He’s Sisyphus, and He Approves This Message
Does Chris Bell have a chance in hell to be governor?
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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 up a hill that’s too steep.
TEN MONTHS LATER, 46-YEAR-OLD Chris Bell’s world is a vastly different place, the product of what might be considered—at least as seen from the basement of the Midland Hilton—a nearly unimaginable sequence of political events. These reconfigurations of destiny actually began back in June 2005, when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison announced, after months of feverish speculation, that she was not challenging Perry in the Republican primary for governor, an earthshaking nonevent in Texas politics because she was viewed by many people, including many Democrats, as unbeatable. “She would have cleaned my clock, and no Democrat stood a chance in hell of beating her,” says Bell. “No way were we going to raise a lot of money.”
Thus simplified, the race took another twist when Perry failed, through two special sessions of the Legislature last summer, to keep his promise to enact school finance reform. That, in turn, provided strength and impetus to the apostate insurgent candidacy of fellow Republican Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the comptroller of public accounts. September saw two more Bell-friendly developments: Former comptroller John Sharp, a conservative Democrat who has twice been the nominee for lieutenant governor and could easily have beaten Bell for the party’s nomination, announced that he would not run. A few days later, DeLay was indicted by a Travis County grand jury, lending weight, credence, and a good deal of free publicity to Bell’s year-old crusade against him.
Even more good luck followed. In December former Texas Supreme Court justice Bob Gammage decided to run for the Democratic nomination, giving Bell a credible primary opponent of his own; he promptly thumped Gammage by more than a two-to-one margin, winning 82 percent of the vote in Harris County. Then, in January, came the best news of all: Strayhorn, who was the biggest vote getter in either party on the statewide ballot in 2002, announced that she would run as an independent, virtually ensuring that the Republican base would be severely divided in the November general election; good-bye to Perry’s built-in 45 to 50 percent. Add maverick independent Kinky Friedman, the singer, mystery novelist, and former Texas Monthly columnist, to this volatile mix, and Bell was no longer looking at a futile battle against a heavily funded Republican candidate. Now he was in a competitive, five-candidate race (there is also a Libertarian party nominee) that by Texas law would go to whoever had the highest number of votes. No majority was needed, and there would be no runoff. You didn’t have to be a math genius to see that, under certain circumstances, 38 percent could win; that’s 2 percent less than Democrat Tony Sanchez polled against Perry in 2002 in what was considered to be a Republican blowout.
If all that wasn’t enough to brighten Bell’s horizons, a February Dallas Morning News poll showed that, contrary to the Strayhorn campaign’s flat insistence that this was really a two-way race between Republican thoroughbreds, Bell was in fact running second. The numbers—Perry, 36 percent; Bell, 19 percent; Strayhorn, 16 percent; and Friedman, 10 percent—suggested a potential opening for the right challenger to the governor; 72 percent of voters could not name even one of his accomplishments in office.
And yet there is one very large, very intractable, and possibly insuperable obstacle to Bell’s chances of being that right challenger: money. He is desperately short of it. It may seem a shame to reduce political discourse to dollars and cents, but there is no avoiding it. In a state like Massachusetts, where 4 million of the 6.3 million residents live within reach of Boston’s TV stations, statewide campaigning is relatively cheap and easily accomplished. In Texas, with 21 million people scattered over an area bigger than France—where it costs more than $1 million a week to run ads simultaneously in the major cities—you need large piles of money to run a successful campaign, even if your name is Bush.
Why should the nominee of a major party be so starved for cash? The obvious answer is that people simply don’t believe he can win. But the reality is more finely calibrated than that. Of note are the specific people who don’t believe he can win, which leads us into the world of the traditional financial wheelhorses of the Democratic party, many of whom have deserted Bell for Strayhorn.
To find out why, I visited some of them, starting with former lieutenant governor Ben Barnes, a wealthy man and an old-fashioned power broker. “I don’t know anyone who I respect more than Chris Bell,” said Barnes. “He is a fine young man. But I am supporting Carole Strayhorn because she is the most qualified candidate. I am supporting her because she has the best vision for Texas and has the best chance of winning the race.” For Barnes, there was one clear, overweening objective that outweighed even his party loyalty: Beat Rick Perry.
That was the same thing I heard from Bernard Rapoport, a rock-ribbed liberal and longtime principal patron of the Texas Observer who also has contributed to Strayhorn. “The problem is that we don’t have the options we would like to have,” he said. “Chris Bell is a hell of a fine guy. On the other hand, you have to have a certain amount of pragmatism. Carole Strayhorn is the most viable candidate.”
Texas’s wealthy trial lawyers, too, have begun to contribute money to Strayhorn—a potentially disastrous development for Bell, since the plaintiffs’ bar has been the biggest single source of money for statewide Democratic candidates in recent years. John Eddie Williams Jr., the managing partner of the Williams Bailey law firm, in Houston, recites the now-familiar rationale: “Chris Bell is a fine public servant, but the overriding issue is not Chris Bell. It’s Rick Perry’s ideological, exclusionary approach to governing. That’s why so many traditional Democratic attorneys are now looking closely at Carole Strayhorn.”
That such party heavyweights have deserted Bell is widely known and widely discussed in the hothouse of Austin’s power corridors. After a while, it begins to sound like a death knell for his campaign, and it is made worse by the media’s preoccupation with the precise details of his financial woes. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, could not resist reporting, on February 28, that Perry had one hundred times as much money in the bank as Bell ($9.4 million to $90,869). Strayhorn’s $8.1 million war chest, by contrast, is frequently cited as a reason to take her candidacy seriously.
Predictably, Bell bridles at the notion that a few Democratic bigwigs can shut him down. “We filed our first financial report in June 2005,” he says. “We had only raised $160,000, and that started the rap that I can’t raise money. I obviously have to make a good enough showing so that the media says I have enough money to compete.” Bell believes he needs $10 million to win, in part so he can finance three to four weeks of statewide television ads. “This race is not about money,” he says, “but we will do what we need to do.”
His fund-raising has indeed improved in the past few months, starting with his primary victory and accelerating in the month of April. He has recruited some wealthy contributors, including Houston car dealer Ricardo Weitz and Austin homebuilder Robert Turner, and is confident he can raise $1 million between the primary and June 30, the end of the current financial reporting period for campaigns. That is a significant improvement. Still, his resources are nowhere near the size of Perry’s or Strayhorn’s. And the unfortunate fact remains that, without the ability to run a significant number of television ads, he will simply be unknown throughout large swaths of Texas.
ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU HE KNOWS what is going to happen is nuts,” says Glenn Smith, a Democratic operative who ran Tony Sanchez’s ill-fated 2002 campaign. Smith is referring to the fact that Texas has never had four well-known, relatively well-funded candidates pitted against one another in the general election; the last successful independent candidate on the ballot was Sam Houston, in 1859. “There are no real barometers. The problem is that it is hard to learn from recent elections because they were all unique for one reason or another. You had a Bush on the ballot twice. You had a black and a Hispanic at the top of the ticket in 2002. So you can’t really say, ‘Here’s the baseline.’”
That hasn’t prevented the state’s highest-paid political talent from trying. In 2002 the most accurate pollster—by far—was Mike Baselice, who works for Perry and correctly predicted the outcomes of the state’s major races within fractions of a percentage point. Baselice believes that the race can be understood in terms of the built-in votes that Perry and Bell are likely to get as major-party nominees. “The lowest Republican vote this decade was David Dewhurst’s 51.8 percent in the 2002 lieutenant governor’s race against John Sharp,” he says. “So 52 percent is the base. The Democrats went as low as 32 percent, when Marty Akins got stomped for comptroller by Strayhorn. Let’s be generous and say the Republican base is only 50, the Democratic base is as much as 35, and the ticket splitters are the remaining 15.”
But how much of those base percentages can realistically be expected to hold? “Perry got 92 percent of the Republican vote in 2002,” says Baselice. “If he only gets 80 percent of his base, that puts him at 40 percent right away. But then you have to remember that he also got 15 percent of the Democratic vote against Sanchez.” Of the roughly 50 percent Republican vote, Baselice sees 80 percent going to Perry, 10 percent to Strayhorn, 5 percent to Bell, and 5 percent to Friedman. Of the Democrats’ 35 percent, he sees 75 percent going to Bell, 10 percent to Perry, 10 percent to Strayhorn, and 5 percent to Friedman. He assumes that the 15 percent independent vote will be split 30-30-30 among Perry, Strayhorn, and Bell, followed by Friedman with 10. The net result: Perry wins with 48 percent, followed by Bell at 33.25 percent, Strayhorn at 13 percent, and Friedman at 5.75 percent.
Baselice’s analysis depends on one critical assumption: The Republican and Democratic candidates will hold a high percentage of their base votes in spite of Strayhorn’s proven electoral appeal. This is the classic, and perhaps predictable, Perry victory math. But it is an interesting point of departure for the larger discussion about what could happen. For Strayhorn to win, she must pull huge quantities of the Republican vote—in the 40 to 50 percent range—from Perry, and she must also bite significantly into Bell’s base, winning up to one third of it. Bell wins if Strayhorn whacks 50 percent from Perry but, miraculously, hardly touches Bell, who must also remain largely unaffected by Friedman. (This is the theory advanced by the Lone Star Project, a pro-Democrat, Washington-based political research firm that has Bell winning in that scenario with 32.58 percent to Perry’s 32.24 percent, Strayhorn’s 27.18 percent, and Friedman’s 8 percent.) Recent polls all show Perry in the same leading, though not quite convincing, position: An April 2 Zogby poll had the governor at 36.3, Bell at 20.7, Strayhorn at 19, and Friedman at 16.7, while an April 20 Rasmussen poll showed Perry at 40, Strayhorn at 19 (down 12 from a similar poll in February), Bell at 17 (up 4 percent), and Friedman with 15. (Most analysts assume that if Friedman gets more than 10 percent, he could well guarantee a Perry victory, since those votes are probably coming from Bell or Strayhorn rather than from the governor.)
Why, based on these contingencies, is Strayhorn receiving such a large share of the Democratic dollars? The answer can be found in a private poll commissioned by the Texans for Insurance Reform political action committee in April. In a one-on-one matchup, Perry beat Bell 54 percent to 31 percent (with the rest of those polled undecided). But when Strayhorn was added to the mix, the numbers changed dramatically: Perry now got 41 percent, Strayhorn 25 percent, and Bell 18 percent, with Strayhorn pulling equally from Perry and Bell. (A separate poll, with Friedman included, showed Perry at 41, Strayhorn at 21, Bell at 14, and Friedman at 9.) “Strayhorn’s entry into the race makes it possible to defeat Perry,” says Democratic consultant Dan McClung, of Houston. “On the strength of her profile alone, she picks up a quarter of Perry’s support. That makes him a vulnerable incumbent.” McClung believes that Republican voters go to either Perry or Strayhorn, meaning that if her campaign fizzles, her support goes back to Perry, with no advantage to Bell.
Bell, meanwhile, insists that both the media and potential donors have mistakenly discounted the advantages of being the nominee of a major party. He thinks that it’s worth somewhere between 38 and 42 percent, in part because of voting history and in part because the Democratic party is able to put thousands of operatives on the ground—something the party-less Strayhorn cannot claim. “The fact is that Texas favors majority-party candidates,” he says. “The Valley votes on a straight ticket. Carole can’t deliver Travis County.” Close Bell ally Garnet Coleman, a Democratic state representative from Houston, agrees. “The Democratic party nomination comes with a base,” he says. “It’s clearly about 40 percent of the vote. Al Gore didn’t spend a dollar in Texas, and they ran out of voting machines in some places.” The way they see it, in a race featuring bloody combat between Strayhorn and Perry, leading to a deep splintering of the Republican vote, 40 percent wins.
BELL MAY BE A NOBODY in most of the state, but he is a familiar figure in Houston, where he was a prominent city councilman for five years, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor, and a one-term congressman from the serpentine, city-spanning Twenty-fifth District. At a roast of Texas AFL-CIO president Emmett Sheppard on Houston’s west side on April 1, a very different Bell is on display from the one I have been following to Democratic hinterlands such as Midland, New Braunfels, and Temple. He is clearly in his element, among friends. Though Bell shares the dais with some of his party’s best public presences—including former attorney general Jim Mattox, Congressman Al Green, former congressman Nick Lampson, and state senator John Whitmire—he is by far the funniest speaker of the evening, and he has the room laughing uproariously. There is plenty of politicking going on here too. When Green, who beat Bell in a hotly contested primary in 2004, endorses him for governor, the audience responds with a minute-long standing ovation.
That same weekend, I pay a call on Bell at his four-bedroom ranch house on a shady street in Braes Heights, in southwest Houston. He lives here with his wife of fourteen years, Alison Ayres Bell, and their two young boys, Atlee, ten, and Connally, eight. The place is attractive, a bit overgrown with vegetation, resolutely unfancy and unremodeled. It is cluttered—in a comfortable, lived-in sort of way—with backpacks, blocks, kids’ books, dog toys, video games, and family photographs.
Chris and Alison—who worked for Mosbacher Energy for many years and was the scheduler for Republican Rob Mosbacher’s 1994 campaign for lieutenant governor—are easygoing and informal, with a knack for making and keeping friends. They entertain frequently. To give you a sense of how social they are, two years ago Chris threw Alison a surprise birthday party attended by three hundred people; they are also known for giving large Christmas parties for their political friends. Humor is the order of the day at home as well. After bringing us box lunches, Alison twits Chris for being too demanding. In the living room, buffeted by young boys with various balls and weapons and by the frisky golden retriever the family recently adopted, the candidate and I sit down to talk.
Like his house and his neighborhood, Bell is solidly of the lower echelons of the upper middle class. The son of a land man in the oil business who also sold real estate, he was raised in the affluent town of University Park, just north of Dallas. “Mom and Dad had both grown up in the Park Cities and very much wanted my brother and me to be able to attend Highland Park schools,” he says. “I’m sure they could have lived much more comfortably somewhere else, but they gave up just about everything in their own lives, and what you saw in other folks’ lives in Highland Park—fancy cars, clothes, vacations, et cetera—so my brother and I could have everything.” He was popular and smart, serving as a student council representative.
At the University of Texas, he was president of the Intrafraternity Council and, in 1982, helped lead a successful effort (abetted by future Democratic political consultant Paul Begala) to reinstate student government and write a new student constitution. He majored in broadcast journalism, and after he graduated he got a job as a television reporter in the small-market city of Ardmore, Oklahoma. From there he moved to Amarillo, where he had quick success and became the ABC affiliate’s weekend anchor.
Amarillo was also his introduction to politics. Owing to his growing public visibility, he was soon asked by a member of the local Democratic establishment to run for state representative. He was 24. He accepted, won the primary, then was eviscerated in the general election in spite of nine months of concerted campaigning. “I was upset but also somewhat relieved that I could go back to what I was doing,” Bell says. “Humility is a useful trait in political life. I went back to journalism, but I knew that at some point, I would want to run for something again.”
He soon moved to Houston, where he took a job as a radio reporter covering the Harris County courts (in 1990 he was named best radio reporter in the state for major markets by the Texas Associated Press). But he was changing direction. After filing his radio reports during the day, he attended night classes at South Texas College of Law. After passing the bar, in 1992, he began a career as a trial lawyer, handling mostly criminal cases. He spent a year with an established law firm, then went out on his own.
But politics, and ambition, again beckoned. In 1995, having barely launched his own firm, he ran for a seat on the Houston City Council and lost—the first of a more or less continual chain of political campaigns he has conducted since then. He ran again in 1997, winning both a special election and a regular election, and was reelected in 1999. In 2001 he ran for mayor and lost but spun his widening name recognition into yet another campaign—this time a successful try for Congress in 2002. Then came redistricting. As Tom DeLay and the other mapmakers had hoped, Bell lost his seat in the 2004 primary, but less than a year later he was back out campaigning, this time for governor, a race to which he has been devoting almost all of his time ever since.
On the city council, he championed both ethics reform and what was known as “customer-driven government”—various ways to make the city more responsive to its citizenry. In the former case, he persuaded then-mayor Bob Lanier to make him the chairman of a new ethics committee, and in that post he passed laws that limited the use of soft money in city elections and prohibited city employees who left government from cashing in on their connections. In the latter, says Jay Aiyer, a Houston lawyer who is the former chief of staff to Lanier’s successor as mayor, Lee Brown, “You could certainly make the argument that the 311 system [a sort of 911 number for city services like sewage, water, street maintenance] grew out of Chris’s ideas to make the city a more customer-oriented place.”
Along the way, Bell famously crossed swords with Brown, once leading a council walkout to break the quorum on a vote on a city contract the mayor wanted. He also joined conservatives to pass a 2-cent property tax rollback in 2000, handing Brown his first major council defeat. The eventual result was open war. Brown stripped Bell of the chairmanship of two committees, and Bell soon decided to run against him. “He basically forced my hand,” Bell says. “In his defense, I think he felt that if he did not take a stand, he would be viewed as weak. And meanwhile, I refused to guarantee him that I was not running for mayor. I said, ‘If you mess with me, I will consider my options at some later time.’ After that the battle was fully joined.” Though Bell surprised most political observers in Houston by raising $1.3 million for that race and was impressive in several televised debates, he finished third behind Brown and Republican Orlando Sanchez in the nonpartisan election. He showed his political savvy by immediately throwing his full support behind Brown, who later actively supported Bell in his 2002 run for Congress.
Bell also became known for what turned out to be bruising and sometimes bitter election campaigns. The Houston Chronicle called his congressional race against Republican Tom Reiser “one of the nastiest local congressional races in years.” At one point, Bell demanded that Reiser withdraw an ad that (incorrectly) stated that Bell had been investigated for bribery and sexual harassment while on the city council. Bell, who has not been shy about counterpunching when attacked, ran his own ads accusing a company Reiser once owned of fraud. “We had kept everything positive,” Bell says. “But we made it clear that if he chose to turn negative, we would hit back and hit back hard.”
Bell arrived in Washington in January 2003 fully expecting a long career in Congress. He was quickly made assistant whip, a rare honor for a freshman. “I promoted him because it was clear that he was respected by so many of the freshmen and also well liked by the senior members,” says Representative Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, the House Democratic whip. “It was clear that Chris was one of the stars of his class.”
There was only one problem. In October of that year, the Tom DeLay—engineered redrawing of Texas congressional district boundaries morphed Bell’s district into one intended to be represented by a minority Democrat, and Bell immediately got a black primary challenger: Al Green, the former president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In spite of this, Bell was convinced—along with the Houston media—that he would be reelected. He got crushed, 66 percent to 31 percent. He says his defeat was “like a gut punch. It just changed everything.”
One thing it did not change was his opinion of DeLay, whose district lay slightly to the west of Bell’s on the west side of Houston. In early 2003 Bell had begun discussing with Texas colleagues Martin Frost, of Dallas, and Max Sandlin, of Marshall, the possibility of filing an ethical complaint against DeLay. Bell’s defeat in March 2004 sharpened his determination, even though, at that point, he was the only member of Congress still interested in pursuing it. In June 2004 he and his staff, independent of the Democratic leadership of the House and in concert with a watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, lodged a formal complaint alleging that DeLay illegally solicited and accepted contributions from Westar Energy; that DeLay’s PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority, laundered $190,000 in corporate funds in September 2002; and that DeLay misused his office the following year by asking the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Justice Department to help track down Democrats in the state legislature who had fled to Oklahoma to prevent Republicans from passing his redistricting plan.
Bell’s action produced two results. Republicans damned him as a bitter, lame-duck congressman who was upset about losing his seat. (“These partisan accusations … are untrue, based on innuendo and prompted by campaign considerations” was how DeLay’s own office responded.) Democrats, meanwhile, rallied to Bell’s cause, and he was anointed a star at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that July. According to a story in the Chronicle that summer, Bell, who was appearing at a number of “posh” receptions, had “become a darling of the Democrats. Texan delegates to the Boston convention clamored … to have their picture taken with him. They asked for his autograph and encouraged him to run for statewide office.” And Bell’s House colleagues truly did think he was brave. “I really admire his courage,” says House whip Hoyer, “especially since he did not get a lot of support. He filed the complaint notwithstanding the fact that he faced very substantial retribution.”
For Bell, it was the beginning of what would soon become a campaign for governor. “Life has never been the same, and I don’t think that’s too dramatic of a statement,” he says. “It wasn’t like it made me clearly any kind of household name”—here he pauses and emits one of his trademark short bursts of laughter at the very idea that he could be a household name—“but it struck a chord with Democrats at the time. I started getting invitations to speak, and people started to encourage me to think about looking into a statewide office.”
BELL’S FATE RIDES not only on Strayhorn’s ability to split the Republican base. Like fellow Democrats across the country, he is also hoping for the sort of political backlash that swept the Republicans into power and the Democrats out during the 1994 midterm elections. “In recent weeks a startling realization has begun to take hold,” noted a Time magazine story in April. “If the elections were held today … the Republicans would probably lose the fifteen seats they need to keep control of the House of Representatives and could come within a seat or two of losing the Senate as well.” The litany of grievances, on the national level, is now familiar: the conduct of the war in Iraq, the government’s response during Hurricane Katrina, rising gas prices, failed Social Security and Medicare reform.
But there is a long list at the state level too, including the school finance debacle, which lasted through three regular and three special sessions (and counting); congressional redistricting; DeLay’s fund-raising antics in 2002 and the resulting indictments; and the paralysis of government at its highest levels due to the endless sniping and turf battles between Perry, House Speaker Craddick, and Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst. There are also the much-ballyhooed signs of just such a voter revolt: improbable victories in Texas House races by Democrat Hubert Vo over powerful Appropriations Committee chair Talmadge Heflin in Houston in 2004 and Democrat Donna Howard’s stunning upset of the well-funded Republican Ben Bentzin in a special election in Austin in February 2006.
While all this is encouraging for Democrats, it is hardly conclusive. Texas is still a deeply conservative state, a place where George W. Bush not only won 61 percent of the vote in 2004 but also averaged 41 percent in the heavily Hispanic counties along the border. “It took a long time for the pendulum to swing in favor of the Republicans,” says Perry pollster Mike Baselice. “It is going to take a long time for it to swing back in the direction of the Democrats.” And even if a counterrevolution occurred, it is not immediately clear that it would favor Bell. It could just as easily benefit Strayhorn or, less likely, anti-establishment candidate Friedman.
In Bell’s favor is time. There are many months left in the campaign in which to tour the state, run advertisements, and get his education-and-ethics-reform message out. Because he is the Democratic nominee, he is guaranteed a minimum amount of media coverage, thus taking care, to some extent, of his name ID problem by Election Day. And while he has lost the first round of fund-raising to Strayhorn, political money, always fickle, could still come back to him. “When the campaign gears up, he is going to have enough money to run the race,” says state representative Garnet Coleman. “People are hedging their bets now. I guarantee you that certain people who are supporting Strayhorn and not Bell will come to him because he is the standard-bearer for the party.”
For the moment, Bell is out pounding the pavement, spending large chunks of time trying to raise money and persuade the media that they ought to start writing about him as though he has a chance (that kind of coverage would be worth, literally, millions of additional dollars to his campaign). The old days of traveling on commercial flights, alone, to cities like Midland, are over. He now crisscrosses the state in sleek private jets provided by his wealthy patron Ricardo Weitz. And he has a personal aide, a young politics major from Georgetown University named Adam Briscoe, who drives him around in an equally sleek black Dodge Magnum plastered with “Bell for Governor” stickers; the two logged 19,000 miles in less than two months.
As we cruised to Houston’s Hobby Airport in the Magnum on a sunny afternoon last April, Bell’s eight-year-old son, Connally, observed, with great enthusiasm, “Hey, Dad, today I saw a car with a Chris Bell bumper sticker that belonged to someone we don’t even know!” Bell responded with a deadpan look, then said, very slowly, “Well, if that’s true, Connally, it is a major breakthrough.”