He’s Sisyphus, and He Approves This Message

Does Chris Bell have a chance in hell to be governor?

MIDLAND IS REPUBLICAN COUNTRY, the rightmost wing of right-leaning Texas, a place where John Kerry mustered less than 18 percent of the vote in 2004 and where Democrats are viewed the way West Texas farmers once viewed prairie dogs: as annoying, persistent vermin that are best exterminated. These days, they are little more than a colorful, oddball minority here, ranking only slightly above Libertarians in the political pecking order.

That is why Midland is the perfect spot, metaphorically, to hear Chris Bell give a campaign speech. It is August 22, 2005, a time when most sane Midlanders have fled the scorched, windblasted scrub for anything that looks like water. Bell, a Democrat who announced his candidacy for governor two weeks earlier, is here anyway, engaged in what many political observers might consider the equivalent of screaming into the void. Though he is a former U.S. congressman and Houston City Council member, he is a virtual unknown outside Harris County. He has raised very little money and has no significant personal wealth. He is running in a state where Democrats have not won any statewide office since 1994 and where, in the past two gubernatorial elections, they were ground to dust beneath the jackboots of the advancing imperial Republican armies. Midland is only the most extreme example of this, a symbol of GOP triumph—it is the hometown of Speaker of the House Tom Craddick—and a measure of just how far the Democrats have fallen, how hopeless their cause has become, and how their only real choice in early-twenty-first-century electoral politics is which lamb to send to the slaughter.

There is nothing in the scene in the basement of the Midland Hilton to dispel this notion. The tiny crowd—maybe thirty people—is quietly arrayed in neat rows in front of a small lectern that is flanked on either side by red, white, and blue balloons, which have the reverse of their intended effect: They make the candidate look pathetic, vainglorious, and small. There is exactly no energy here. Even the lone local TV cameraman covering the speech cannot stop himself from yawning. At the doorway, a woman sets the tone of the evening when she announces, “I have never seen it this bad.” At first I think she is talking about Bell’s candidacy, but she is not. She is merely voicing wistful regret at how very, very powerful the Republicans have become and how deeply irrelevant it is to be a Democrat in this part of West Texas in 2005. No one disagrees with her.

In spite of all this, Bell is surprisingly good. He stands at a lean six feet three, has arrived here unaccompanied and unhandled, and is dressed in an immaculate glen plaid suit. His hair is silver-gray, which offsets an otherwise boyish countenance and an equally boyish grin. He has a reedy tenor voice that has a remarkably wide range, from low pitched and nearly monotonic to loud and almost raucous. And he is funny.

You might have noticed that I represent the triple crown of disreputable professions: reporter, lawyer, politician,” he tells his audience at one point, referring to his stints as a broadcast journalist and a trial lawyer before he turned to politics. “If this doesn’t work out, maybe I can become a used-car dealer.” They laugh. Later he calls Republican Texas the “national headquarters of the Thank God for Mississippi Committee”—a reference to the fact that Mississippi often ranks below Texas in social problems, thus sparing Texas the ignominy of always being last. He jokes that incumbent governor Rick Perry “couldn’t find the moral high ground with a map and a Sherpa” and “couldn’t lead a silent prayer.” There are plenty of rough edges in Bell’s public presentation, but somehow the humor seems to redeem them.

Tonight he has come mainly to discuss a handful of issues he calls his “Pact With Parents.” He talks about “budgets as moral documents” and about his own deep religious convictions, which influence his position on abortion. While he is in favor of legalized abortion, he explains, “I know a lot of folks who are pro-choice, but I don’t know anybody who is pro-abortion. Nobody likes abortion. As Democrats, we should not be shy about saying just how rare we think abortion should be.” He points out that Texas has the second-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country (the highest is—wait for it—Mississippi) and notes that Perry’s policies have failed to reduce the number of abortions in Texas. On education, he is in favor of a “moon shot” to make Texas schools the best in the country in ten years. He says he wants to raise teacher salaries by $6,000 across the board, cut class sizes, and end what he sees as the state’s excessive reliance on “high-stakes testing” such as the TAKS. He is also in favor of massive ethical reform of state government, eliminating the revolving door between state offices and the lobby and reducing the amount of money individuals can give to candidates. Here he reminds the audience of his sole claim to national fame: the ethics complaint he filed against then—House majority leader Tom DeLay in the summer of 2004 that resulted in DeLay’s admonishment by the House Ethics Committee and began the drumbeat over his questionable behavior that eventually led him to resign his seat.

Unlike many Washington Democrats, Bell does not seem to define himself exclusively in terms of what the other party believes. He is full of proactive ideas, and he has an easy grasp of policy; he even seems, in some of his windier answers to questions from the audience, to be a bit of a wonk. He is a thoughtful, intelligent, reasonable person with a high degree of self-awareness and an offbeat and self-deprecating sense of humor. He is precisely the sort of candidate the Democrats have been looking for. And despite his casual and completely counterrational conviction that he can beat Rick Perry, he is almost certainly pushing a rock that’s too big

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