,000 in her campaign account at the end of April.

Murphy, who raised $110,000 from January to April, reported $211,000 in the bank as of the end of last month.

Witt is making the elimination of bilingual education her signature issue. She says Spanish-speaking children often get unfairly trapped in bilingual education programs and should instead be placed into English-only immersion programs.

Murphy said he would favor shortening the period that children are in bilingual education and is "supportive of the idea" but wants to hear from the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education before deciding how to reform the program.

"I think it's important to work within the system of education to effect results," Murphy said. "There's a little more to the process than just having good ideas."

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