Oil and gas ‘lifeblood’ contributed to Trump win in lone South Texas county

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South Texas county considering becoming a free-trade zone to boost visitors, coffers

ZAPATA, Texas (Border Report) — What caused most voters of the remote South Texas ranching county of Zapata to vote for President Donald Trump harkens back to a bet that Congressman Henry Cuellar won against a powerful Texas leader in the early 2000s.

Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, said he was a state representative at the time and the bet was with Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican from Midland — the first GOP House speaker since Reconstruction.

Engaged in a friendly dispute over which Texas county produced the most oil and gas, Cuellar said although Midland County produced the most oil at the time, Zapata County led the state in natural gas production.

“He said, ‘no way, no way.’ And he was right on oil, they were No. 1, but for gas it was Zapata,” Cuellar told about 40 people on Thursday inside the Commissioners’ Court chambers in the old Zapata County Courthouse.

“I still got to collect from Tom Craddick the next time I see him,” Cuellar joked.

Although the bet seemed trivial at the time, the story is significant today in light of the recent presidential elections. Cuellar says the staunch support Zapata County families have for the oil and gas industry is a leading reason why he and other leaders here think voters in this Hispanic-majority Democratic border county supported Trump over former Vice President Joe Biden.

Zapata County residents cast 2,032 cast votes for Trump and 1,820 votes for Biden, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s website. It’s the first time since the 1920 election of Warren G. Harding, a century ago, that this county of 16,000 went for a Republican.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell is seen in the county’s courthouse in Zapata, Texas, on Nov. 12, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell says that is because there is steadfast support for oil and gas here, even though the industry is no longer booming in this county.

In fact, Zapata County hasn’t been a booming natural gas producer for over a decade, when many of the larger oil companies began moving to other areas like the Eagle Ford Shale, as newer fracking technologies came online.

Currently, Zapata County does not have any shale drilling sites, Rathmell said. And that drives many locals to take jobs in the Eagle Ford Shale, or West Texas. But he says they still call Zapata County home and their families support the industry. And these families didn’t cotton to Biden campaigning that it would cut back on the industry on public lands, if he was elected, Rathmell told Border Report.

“That was the cause of voters turning to the Republican ticket,” Rathmell said Thursday after attending the meeting with Cuellar and other county commissioners, which included the incoming and outgoing sheriff.

“During the primaries and all through the election cycle there were comments coming from the Democrats, especially Vice President Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris stating their non-support of the oil and gas industry, which is our lifeblood here in our community and has been for many years,” he said.

The oil and gas industry is our lifeblood here in our community and has been for many years.”

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell

“The last 10-12 years our county production has been down and many jobs, many residents have sought other jobs in neighboring counties or even as far as West Texas, or even out of state. But they still call Zapata their home. Their families are still here. And they associate most of them with that industry, so it’s near the heart, the oil and gas industry,” Rathmell said.

Zapata County has a population of 16,000 and is east of Webb County, on the border with Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

To realize how startling the support for Trump was here, consider that Democratic Senate hopeful MJ Hegar, a veteran who had challenged longtime Republican incumbent John Cornyn, won in Zapata County with 2,633 votes to 1,232 for Cornyn. And Hegar “did not visit Zapata County. So that tends to show that we are Democratic voters in our county,” Rathmell told Border Report on Thursday from inside the courthouse commission chambers.

Cuellar easily won here, 2,347 votes to his Republican first-time challenger Sandra Whitten, who received 1,220 votes. But he said the fact that the county went red for this presidential election should be taken very seriously by Democratic leaders, and the new administration should realize the importance of the oil and gas industry on this part of the country.

Cuellar said he plans to bring this up with the Biden administration after the Jan. 20 Inauguration.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar spoke to a group of constituents and community leaders on Nov. 12, 2020, in the Zapata County Courthouse in Zapata, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“My plan is certainly to make sure we approach him to take a more thoughtful approach when he deals with oil and gas,” Cuellar told Border Report. “They got to understand there are still a lot of jobs. … People still go and work in the Eagle Ford. It’s important for them. It’s important for our local schools. It’s important for the tax base of the county, also. So we just have to make sure that we look at this in a transition that works for everybody.”

Rathnell lamented the glory of gas days past, but said he and the county’s commissioners next week are reviewing a proposal to make the county a free-trade zone to hopefully bring more Mexican truck traffic and visitors and commerce into the county. A measure is expected to be brought up at Monday’s Zapata County Commissioner’s meeting, Rathnell told Border Report.

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