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RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – Community leaders in Starr County agree that President-Elect Biden’s comments about transitioning away from oil boosted President Trump’s support in South Texas.

Trump secured 47 percent of the vote in Starr County in last week’s presidential election. Not bad considering the county is traditionally the bluest of Blue counties. In neighboring Zapata County, Trump actually won a majority of the vote. Zapata, too, is heavily Democratic.

“People ask me, was there a political realignment here in South Texas because, oh, Zapata turned Red. It didn’t. I was there today and yesterday. They voted for Trump but they voted for every other Democrat. For Zaffirini, for myself, for everybody down ballot,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo.

The “Zaffirini” Cuellar was talking about was state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Cuellar hosted a town hall meeting in Rio Grande City on Thursday. In addition to an absorbing conversation about what to expect from an incoming Biden administration, there was also an in-depth review of Election 2020.

“In Starr County, Trump’s support jumped from 19 to 47 percent. Something resonated here,” said Cuellar. 

Trump improved his showing in other counties along the South Texas border too. In Hidalgo and Cameron counties he picked up around 40 percent of the vote. In Webb County he secured 38 percent. This was about ten percentage points better than in 2016.

Biden made what many political pundits say was a gaffe during the final presidential debate. “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said, in the closing minutes of the debate. “The oil industry pollutes, significantly… it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Rose Benavidez, president of Starr County Industrial Foundation, said Biden’s comments were not helpful in her county, which has a large number of workers in the oil and gas industry. 

“The oil and gas slapped us around quite a bit down here. Or Biden did, and Democrats,” Benavidez said. 

Benavidez is also a board trustee for South Texas College. And she was the first Latina in the nation to be appointed to the Association of Community College Trustees. Benavidez said she is excited about what a Biden administration could do in supporting community colleges as they educate the workforce of tomorrow, especially as future First Lady Jill Biden is a teacher and a big supporter of community colleges. 

Benavidez told Cuellar she was concerned that Trump’s new found popularity along the border could hurt the region’s chances of securing federal funding once Biden takes office.

“How do we reconcile barely electing Biden in this whole region and still potentially being an area that they (the Biden administration) eye as an area that needs support and help?” Benavidez asked Cuellar.

Cuellar responded that Democrats need to invest along the border and should not be taking its voters for granted.

Asked by Cuellar how well other Democratic Party candidates did in Starr County, Benavidez said they secured 70 to 80 percent of the vote.

“We have gotten calls from the Wall Street Journal, from Time magazine, you name it. We have been on the phone with people from all over the media,” Benavidez said.

“And the message from them to us has been Starr County did not vote for a party, they voted for a candidate. Because everything else down ballot was overwhelmingly Democrat, nothing different to any other election. For the Democratic Party, I think there is a lot work to be done to re-emphasize the values of the party.”

Benavidez asked Cuellar how local leaders should proceed, now that people think her county has turned Red.

“Whatever you think we need to do to make sure we do not get overlooked now (we will do),” Benavidez said.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said voters were not casting a ballot for President Trump but rather against the decimation of a critical industry.

“I don’t think they voted for a candidate, they voted for an issue, which was oil and gas,” Vera said. 

“Everybody feels the same way?” Cuellar asked.

“Yes,” came the response from those at the town hall meeting.

“In Zapata it was the number one issue,” Cuellar responded. 

Sam Vale, a local businessman and owner of the Starr-Camargo International Bridge, said it was not just support for the oil and gas that made people vote for Trump. He said abortion was another important issue. “They were issue related,” Vale said of Starr County voters.

Cuellar said he has told officials in Biden’s transition team to “temper” the language on transitioning away from oil.

“We all believe in climate change, we all believe in transitioning, but it is not going to be right now,” he said. 

Vale said transitioning away from oil has to be a gradual process.

“It is a long transition. It (oil extraction) does impact the environment but that does not mean we eliminate the industry. We have got to find a way to make it cleaner. I know there are a lot of uncapped wells that are pumping stuff into the atmosphere. That is just negligence on the part of the industry. But that can all be worked out. You do not want to cut it off. Maybe over the next 40 or 50 years you can get off carbon,” Vale said.

Cuellar said Republicans had been smart to “micro-target” Hispanic voters.

“They know certain core issues for Hispanics: highly religious, very patriotic, certain things that are important to us. Sometimes I think they understand it better than the national Democrats,” Cuellar said.

“Then they were able to micro-target Hispanics. A lot of the national Democrats think we are all the same. In South Florida, different issues. They did not talk about oil and gas over there, they talked about socialism. Here they hit us with abortion, oil and gas.”

Vale said the Democratic Party is not as well organized as it used to be.

“It really is true that the Democratic Party has deteriorated in the way they appeal to people along the border area. My mother was on the executive committee. It was a very organized party. If you look at the structure of the party, it is very weak. It no longer has prominent, solid candidates. That is not to criticize them because nobody else wants the job,” Vale said.

Cuellar said the problem is that in Texas, the Democratic Party machine focuses too heavily on the big cities.

“Everything is urban, urban, urban. We are Blue in urban areas. But rural Texas is a firewall for Republicans. You have got to show up and talk their language,” Cuellar said.

By way of an example, Cuellar said he had just given a congressional certificate to a young person in Zapata County. At the same event the young person was rewarded with a gun for his achievements.

“You remember I said we are very religious, how we are patriotic? On the Trump trains, you see so many American flags,” Cuellar noted.

He said he recently saw a picture in Webb County that he had never seen before. It was of local Republicans praying for Trump. 

“They were raising one hand to pray for Trump and in the other hand they were holding up an American flag. The subliminal messages are there, the prayer, the flag. Trump got 38 percent of the vote in Laredo. That is a lot higher than I have seen before. The Democratic Party cannot take the border or Hispanics for granted and they do.”

Benavidez agreed with this last point. She said a recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley by Biden’s vice presidential pick, Kamala Harris, was too little, too late.

“This election was done. Early voting was just about over. It was good but it was an afterthought that did not move any enthusiasm.”

Cuellar agreed, noting the attention Republicans are showing the Valley.

“Look at (Senator John) Cornyn, he got 100 endorsements. Some of them were Democrats. Look at (Governor Greg) Abbott, coming to the Valley 20 times. You have got to show up,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said Democrats should take a leaf out of the Beto O’Rourke playbook. When running for U.S. Senate in 2018, the former congressman from El Paso visited every county in Texas. He got within three percentage points of defeating incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Beto O’Rourke showed up and he did better in rural areas. You have got to show up. You can’t just campaign in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and maybe the Valley and El Paso, and everybody else you leave them,” Cuellar said.

“No, you have got to show up and you’ve got to understand the issues. Rural issues are important to rural Texans. If we don’t (show up and understand the issues), Democrats are going to stay in the minority because that firewall of rural Texas will remain.”

The Rio Grande Guardian interviewed some of the local leaders that participated in the town hall meeting. 

Asked if Biden’s remarks about transitioning away from oil was a factor in the vote in Starr County, Benavidez told the Guardian: “It was prominent factor. We have a high rate of oil and gas workers here. The college trains a lot of them in welding. We know they do this in the hopes of going into a job that pays them a very good salary. So, there were definite concerns. The concern was about job security. The messaging about the oil and gas industry being in jeopardy resonated. People came out to vote in force about what they thought was protecting their own interest.”

Escobares Mayor Noel Escobar agreed. He told the Guardian: “The comments about oil and gas played a big part. You had never seen this activity before. It was because of that issue. I am a landowner and I know it came to mind with a lot of people.”

County Judge Vera also concurred. He told the Guardian: “A lot of our young people are pipe-liners. They go to West Texas and they are working in the oil and gas business. The impression that a lot of these people had was, if President-Elect Biden would win, then he was going to kill that industry immediately.”

Vera, a Democrat, said he had no problem with his party talking about moving away from fossil fuels. But, he argued, it must happen gradually.

“Eventually, I foresee that it will happen. We need to go green for our environment. That is going to take 30 or 40 years. I will not be around to see the oil and gas business go under. This is not something that is going to happen overnight,” Vera said. 

“What people have to understand is, if we go green, this gives them a bigger opportunity to train for those kind of jobs that are higher paying. That needs to be engrained in our people, that the oil and gas industry will continue to be a boon for another 20, 30, 40 years.”

Asked for the key message local voters were delivering, Vera said: “A lot of the people that rely on the pipe-liners were saying, hell, no. We are going to vote for Trump because Biden wants to do away with it. That was not the case but it resonated.”

Asked how important oil and gas is to his community, Vera said: “It is very big. Green energy is getting close to oil and gas but I believe oil and gas is still the biggest industry in Starr County.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, Congressman Henry Cuellar, and Starr County Judge Eloy Vera.


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