First Out of the Gate

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

"One of the things Chris will offer as a candidate," Ellis says, "is a management initiative that is more cost-effective to taxpayers and provides better services."

Robert Christopher Bell may be a liberal Democrat, but his upbringing is more that of a traditionally conservative Republican. He was born and raised in the upscale Dallas enclave of Highland Park, not far from the SMU campus.

Bell's father, Peter, worked in the oil business and later in investments, while his late mother, Dorothy, was a features section writer for The Dallas Morning News. She died of complications from Parkinson's disease two years ago.

Early on, the gregarious Bell evinced an interest in politics and journalism, according to older brother Peter. He won his first election as student council president in the seventh grade with the slogan "Saved by the Bell" and campaign handouts of Life Savers.

"I think he's always been the sort of person folks rallied around, and if he had an idea or wanted to do something, he could get that kind of enthusiasm generated in a lot of people," says Peter, who owns an advertising agency in western Michigan and is helping his brother with his campaign Web site.

"Even in the neighborhood, he would put on shows as a kid, get a game going -- a natural tendency that may have drawn him into politics."

At Highland Park, Bell worked on the high school paper, The Bagpipe, and was a cheerleader his senior year. He followed Peter to the University of Texas at Austin, where he was active in both fraternity and student politics. Houston City Councilman Bert Keller joined Bell's fraternity a year after Bell.

In his first semester, in 1978, Bell says he was arrested for the only time in his life. Bell and some brothers from his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, went to eat at a campus-area Burger King after the pledges' study hall. Members of a rival fraternity were at another table, and the two groups began throwing french fries at each other. The volume of flying food escalated, and management called police. Everybody ran, and the pursuing cops arrested Bell and his fraternity mates several blocks away and charged them with evading arrest.

Bell says he received deferred adjudication on the charge and that it eventually was dismissed and expunged from his record.

The campus Daily Texan jumped on the story, comparing it to the fraternity high jinks in the movie Animal House, which had come out the same year.

"It's not something I'm particularly proud of," a much older Bell says today, "but it happened, and it was a long time ago. And you grow up considerably from that point forward, I would hope."

There were persistent rumors in previous campaigns that he was once charged with DWI. Bell decries those reports as nonsense -- "complete horseshit."

Bell says he saw little of the student drug scene, never used psychedelics, and admits to smoking marijuana "maybe four times."

Bell gravitated to the television curriculum. He says he enjoyed speaking and wanted to take advantage of his voice. He credits his journalism degree to professors who had been reporters: "They were able to plant the seeds, show me what it was about."

After graduation in 1982 and a stint back with his parents in Dallas, he got a job as a photographer-reporter at a small television station's bureau in Ardmore, Oklahoma. His time in the town of 50,000 between Dallas and Oklahoma City was described as lonely, "the longest eight months I ever spent."

He moved on to Amarillo's KVII-TV, owned by Stanley Marsh, the flamboyant operator of the famous Cadillac Ranch. Bell says he enjoyed the work and ascended to weekend anchor after a year. "Problem with that was that the challenge started going out of it," he says. "Grass is always greener on the other side."

And he suddenly became the greenhorn of West Texas politics, running for a Texas House seat against Republican incumbent Chip Staniswalis. Some Democratic lawyers were friends and assured him they would hire him as a legal assistant if he got elected, so he decided over a weekend to enter the race.

Supporters of Staniswalis charged that Bell, as an earlier resident of Oklahoma, was not yet eligible to be a Texas candidate. Their lawsuit became moot when he lost by a wide margin.

Lessons from that race center on his snap decision, made without input from many close relatives and friends. His mother warned him, Bell says, but "I was like, 'Oh, you don't know, you're just trying to stand in the way of this great opportunity.' "

Bell can now rationalize about the loss. "God smiled on me and allowed me to lose. I think the Texas legislature would have been a pretty dangerous place for a 24-year-old with no real job."

He returned, hat in hand, to the TV station and embarked on another short-lived commitment: marriage to Burkeley Wells, the daughter of a prominent Amarillo family. After five months, the couple separated. Bell says either one of them would have probably called off the wedding if they'd "had the guts" for that. "But we told the family and good friends and headed down the road."

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