First Out of the Gate

Now that he's got Mayor Lee Brown's attention, can Chris Bell win your support?

Protesting councilmembers felt that Brown's aides deliberately hid a key aspect of the airport parking measure: A contract was going to a group that included Danny Lawson, the mayor's close friend and political supporter. Council dissidents wanted the contract to return to committee for review.

Several of the participants eventually returned to the council session, enabling the ordinance to be approved. But the incident marked a rite of passage for Bell.

He had been an ally of the mayor's and chairman of the powerful Fiscal Affairs Committee, which plays an important role in shaping the city budget. Lanier had first appointed him to lead the committee after Bell's 1997 election to council.

He announces his candidacy Sunday, but the Bell brain trust already has been working on the campaign.
Troy Fields
He announces his candidacy Sunday, but the Bell brain trust already has been working on the campaign.

After the walkout, Brown retaliated by stripping Bell of his committee chairmanship. The mayor replaced him with John Castillo, a fellow walkout participant who made amends with the mayor. Significantly, Castillo was not seen as a threat to Brown, while some mayoral detractors were already touting Bell as a viable opponent in 2001.

"There was a time when Chris purported to be a supporter and the mayor was going to count on him and play to his ambitions," recalls an administration source. "You know, 'You can be mayor after me' and that kind of stuff." The walkout "sort of threatened the mayor's manhood a little bit," the aide says. "My sense was that hurt."

The mayor blames the split on Bell's ego and ambition for higher office. The councilman says it resulted from Brown's inability to get along with fellow elected officials.

"Lee Brown's idea of working together is agreeing with him," claims Bell. "And if you disagree, that's where the togetherness ends. And it doesn't work that way, especially when you're talking about a mayor and 14 elected councilmembers."

Bell says the parking contract was just the last straw in a string of measures that the mayor pushed through without consulting council. He points to an earlier airport insurance contract that was awarded to another mayoral pal, Lutfi Hassan. Bell says his beef is with the way the measures were handled -- not with the recipients.

"By just handing it to them, that's when everybody started holding their nose and asking questions and changing the deal and amending it at the table and making it a much worse deal as it ended up than it was going in," says Bell. "A lot of us are kinda like, 'Don't put us in this position anymore, where we have to bail out the administration and stand up for these types of measures if you're going to bring them to us in this unclean fashion.' "

Bell had some hopes of salvaging a working relationship with Brown. They met and discussed their differences, and the councilman says he thought they could move on from there. But a dinner party dashed that prospect.

Bell invited the mayor and the incoming councilmembers to the party at his house. Brown and his council allies interpreted it as Bell trying to exert leadership in advance of a mayoral bid. They stayed away.

Then Bell met with Brown and learned that he was out as leader of the Fiscal Affairs Committee. The councilman describes the exchange this way:

Brown told him he was still chair of the ethics committee and would head a new panel on education, then asked for comments.

"Are we just going to play like you're not removing me and taking away the fiscal affairs and customer services committees?" Bell fired back. Brown replied that he was making several committee changes, leaving Bell to point out that Castillo was the only other ousted chairman -- and Castillo had asked to be removed.

"I said, 'Fine, Mayor.' Then I walked out. And we've never met again and have rarely spoken," recounts Bell. He's still bitter that Brown "would go that far to try to publicly humiliate me and not have the guts to stand up and take credit for it."

If Bell was in the mayor's doghouse, he earned a ticket to Siberia last fall after he joined the council's conservatives to temporarily roll back the city tax rate. It was a victory marked more by the mayor's bumbling than the skill of the opposition and was effectively reversed a few weeks later when Councilman Carroll Robinson returned to the administration fold.

Brown immediately blasted the conservatives for engaging in partisan machinations and Bell for jumping on their bandwagon to boost his mayoral ambitions. Bell claims he wanted to "send a message" to the administration to cut government spending. One of the mayor's council allies, who did not want to be identified, disputes that.

"Most of us were absolutely stunned to have Chris lining up on that side," the councilmember says. "He says we needed to get control over spending. Well, why didn't you cut spending instead of income? If you don't have a logical underpinning for doing something, it seems like a dumb mistake or a crass political move."

Crass or not, the gesture did not go unappreciated among council conservatives like rollback organizer Mark Ellis, who says it proves Bell can be fiscally conservative.

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