“I don’t know what percentage of me is Midland,” George W. Bush said four years ago, “but I would say people, if they want to understand me, need to understand Midland and the attitude of Midland.” In Bush’s rhetoric, the West Texas town is populated by people just like him–hard-workin’, straight-shootin’ entrepreneurs tempered by the Protestant work ethic and evangelical Christianity. We know what Midland symbolizes in Bush-speak, but how is the town faring four years later?
At first glance, Bush seems as popular as ever in the “Tall City”–an allusion to the cluster of downtown skyscrapers rising off the featureless Texas plains. Signs on I-20 welcome visitors to the “Hometown of George and Laura Bush: Where the Sky’s the Limit.” The tourist office at the Chamber of Commerce proudly displays Bush paraphernalia behind glass cases, as if the hats and T-shirts proclaiming “Midland Is Bush Country” and “Bush/Cheney ’04” were precious artifacts, not campaign propaganda.
Yet down the quiet cul-de-sacs as wide as landing strips, there is a rumble of discontent. “I’ve seen the very character of the Republican Party change in Texas,” a retired schoolteacher named Marianne told me. Marianne is, in many ways, a typical white-collar Midlander: a lifelong Republican and member of the country club, she refers to domestic workers as “the help.” Although she won’t denounce Bush publicly (“It would be social suicide, honey,” she says about her refusal to divulge her last name), she decries the Tom DeLay-led takeover of the GOP. “Texas Republicans used to be upstanding people. You could count on their word. Not anymore.”
The fracture between “country club” Republicans like Marianne and the religious right goes back decades here, and George W. Bush used to represent the compromise between the two factions. But four years into a Bush presidency, Marianne now questions some basic assumptions about Bush’s “compassionate conservative” doctrine. “I support our troops, but the people dying in the war are the blue-collar people around West Texas who worked in the oilfields, not the white-collar people of Midland. The war’s been a mess from the beginning.”
While Bush received around 75 percent of the Midland County vote in 2000, public enthusiasm for his 2004 campaign is not readily apparent this time around. On a recent visit in September, the only Bush yard signs or bumper stickers I saw were those kept safely locked away behind glass cases at the Chamber of Commerce. Midlanders, perhaps like Americans everywhere, are much more likely to identify themselves as “nonpolitical” than avid Bush supporters.
Unease with Midland’s hometown boy has even been expressed by some oil industry players–the very people who should be his biggest supporters. David Rosen, a native New Yorker and former petroleum geologist who came to Midland during the 1970s boom years, remembered Bush as a “likable guy who always remembered your name.” When he first arrived in Texas, Rosen considered himself “apolitical,” but he is now one of Midland’s most visible Democrats and director of John Kerry’s Midland County campaign. “I’m known as someone who’s not afraid to be anti-Bush in Midland,” he says. He senses a sea change in Midland’s attitude toward Bush since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. “People have been telling me at the supermarket, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t what America stands for.'” Rosen believes the war will lead to decreased support for Bush in Midland in November.
War concerns aside, Midlanders of all stripes are worried about the inexorable decline of the region’s petroleum industry–the main source of income and jobs in the Permian Basin. Ever since the 1920s, the region has undergone extreme boom-and-bust cycles because of its dependence on the industry, and it still produces 20 percent of the nation’s oil. Nevertheless, Midlanders wax nostalgic for the late 1970s, when the town supposedly boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else on earth.
Even the most ardent Bush supporters acknowledge that those days are gone for good. “Oil production peaked in the Permian Basin in 1971 and has been declining ever since,” said Bob Trentham, director of the Center for Energy and Economic Diversification at the Permian Basin campus of the University of Texas. Trentham explained that Midland has lost hundreds of high-paying jobs in the oil industry since 2000. Skilled positions in the geology and petroleum engineering fields have been partially replaced by low-paying service-industry jobs. He pointed to a new Cingular Wireless call center as an example of why the city’s unemployment rate has stayed near the national average at 4.8 percent, despite the exodus of almost every major oil company from the region. Since 2000, he said, oil companies like Chevron-Texaco and Phillips-Conoco have consolidated and sold the majority of their operations in Midland. As a result, the town’s prestige as a major oil center has suffered, and per capita income has dropped from 2000 to 2002. Nevertheless, Midland’s population (116,000) continues to grow, as workers turn their backs on the region’s fickle oil industry for lower-paying jobs in the retail and service industries.
The effects of the economic transformation are visible everywhere. In 2000, Mobil moved its entire workforce of 170 to Houston, leaving the twelve-story Mobil Building downtown virtually empty. Today, downtown Midland feels like a ghost city of glass and steel. Even though crude-oil prices have rebounded since 2000 to record highs, there is general agreement that a way of life is coming to an end. “The high-paying jobs with the big oil companies have been leaving for ten years,” says Rosen. “They aren’t coming back.” According to one North Texas University study, the Permian Basin’s oil industry will be extinct within twenty years. The reason, experts say, has to do with the high cost of extracting crude oil from mature fields. The remaining oil in the once-flush basin is trapped in deep-down rocks, sometimes 10,000 feet below the surface. “It’s not like people make an extra dollar in profit every time the price of oil goes up a dollar,” Trentham said. “Operating costs in the Permian Basin run anywhere from $3 to $6 a barrel–compared to less than $1 in Saudi Arabia.”
Other people in the Permian Basin say that it doesn’t make sense to isolate Midland’s economy from the surrounding region, since most of the blue-collar workers in the oilfields live outside the Tall City. So while Bush claims that to understand Midland is to understand him, Arlo Chavira points down the highway. “To really understand Midland, you’ve got to understand Odessa as well,” said Chavira, the Democratic candidate for Texas House of Representatives District 81. “The people in Midland own the businesses that the people in Odessa work at.” Odessa is roughly the same size as Midland but has more poverty, more minorities, and has suffered more casualties in the Iraq War than Midland. Odessa’s only advantage over Midland, people agree, is the Permian Panthers high school football team–the subject of H.G. Bissinger’s notorious Friday Night Lights.
In reality, a more accurate picture of the region’s economy should include the fifteen counties officially classified by the State of Texas as the Permian Basin. According to a 2001 report by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the Permian Basin as a whole lags behind the rest of Texas in almost every health and economic well-being indicator measured by the state. The report found that per capita incomes were 22 percent lower than in the rest of the state, while poverty and unemployment were higher. In social welfare categories, things were even worse. Over one quarter of the region’s children had no health insurance, and in Ector County–Odessa’s district–26 percent of all households reported hunger as a problem. While Bush continues to tout the family values he learned as boy in Midland as keys to his character, the HHSC report noted that juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy rates in his home region continue to be above the state’s average, while incidences of elderly abuse and neglect are twice as likely to occur in the Permian as other regions of Texas.
“People who think Bush has the values of blue-collar Texans need to have their heads examined,” Dally Willis, the crusty president of the Permian Basin Central Labor Union, said at a Labor Day picnic for local political candidates. “He hasn’t pushed one program to help the working people of this state.” As a result, Willis claims, “There’s an underground swell of support for Kerry here.” Kerry may not beat Bush on his home turf, Willis said, “but come November, some people are going to be shocked.”
Willis’s claim might sound naïve, but the 84-year-old has been actively involved in Texas politics since the 1940s and remembers helping Democrat Kent Hance beat Bush in a 1978 Congressional race. Back then, he says, West Texans saw Bush as a yuppie Easterner who didn’t understand working people. Bush has had twenty-five years to cultivate a Texas swagger, but Willis thinks Texans are once again questioning his authenticity. “People are starting to ask how someone who never held down a steady job in Midland can understand working people.”