First Out of the Gate

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

Bell also made another job shift going into 1999, folding his private practice and joining the large civil law firm Beirne, Maynard & Parsons. The partner who recruited him, Martin Beirne, is now one of the early supporters of his mayoral bid.

"We are 100 percent supportive," avows Beirne. "If Chris brings to that position the talents he's demonstrated as a lawyer at this law firm and City Council, he could be an excellent mayor."

It's a Sunday afternoon, and Chris Bell is explaining to a visitor in his home office why he's running for mayor. His four-year-old son, Connally, is all over his dad, engaging and bright-eyed in a toy aviator helmet and frenetically demanding attention for his building-block project. For a moment, it's like watching two Chris Bells competing for the spotlight.

The family lives in a sprawling '50s-era ranch-style home in a redeveloping suburb off Stella Link, where Georgian brick boxes are sprouting on every other corner. The backyard is child-worn and comfortable, with a rough approximation of a gazebo surrounded by tricycles, plastic trucks and kid toys. The scene draws a joking reference from Alison to "our white-trash backyard," followed by a stricken "That was off the record." It's the sort of unguarded, self-deprecating remark she'll have to learn to suppress until Election Day, at least when the media's around.

Bell knows the next nine months are going to be trying for himself, his family and Brown. He's convinced that the crusade is worthwhile, that the city needs new leadership and that he is the one who can provide it.

"Brown came on board and took the wheel of the ship from Lanier and is just holding on to it," says Bell. "Not turning it, not refueling the ship, and not doing a very good job of keeping it on course."

In the coming year, Bell will have to prove himself worthy of that helm. Key questions include, Can he raise enough money to compete with the mayor? When media glare is on, how good a candidate will Bell be in a high-profile, combative race? Can a Democrat rally conservatives to his cause?

The countless candidate forums will give Bell a chance to make his case. Meanwhile, he has to hope Brown continues to fumble.

Vinson & Elkins political action committee director Joe B. Allen explains, "My general view is incumbents don't get beat. They beat themselves, and whoever else is on the ballot just happens to be there to catch it."

Brown ally Varoga is betting Bell can't pull it off. "It's impossible to be all things to all people, to be Republican 'lite' for so-called Republican contributors, and Democratic 'lite' for Democratic voters."

"Especially when nobody knows who you are, when the economy's in good shape, the murder rate is down, when public safety measures have improved, and when there is zero groundswell for a challenge to an incumbent mayor," Varoga argues.

District F conservative Councilman Mark Ellis, the organizer of the tax rollback effort, begs to differ.

"If it was just one-on-one against Brown, sure he can pull some support," Ellis says of his friend. "He's got a shot at it."

Attorney Hinton is even more enthusiastic about Bell's chances.

"The current administration needs to be replaced by someone who has a vision and can attract people of conservative and liberal bents to get together," Hinton says. "And to me, he's the best draw for that."

As if City Council weren't already polarized enough, every upcoming vote will become another chance for the combatants to play to the rolling media recorders and cameras.

"We're wary of having a really poisoned atmosphere around the council table," says Parker. "It might make for some very difficult working conditions."

A source close to Brown says the mayor isn't looking forward to the engagement either.

"This isn't a guy who relishes a tough fight in a campaign and getting out there and doing battle," says the source. "He's not a politician and campaigner, and the idea of having to endure the next several months being beaten up all the time scares him a little bit."

But for those who relish politics as a full-contact sport, the fun at City Hall in 2001 is just beginning.

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