By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It isn't every day a politician wins the inside track to one office by getting beaten in a race for another. But that's exactly what happened to attorney and former at-large Houston city councilman Chris Bell, who turned a third-place finish for mayor in 2001 into a front-running candidacy as the Democratic nominee for the 25th Congressional District.
The 42-year-old Bell is a former radio and TV reporter who got bitten by the political bug after graduating from the University of Texas with a communications degree. He initially ran for the state house while working in Amarillo as a news anchor but lost by a wide margin. When he moved to Houston in the late '80s, Bell enrolled at South Texas College of Law. He worked at KTRH radio as a courts reporter to pay his tuition and in short order passed the bar and met and married Alison Ayres. But even as he launched a family and a law practice, Bell could not shelve his political ambitions.
Although at first Bell wanted to run for the state legislature or Congress, pal Jeff Steen convinced him that City Council was a more realistic goal. After one close defeat, Bell served two terms as an at-large councilmember. As his relationship with Mayor Lee Brown worsened, Bell decided to forgo his final term-limited two years in office and initiated an upstart mayoral campaign against the incumbent. The strategy for the race was predicated on the idea that the lifelong Democrat would be able to unify both conservatives and moderates against Brown. Unfortunately for Bell, at-large City Councilman Orlando Sanchez came along and spoiled his party. The Cuban-born conservative scarfed up the Republican vote, and on election night Bell found himself a distant third. The next day, friends suggested to Bell that he might want to use the momentum and name identification generated by his mayoral run to seek the congressional post soon to be vacated by Ken Bentsen Jr., who was running for U.S. Senate. Until then, Bell had been under the impression that the district was being gutted by a state redistricting plan. He soon learned that a judicial review panel had restored the old Democrat-friendly lines.
"It's the classic situation where one door closes and another one opens," comments Bell, whose fund-raising total in the race has soared to over a half-million dollars. He's been rated by local pundits and a Wall Street Journalpolitical survey as the favorite to beat Republican challenger Tom Reiser in the November general election. In fact, his loss in the mayoral race may have put him in line for a job for which his skills and temperament are better suited.
"I personally believe -- and a lot of those close to me believe -- that this is a better fit," says the candidate. "It gives me an opportunity to keep doing what I started doing on council in working for common-sense solutions. This is just on a bigger playing field."
It's a lesson that others can take to heart: Sometimes it takes a painful defeat to put you in striking distance of the job of your dreams.