texasmonthly.com: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
S. C. Gwynne: As with most political stories, the problem is trying to stay objective. Politics is all about emotion and spin and rooting for people and trying to predict the future, and you just have to try to not get caught up in all that. As I say in the story, I think Bell is a good candidate, and given the right circumstances, he might be able to challenge Governor Rick Perry. But most people around the state don’t know who Chris Bell is, and right now he doesn’t have enough money to run ads to fix this problem. So the idea is to try to present him fairly as a candidate and as a person but also to acknowledge these very thorny problems.
texasmonthly.com: Bell’s rhetoric and actions—his description of budgets as “moral documents” and his interest in ethics rules, as a congressman and a Houston City Council member—appear to characterize him as a reformer, or at least a politician with a conscience. After having spent some time with him, did you get the impression that he’s genuinely concerned, or that he has a more pragmatic, political motive for his behavior?
SG: I think he is a real reformer, and what he effected on the Houston City Council was real ethical reform. I think he genuinely believed that Tom DeLay had crossed an ethical line. As a politician, he is also not shy about touting these things in his campaign. But I don’t see any cynical motives at play here.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that Bell’s fundraising woes are indicative of any larger problems with the relationship between money and Texas politics?
SG: No. His problem is as old as politics. He is simply having trouble attracting as much money as his two major opponents. In some ways, the Texas system favors him, because a handful of rich donors could turn this around very quickly.
texasmonthly.com: You refer to the fact that several monetarily powerful Democrats have chosen to back independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn instead of Bell. Do you think this kind of division within the party could bode ill for its future in Texas?
SG: The party is already at low ebb, so it’s hard to see things getting much worse. The abandonment of a decent candidate by the Democratic financial establishment may, many years hence, be seen as the bottom.
texasmonthly.com: For this story, you talked to a lot of pollsters and political strategists, whose work you cite at length. But, given the new ground the coming election will cover (the first five-way governor’s race with two independent candidates who have strong backing), how much credence do you give such expert predictions?
SG: On one level, it’s all smoke and mirrors, and that is especially true in this unprecedented multicandidate race for governor. On the other hand, polls determine how much media coverage candidates receive, how much money they get, and to some extent what their messages are. So you have to give them some credence while acknowledging that no one can predict the future. I gave a bit more weight to polls conducted by Mike Baselice because, even though he is partisan, he was so extraordinarily accurate in both 1998 and 2002.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is Bell’s greatest weakness?
SG: His lack of name ID. And right now he really doesn’t have the ability to do much about that. He will get a certain amount of free media coverage. But his two main rivals—Perry and Strayhorn—are widely know around the state, and he is not.
texasmonthly.com: His greatest strength?
SG: He is a moderate Democrat who articulates clear differences between himself and his party and the governor and the Republican party. That may sound simple enough, but it has been a long time since the Dems had one of those.