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Why the Bell Not?

Can Chris Bell turn his serious mien into a campaign plus?
by Published on

Chris and Alison Bell, photo by Bill Olive

Here’s a little-known fact about Chris Bell: He has a good sense of humor. In fact, he has an engaging personality once you get to know him. Smart. Committed. Not above the playful prank or the gentle ribbing. Voters haven’t always been able to see this side of the Democratic candidate for governor, though sometimes on the campaign trail, in front of a live audience, he overcomes his reputation for being a little dull. What is undeniable, though, is that his perceived lack of charisma at some point morphed into a question about his electability.

In perhaps the unkindest cut, as his three rivals stood over their podiums beside him, Bell was asked about this during the sole gubernatorial debate. “One of the biggest concerns about your campaign is your rather sedate personality,” began WFAA local television news anchor John McCaa. “We have had people that have said you are amiable but unriveting. Some people have even said that you are boring. How do you get voters enthusiastic about your campaign, particularly when you are facing these three?”

Bell replied that people are enthusiastic about having the “very best public schools in the country.” With a forced smile, he proceeded to talk about his two young boys and crammed in some talking points about how he wanted to reform education and eliminate high-stakes testing.

A week later, we are having lunch at a barbecue joint called the Back Porch in Boerne, Texas, when I ask him about McCaa’s question. “It was really incredible,” he recalls. “It was like saying, ‘You’re really overweight.'” It’s clear we are entering a conversation he has had before, and not one he particularly likes. Bell notes that he has been in politics for more than a decade. He represented Houston in Congress for one term and served on the City Council there for five years. Voters didn’t seem to have a problem with his personality in those elections. Bell assesses part of the blame for his bad rap on Bob Gammage, his primary challenger. The former Texas Supreme Court justice apparently let it be known that he got into the race because Bell didn’t have the personality to win it. “It’s what Gammage put on me,” Bell says.

In other conversations, Bell insists Gammage’s challenge made him a better candidate. It helped him focus and gave him a publicity boost. Unfortunately for Bell, some of that publicity helped form a negative public image—when the public has an image of Bell at all. In a state as vast as Texas and with as many media markets, it takes real money to gain public attention, let alone shape it. Before Bell received a million-dollar infusion from trial lawyer John O’Quinn shortly after the Oct. 6 debate, the Bell campaign had $197,718 left in the bank. Incumbent Gov. Rick Perry had $9.2 million.

Bell is self-aware enough to know there is more than a little truth in the caricature of him. He’s a wonk who cares about policy. “That’s why I put in the line about being serious,” he says, recalling his hokiest point in the debate. “I’m a serious man with a serious plan.”

Rival Kinky Friedman’s shtick puts Bell on edge for this very reason. “It makes a mockery of something in which I believe, something that’s important in people’s lives,” he says. “[Kinky] despises the system. The system could be improved, but you don’t have to make a mockery of it.”

Bell wants to use government to solve problems. He wants to make it work for people. His menu of policy proposals reads like a progressive wish list: Eliminate high-stakes school testing, expand the business tax, invest in education, develop renewable energy, work toward complete health-insurance coverage for children. He is often most passionate when he talks about issues in the context of his loved ones. His wife Alison was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2004; after surgery and chemotherapy, her cancer is in remission. His mother died of Parkinson’s disease in 1999. When he talks about the promise of stem-cell research and the importance of access to health care, you can tell these are real, personal issues to him. In the same way, most every speech about education includes a mention of Atlee, 10, and Connally, 8, his two boys, both of whom go to public school.

On the wall by our table at the Back Porch is a mounted deer head. It hangs not far from a larger-than-life photo of country legend Hank Williams, a gaunt man in a white suit sprinkled with giant musical notes. At the counter is an impressive collection of stuffed, toy chickens. The sound system incongruously plays Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s hard not to think that Texans like their public figures a little larger than life—the more personality, the better.

In a lot of ways Chris Bell is an anti-George W. Bush: All policy and no Elvis. Stuck at a barbecue—the proverbial deserted island for Texans—whom would you rather have next to you? Bell is also caught up in a trend that began with Ronald Reagan. Given the choice, Americans today seem to prefer style over substance in their leaders most every time.

We have 45 minutes to kill before the next campaign event, so Bell and his two young aides pull into Boerne’s town center. On this Saturday, it’s transformed into an outdoor bazaar by a combination of market day and a vintage-car festival. We walk across the street, picking our way through the stalls and admiring the cars before entering an antiques store. Nobody recognizes Bell, and he makes no effort to introduce himself. On one level it’s understandable. These are not the voters Bell is trying to reach.

Bell is running a campaign that is the opposite of what Democrat John Sharp tried and failed to do on a number of occasions. Rather than run to thecenter—wherever it may be found—and try to be palatable to everybody, Bell is focusing on the base. When Bell’s leading rival, Rick Perry, is polling at about 35 percent, all the Democrat needs to win is a heavy turnout by his base. (That is also exactly what Perry needs to do.) In fact, Bell’s people have identified 450,000 households comprising just under a million voters. The campaign is pouring direct mail and targeted television into those homes. Most of them are Democrats, although some are disaffected Republicans and independents. If they turn out for Bell, his strategists are convinced he’ll be the next governor of Texas. Still, Bell’s anonymity in Boerne is a little eerie in the midst of a major political race. People just don’t naturally gravitate toward him. He’s a man for whom governing comes more easily than campaigning. Unfortunately, you can’t usually do the former without succeeding at the latter.

Our next stop is the Boerne Middle School South, where two Kendall County Democratic clubs have gathered to hear Bell and local candidates speak. In 2004, the Bush-Cheney ticket received more than 81 percent of the vote in Kendall County. For this event, Democratic leaders ran ads in local newspapers for a week, sent e-mails, and placed phone calls, and the result is that about 100 people, mostly seniors, are gathered in the cafeteria to hear Bell. For Kendall County Democrats, it’s a huge turnout. “So nice to see you are not treating the Democratic Party like a secret society anymore,” he tells them.

Bell says that all over the state, Democrats are coming out in places like Boerne and Plano and Burleson. Areas that until recently were assumed to be not just red, but a deep magenta, are showing signs of Democratic blue. He knows that much of this is owed to a national wave of revulsion toward the White House and the Republican Congress and has nothing to do with his candidacy. Bell desperately needs to tap into this energy to win. “We can change Texas, but we have to change the Democratic Party,” he tells the crowd. “We have to learn to win again. This is the best opportunity in years that we’ve had to take the governorship. If we stand united, nobody can defeat us.”

Yet despite Perry’s incredible unpopularity, Democrats have failed at uniting. Last spring Bell and independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Strayhorn, the incumbent state comptroller, unleashed a vicious spate of attacks against each other in the press. The media melee wasn’t about voters, though. It was about money. Strayhorn locked up a number of important historically Democratic money sources early. In the final weeks of the campaign this has started to change, but if Bell loses and Perry wins re-election, Strayhorn’s Democratic donors could well be a key determinant.

The larger-than-life personality of Bell’s other rival, Kinky Friedman, has seemed at times almost a living rebuke to the Democrat’s inherent blandness. At a candidate forum for San Antonio-area teachers earlier that same Saturday, a number of the teachers say their schools are divided almost 50-50 between Bell and Kinky. “Our membership is split,” says Yvette Milner, president of the Bandera local of the Association of Texas Professional Educators. They like Kinky, who came and spoke to them, but Milner is worried about the vote’s becoming divided and Perry getting re-elected as a result. After Bell finishes his speech and answers a lengthy series of detailed education questions, Milner says she’s leaning toward voting for him. Several of the other teachers agree. “I was impressed,” says Paige Huerta, who adds that her school, Raba Elementary, is also split 50-50 on Kinky and Bell.

If Bell loses this election, it won’t be for lack of trying. At the beginning of the campaign, a close friend of his told him that the only fate worse than losing would be to leave something on the table at the end. Bell has taken the advice to heart, racing around the state in the final weeks, visiting Democratic strongholds in the Rio Grande Valley and inner cities, straining to convince the Democratic faithful to believe.

Attending the Boerne Middle School event is a former roommate of Bell’s, Dyer Greer, who lives in the area. When they lived together in the early 1990s, Bell was working a full-time job as a radio reporter at KTRH in Houston while attending night school at the South Texas College of Law. “He’d do his laundry at 3:00 a.m.,” Greer recalls. Yet somehow he managed to win an award from the Texas Associated Press naming him “best radio reporter in the state.” It’s that kind of drive and intensity that Bell is bringing to the campaign, and one would hope, that he would apply to the governorship.

After Boerne, it’s off to the heart of San Antonio’s West Side, where a rally of Democratic activists is being held at the Arizona Café. The Bell campaign has an elaborate plan for early voting and Election Day, developed in part by former Austin state Rep. Glen Maxey, who ran Howard Dean’s Texas operation. Maxey wants to use the Internet to help find isolated pockets of Democrats throughout the state and turn them out. But it will also be essential to get community activists like these to crank up the turnout.

At the café, Bell celebrates a recently released attack ad against him by Perry’s campaign. It’s evidence that this is now a two-person race, he asserts in his twangy, West Texas accent that always seems a beat or two slow. He has no trouble drawing a distinction between himself and the governor with this crowd. He slams vouchers, declares that budgets are moral documents, and decries that 80 percent of those in prison are high-school dropouts. Bell promises an administration made up of people who reflect Texas, and the brown faces in the crowd understand he means them. He uses that to segue into a story about Ann Richards. After retelling the tale, in which Richards calls him crazy for running but promises to help with his campaign, more than a hundred times, his imitation of the late governor’s honeyed drawl is almost spot-on. Bell is getting better on the trail. The momentum after the debate is moving in his favor. But there is still a long way to go, and time is running short.

Before the campaign’s lone statewide debate, Bell’s name identification among likely voters was hovering at 57 percent, according to his campaign manager, Jason Stanford. After the debate, it’s up to 75 percent, still lower than any other person in the race. Nearly all polls show Bell in second place, but still a ways behind Perry. Stanford insists that more money is coming into the campaign and he’s happy with the progress.

Back at the café, Bell is finishing his speech.

“I am a serious man,” he says. “I don’t see anything funny or trivial about the problems facing us. When I’m governor, Texas will be a better place.”