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FEATURE Why the Bell Not? Can Chris Bell turn his serious mien into a campaign plus? BY JAKE BERNSTEIN 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 imagewhen 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 Chris and Alison Bell photo by Bill Olive 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 continued on page 16 NOVEMBER 3, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7