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Boycott for $1.30-a-Gallon Gas Divides Tiny Bee County, Texas

May 03, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

BEEVILLE, Texas — Deep in the belly of Texas oil country, Bee County commissioners took a stand last week -- one they hoped would ignite a prairie fire of protests throughout rural America.

They passed a resolution calling on their constituents to boycott Exxon Mobil Corp. until gasoline prices plummeted to $1.30 a gallon.

What they didn't count on was how it would divide this south Texas county.

"We certainly look like hicks now!" Pam Tull wrote the local newspaper.

Added another letter writer, teacher Charles Marley: "You have a standing invitation to come to high school economics class and learn how supply and demand affects gasoline prices. You are embarrassing us in Texas."

What set off this fury was an honest effort to strike back against gasoline price avarice, said County Judge Jimmy Martinez, Bee County's top elected official, who proposed the boycott.

But it forced the citizens of Beeville, population 13,129, to make a personal decision: Do I declare war on Big Oil, or fill up at Leticia's stations?

There are three Exxon Mobil gas stations in Bee County. All are independently owned by the family of Leticia Quiroga Munoz, who also operates the adjacent convenience stores.

Sticking it to Exxon Mobil inevitably would mean stiffing the Pantry stores, which dish out hearty carne asada tacos and chorizo with eggs as well as sell diesel and unleaded -- a fact county officials were seemingly last to realize.

"I am trying not to take this personally," Quiroga Munoz, 43, said Tuesday as she wiped taco grease off the Formica tables at the store on the south side of town. "But the only ones this can possibly affect is my family. It's just unbelievable. We've worked hard to get to where we're at."

Martinez said he hatched the boycott idea after reading about the $400-million "platinum parachute" that Exxon Mobil gave to retiring Chief Executive Lee Raymond.

Within days, the Bee County boycott -- believed to be the first of its kind in the country -- was international news. Martinez was on MSNBC, the BBC and seemingly every other news outlet.

Beeville suddenly was at the center of the sharp-edged political debate over gas prices.

As the boycott entered its second day Tuesday, it was evident that some here were on board with the plan to shun Exxon Mobil.

"It's great, because the oil companies are all poking people in the eye. It's wrong what they're doing to us," Gary Langston, a 59-year-old prison worker, said at an HEB supermarket and gas station -- one of about half a dozen other places to fill up in Beeville.

A gallon of unleaded gas hovered around $2.90 in town Tuesday.

"If the oil companies are having such a hard time with supply," Langston asked, "why are they making so much money?"

Exxon Mobil recently announced that its record first-quarter earnings topped $8 billion.

However, a far greater number of Beeville citizens were using their consumer power to protect the local Exxon Mobil stations against what they saw as an exceedingly reckless act of political grandstanding.

The Pantry stores reported brisk business, with a steady procession of folks stopping in to show their support.

"This is a fine family. They started here from scratch and built up to something," said Gary Shaw, 48, an air-conditioning technician at the local school district.

"They don't seem to charge any more than anyone else," he said as he pumped $86.55 in Exxon Mobil gas into his pickup, "so why target them?"

The local paper, the Beeville Bee-Picayune, has made clear where it stands, proclaiming in an editorial: "Enough jackassery, support The Pantry stores."

"Bee County has done nothing but benefit from the oil industry," said Susan Stasny, the only commissioner who opposed the boycott.

During the last five years, Bee County and its schools have received $38 million in tax revenue from the oil industry, which along with agriculture is the area's largest economic benefactor.

"I don't like paying $3 a gallon either, but I take a global view of what is going on," Stasny said.

Some predicted Martinez, a Democrat, would face political payback when he runs for reelection in November.

A few even encouraged Quiroga Munoz to enter the race as a write-in candidate.

"I think the judge stuck his boot so far down his throat he's still trying to figure how to get it out," said Victor Salazar, 61, a former county commissioner. "I usually don't fill up here, but I came down just to rub it in his face."

When questioned about a political backlash, Martinez -- at 63 a veteran of Texas politics -- demurred, pointing to a picture in a weekly newsletter that he mails his constituents.

It showed him shaking hands with a San Antonio man who drove two hours to Beeville and donated money to the women's shelter, all because of the judge's stand against Exxon Mobil.

"We've been conditioned to believe" that gasoline prices will not drop, Martinez said, "but that does not mean it has to be true."

Exxon Mobil would not comment on the boycott Tuesday.

Quiroga Munoz said she shared the public's animosity over soaring gas prices, but as an independent station owner was powerless to stop it.

She and her four brothers and sisters have worked at the family business since Quiroga Munoz was 15.

She became a grandmother for the first time Monday, but said she had little time to savor the birth of Jacob Anthony because she was so worried about the fate of her stores -- and 51 employees.

Now that the boycott seems to have turned into a financial boon for the family's filling stations, friends jokingly have urged Quiroga Munoz's son to name his newborn "Boycott."

But, Quiroga Munoz said, she wants to forget that her tangle with the politics of the pump ever took place.

*

Times staff writer Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.

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