Pecos, Politics And Oil
NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. NPR has been visiting swing districts in the 2018 midterms. And in the state of Texas, that is the 23rd Congressional District, which is where we find our own Rachel Martin today. Hey, Rachel. How's it going?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Hey, Noel. It's going pretty good. I am in Del Rio, Texas, looking out over Lake Amistad, which is actually part of the natural barrier that separates the U.S. from Mexico, at least in this part of the border. But this is a huge congressional district just in terms of geography. It stretches all the way from outside of El Paso to San Antonio. But what is in the middle of this district is also very interesting at this moment. Fracking has turned the once small city of Pecos, Texas, into a boomtown.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)
MATT ELLIOTT: This is the frack that's going on. There's a lot of things that are happening all at once here.
MARTIN: The voice you hear is that of 30-year-old Matt Elliott. Like a lot of people born and raised here in Pecos, he knows the language of oil drilling.
ELLIOTT: So they call it zipper fracking. They'll go down hole. They'll put a plug in, and then they'll...
MARTIN: He's one of many people making money off the oil industry here. He's got a wife and three kids and not a lot of tolerance for risk.
ELLIOTT: You'll hear people say that the oil industry is like a drug. And it really can be because if people aren't careful, they get so dependent on it that when it's gone, they don't know what to do. And I didn't want that to be us.
MARTIN: So he started a business that rents out construction equipment, like port-a-potties, to all sorts of corporations, including oil companies. And when it comes to politics, Matt Elliott doesn't give President Trump all the credit for this boom. But he does like what he's been seeing.
ELLIOTT: "America First," taking pride in what we do, you know, letting people know that, you know, that we're not - you know, we're just not - we're not just going to be somebody's little handout all the time and that, you know, we want to grow our economy here.
MARTIN: And as for Pecos specifically...
ELLIOTT: As long as we keep moving forward, that's the main thing.
MARTIN: But Pecos hasn't just been moving forward. It has been barreling down the highway at breakneck speeds with no road map.
VENETTA SEALS: It's really an emergency situation. We weren't prepared for this.
MARTIN: This is the mayor of Pecos. Her name is Venetta Seals. And she says her city needs to see more of that money because now there are way more people here than this place can handle.
What's the population of Pecos?
SEALS: That's a hard one to answer. According to the 2010 population, we're just under 10,000. We are easily on any given day somewhere between 30 and 50,000 depending on how many people are driving in.
MARTIN: And that's putting a huge strain on this small town's infrastructure. There aren't enough things like restaurants or even grocery stores.
SEALS: Unless you've actually been here, you don't understand what the need is here. You don't understand what it's like to stand in these lines at the grocery store. And then when you go, the shelves - they're out of bread, milk, eggs, you know, all the staples. My husband's retired. He knows when the milk guy shows up at Walmart (laughter), when the bread guy shows up literally. And that's when he goes to get those things for us.
MARTIN: That's crazy.
SEALS: It is crazy. We would probably have exploded even more if we'd had the housing in place because right now so many of these workers that are living in the RVs, travel trailers, the workforce lodging - they'll live there. But most of the time, their families aren't going to live there for an indefinite length of time.
KAYLEY DUKE: This is a oil field. You don't want to bring your family here anyway. This is a man camp. Like, no, and then, you know...
MARTIN: Yep. She said man camp. That is literally what people here call the temporary housing sites that have popped up in the last few years to accommodate all of these oil workers. Kayley Duke is the 24-year-old manager of this man camp. She's wearing a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt with a unicorn on it. It says keeping it real.
DUKE: They work these crazy hours, so we just have to get in there and make it like home, like home-cooked meals, smile on your face, you know, greet them, like, kind of that thing. So it's not like it's - they're princesses, but it's nice to come home to a made bed.
MARTIN: Kayley points out the double-wide trailers as we walk around. Each of them can sleep up to 10 men. Sometimes they get their own room. Sometimes if they work opposite shifts, they share.
DUKE: We got our two full-sized beds, and we have a night table and two closet-like - with drawers.
MARTIN: Two years ago, Kayley was doing the same work in North Dakota. And when the oil in Pecos took off, so did she.
DUKE: It's good money. And let's say you're not going to college at the moment. I mean, this is the place to be if you're wanting to stack some money.
MARTIN: So that's a snapshot of the situation here in Pecos. Fracking has opened up the basins. And there's money to be made by anyone who can find a foothold into oil or any of the related businesses. Not everyone is seeing a direct benefit, though. Property taxes have gone up here. The problem is it's not just the oil companies that pay that hike. It's working-class families who have been here for generations.
ALVA ALVAREZ: The mentality is take it while you can, but they don't recognize that there are people who are being left behind.
MARTIN: Alva Alvarez is the county attorney. She's a lifelong Democrat as are most people here, but the oil boom seems to be changing that.
ALVAREZ: Here we are, Reyes.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
MARTIN: Alva has been going door to door.
ALVAREZ: Hi, how are you, sir? We are trying to get the vote out for Beto O'Rourke.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: See you.
ALVAREZ: OK (laughter). Thanks. Bye-bye.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bye.
MARTIN: Beto O'Rourke has given Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz a run for his money. And Alva never expected that O'Rourke would have an uphill battle here.
ALVAREZ: People I knew who had been Democrats for years have now just decided that, I guess, the Republican way is better.
MARTIN: Better because even if they themselves aren't making money hand over fist, people around them are. And that has to be good in the long run so the thinking goes. Maybe they'll finally get that grocery store. There's also talk of a new hospital. Maybe the city will have enough money to fix up the run-down cemetery in the middle of town.
So what happened to the blue wave? I mean, the reason Beto O'Rourke has gotten so much national media attention is because he's come further than any other Democratic candidate in recent history. But you're not feeling it.
ALVAREZ: I'm not feeling it here.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DRIVING)
MARTIN: When we were filling up our GMC Yukon at the gas station on the main drag, a bearded guy in an equally large truck drove up and started chatting. His name is John Pack.
JOHN PACK: I retired from the fire department after 23 years to come out here to work.
MARTIN: So are you making good money?
PACK: (Laughter) Yes. I've doubled my salary from the fire department.
PACK: I've struggled for a long time. And I've come out here, and I'm just - I'm not struggling anymore like I was.
MARTIN: Does it feel like it's going to dry up anytime soon?
PACK: No, as long as Trump's in office.
MARTIN: So you're feeling good.
PACK: We're riding the Trump train.
MARTIN: Do you feel like the country's divided right now? Do you care?
PACK: Do I care? No, because right now we're moving forward quick, fast and in a hurry.
MARTIN: Quick, fast and in a hurry.
MARTIN: People like the feeling of the momentum here, Noel. And the impact of the oil boom, as you heard, is shifting politics in Pecos. But like we said, this is a really big congressional district. It is truly one of the state's only swing districts, and we explore two other fascinating corners of it this week.
KING: Well, it was great to hear those voices. And you can hear more stories from Rachel's reporting in those other corners of the 23rd Texas Congressional District elsewhere in today's show that includes a story of a city along the U.S.-Mexico border.
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