For Whom Bell Tolls

As the mayor's race swung into the home stretch last month, the candidate who was first out of the gate started getting disquieting indications that the breaks weren't going to go his way.

City Councilman Chris Bell remembers a blockwalk on the Sunday when his head-to-head debate with opponent Orlando Sanchez was broadcast.

A resident who had just seen the confrontation came outside and told Bell he could put a campaign sign in his yard -- although the lawn already displayed a Sanchez sign.

"I asked, 'Why the two signs?' And he said, 'Well, I'm undecided.' "

The nonplussed Bell, a moderate Democrat, felt he had mauled Sanchez during the televised clash that incumbent Mayor Lee Brown had ducked. He asked the resident, "How could you watch that debate and actually be undecided?" The voter replied without hesitation: "I'm Republican."

"I look back on it now as a great foreshadowing," says the defeated candidate, relaxing at his home and considering his options. The lesson Bell took to heart was that no matter how much a Democrat tries to appeal to GOP voters, one of their own will always have the inside track.

"You just have to wonder about that from a lot of different standpoints," says Bell. "It's not like, 'God, he has a lot better budget plan,' or 'It seems like he really has an idea what he wants to do with the public works department.' It's just that he's a Republican."

Another epiphany on the campaign trail taught Bell just how much the political world changed when terrorists attacked on September 11.

He tells of a firefighter coming to a reception for him at a house in the Heights. "…He told me that it was amazing that if he went into any restaurant, any public place in his uniform, people would come up and start thanking him. And at that point I thought, yeah, it's a new day."

Sanchez had spent two years cultivating the firefighter unionists and making their cause for increased staffing his own. Now he had the nation's new top guns on his commercials and in his corner. Ideology and the issue of the day stacked his deck.

Still, Bell believes his campaign received the final coup de grâce courtesy of that Houston Chronicle/KHOU-TV poll declaring him all but embalmed.

"It was an extremely irresponsible poll," charges Bell. "They had lost a third of their sample and it was four days old when they ran it. If they'd just run the numbers and said, 'Here's where we were on Wednesday, and it's still anybody's race,' that would be one thing.

"Basically they run a story in the Chron on the front page saying that it's over. And people apparently started leaving me in droves. And Brown [messages] went up on the phone that day calling a lot of folks in the gay community telling them it's over, the only vote is for Lee Brown. I think it worked."

While the poll may have magnified the margin of defeat, Bell admits that it probably didn't change the outcome. Caught between ideology and the terrorism fallout, he now says he's surprised his campaign stayed competitive as long as it did.

"If you go back to September 9," says Bell, "Joe B. Allen comes on that day as the announced chair of the campaign, we're going up on TV the next day, and I'm going to be the normal family guy with good ideas and that's going to be the appeal. September 11 hits, and normalcy goes completely out the window."

Even after Sanchez almost tied Brown in votes, Bell has doubts about the challenger's runoff viability.

"I think it's a tough race" for Sanchez. "I don't think the demographics of Houston have changed that dramatically."

For the record, Bell claims he could endorse either Brown or Sanchez, and is listening carefully to presentations from both camps before deciding. If an endorsement is forthcoming, he expects to make it late this week after consulting with his campaign inner circle. One rumor circulating has Brown offering to support Bell for a run for the 25th Congressional District seat currently held by Ken Bentsen, who's looking to run for U.S. Senate. The quid pro quo would be Bell endorsing Brown.

Bell agrees that backing Brown would be the key to his future in Democratic Party politics. But he says he'll decide on the basis of which candidate he deems best for the city. Still, it's clear that his political juices continue to flow.

"It's not where my focus has been," says Bell of the District 25 congressional contest, "but I don't think I would completely rule it out."

Mr. Bell started out on the road to the mayor's office, but with a little luck he might just wind up going to Washington.

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