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In 1995 he and pal Jeff Steen, who also had run for state rep before moving to Houston, brainstormed on the prospects for Bell in public office. He'd always envisioned the state legislature or even trying for Washington, D.C.
Instead, Steen steered him toward City Council. Bell remembers his friend's advice: " 'Great way to build a base of support, receives more media coverage than any other governmental entity and seemed like it could be a real launching pad.' I remember being a little bit surprised."
Bell jumped in on a bid for an at-large Houston City Council seat, forgetting the hard lessons of his plunge into Amarillo politics. He hadn't lined up a consultant or even explored the mechanics of making a serious run.
He entered a crowded race, with conservative Orlando Sanchez and Democratic businessman David Ballard at the top of the pack. When Bell came calling to the downtown power players for contributions, he discovered those two had tied up most of the available cash.
"People would say, 'You're a real nice guy and we wish you well, but we also wish you weren't running and we're committed ' " Some of the influential set told him to withdraw and they would help in his next campaign. "The great refrain," Bell remembers: "We'll be with you next time if you just sit this one out."
Bell's first fund-raiser was hosted by a group of gay friends. The Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus provided his major endorsement. Bell says his support for and from the gay community has intensified since then.
"It's an important issue to me. As a group, gays were among the earliest groups to support me in city politics," he says. "I feel that is hopefully one of the last civil rights battles to be fought in our country, and I'm not going to be on the wrong side of it."
Bell ran a respectable race, raising $70,000 and barely missing a runoff between the two favorites. His next opportunity came when then-councilman John Peavy, a target in a federal bribery-conspiracy investigation, resigned. Bell found himself a front-runner with the Reverend James Dixon in the special election to fill the at-large seat.
Peavy's position had been held by three consecutive African-Americans, and the issue of race surfaced. Bell said that in those types of campaigns, the attitude evolved that "there are going to be really good African-American candidates, good Hispanic candidates, really good Anglo candidates -- and no longer are those seats going to be demarcated by race. People are growing tired of that."
Bell soundly beat Dixon in a short campaign. Bob Lanier, in his final term-limited year in office, put the attorney on the fast track. He named him chairman of the Fiscal Affairs Committee and created another committee tailored to Bell's campaign theme: customer-driven government. For the next two years Bell enjoyed a high-profile leadership role. When the walkout against Brown occurred, Bell felt he already had put together a strong record that would be a key asset in any mayor's race.
"It wasn't that I had accomplished everything I set out to do, but I did have a pretty good record up to that point," he says. He believes it demonstrates that he could get things done. "Wasn't like I was going to have to have anything from the administration in order to feel complete down at City Hall."
Some councilmembers see it a bit differently.
Even before Brown stripped him of the committees, Bell seemed interested only in his own projects and did not carry his share of the load, one colleague says.
"It got worse after the committee change," says the official, "but he was never very active on council on issues that weren't directly in his committees or his pet interests."
A Brown staffer scoffs at the leadership claim, saying Bell has had spats with a succession of councilmembers, whether mayoral allies or conservatives.
"He reacts very emotionally to things, takes umbrage, is unpredictable," the source snipes. "Hard for people to deal with him. He and Annise [Parker] are always on top of each other."
Following the walkout, Parker managed to mend her fences with Brown and received a major committee assignment. Her relations with Bell since then haven't always been cordial. She cites an incident when Bell was pushing a budget proposal to increase funds for immunizations.
"He was trying to do a good thing," recalls Parker, "but I got out my calculator and his numbers were wrong. I said I couldn't vote for it and he needed to pull it down and go back to the drawing boards and fix his numbers.
"He looked at me and said, 'You vote against this and you'll pay for it later.' " I said, 'Is that a threat?' and he said, 'Take it any way you want to take it.' Just hissing at me." Parker then voted no.
"He makes ugly, tacky remarks," says Parker, "and then expects the next day for it to all be over with."
Bell also had his share of missteps while on council. One was his involvement in a less than successful attempt to market bottled city-processed water. Another was his brief acceptance of a Christmas gift of gold-plated flatware from the same Lutfi Hassan who had received the airport insurance contract. Although other councilmembers also received the gifts, and a district attorney investigation found no impropriety, it was still a curious public relations blunder for the chair of the ethics committee. Bell later admitted as much and called the incident "a wake-up call" concerning accepting goodies from special interests.