First Out of the Gate

It's lunchtime on a Monday afternoon in a second-floor office off Woodway just outside the Loop. Inside the office, there's the faint aroma of poor boys being consumed. Elsewhere in the city -- wherever Lee P. Brown may be on this day in late January -- there may be the stronger odor of a mayor's ears burning.

Councilman Chris Bell will formally open his campaign against Brown with an announcement this Sunday at Buffalo Bayou's Eleanor Tinsley Park. But his brain trust already has been busy for weeks, war-gaming his unusual run against a three-year incumbent.

Seated around the table and munching on sandwiches are Bell and wife Alison, as well as the core of his emerging campaign staff. There's City Hall veteran Dan Jones and longtime political consultant Nancy Sims. With them are computer specialist Scott Brogan and campaign finance chairman Gardner Parker, an investment executive with ties to celebrity ex-athletes like Earl Campbell. Rounding out the battle group is Jeff Steen, a lawyer and longtime Bell confidant who first suggested that Bell enter city politics six years ago.

The team has been chewing over issues that can be used to mobilize Houstonians against Brown.

"Brown is not either one of two things people think a mayor should be," says Steen. "He's not a manager. He doesn't manage city government very well, and it doesn't work very well."

"And if you can't be that person, you ought to be somebody high-profile that makes the city feel good and has great public stature across the country," Steen continues. "And while he looks like he has that, that's not really true either. Most of 'em see him as kind of a bumbler, and so we don't get the benefit of either one."

Steen contrasts the mayor with another Texas politician, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk. The polished Kirk is being talked up in Democratic Party circles as a possible candidate for statewide office next year.

"Here they both have good credentials and are educated, and two of the top African-American leaders in the country," Steen tells the group. "Yet one looks like a bumbling idiot next to the other."

No one in the room has to ask which is the bumbling idiot.

Bell, a journalist-turned-lawyer, set his sights on the mayor's chair after a bitter falling-out with Brown. He hopes to use his four-year track record on City Council as a budgetary conservative and architect of ethics legislation to woo Republicans, while appealing to inner-city progressives with his socially liberal positions. Those include strong support for gay rights and city insurance coverage for same-sex partners.

"I think a lot of Republicans have realized they are not going to elect a mayor anytime soon in Houston," says Bell. He refers to Rob Mosbacher's lavishly funded losing effort against Brown in 1997. "The numbers simply don't work out. The best they can hope for is a place at the table, and it's a place at the table they've been denied during the Brown administration. So I think there will be a lot of support there."

The 64-year-old Brown's campaign persona often makes a wooden Indian seem hyperactive by comparison. Meanwhile, the lanky six foot three Bell possesses youthful good looks at age 40. He's got a picture-perfect family, with a Republican wife and two young towheaded sons. While Brown was busy recently taking public speaking lessons at taxpayer expense, Bell comes equipped with a booming media-genic voice and delivery finely honed from his days as a TV news anchor and radio reporter.

Personality-wise, Bell's most striking trait is an omnipresent irreverent sense of humor. He relies on it to deflate tense situations, entertain pals and occasionally skewer opponents at the council table.

"He has an amazing wit," says attorney Mike Hinton, a former employer of Bell's who remains a close friend. "He will have me laughing when we hang up from a conversation, no matter what my previous disposition was."

Houston Press writer Steve McVicker worked with Bell when both were reporters at KTRH radio in the late '80s. He remembers Bell's ability to defuse newsroom quarrels with a few well-chosen off-the-wall cracks.

Brown operatives, such as former and likely future campaign manager Craig Varoga, find little to laugh about in Bell's challenge. Varoga dismisses Bell's talk of building a moderate-conservative coalition as "castles in the clouds" that will dissipate long before Election Day. With a strong economy and low crime rate, the strategist argues, there's no incentive for voters to change mayors.

"And I say that as somebody who knows what it takes to take out an incumbent mayor," says Varoga. He managed Bob Lanier's successful campaign that knocked Kathy Whitmire out of office in 1991.

To try to abort Bell's takeoff, the mayor's team is already circulating a blunt message to conservatives: Hold your nose and vote for Brown. After all, the city's term-limit law dictates that this is the last time he can run for re-election.

"Republicans are not going to support Chris and elect a liberal Democrat to be mayor for the next six years, when they can get rid of this one in two and start all over," contends Dave Walden, former chief of staff for Lanier and one of Brown's inner circle of advisers. "They want to get a conservative Republican business type in that office."

Conservative consultant Allen Blakemore represents westside religious activist Dr. Steven Hotze and has known Bell since they were kids throwing a paper route together in Dallas. He has a different take.

Under the right circumstances in a mayoral race, Bell could be "the natural choice for Republicans and conservatives in the city of Houston," Blakemore believes. "It's very easy to imagine a situation where Chris gets that support."

A big part of Bell's backing will have to be financial support, traditionally difficult for any challenger to attract.

Contributors already doing business with City Hall are tied to the incumbent by their purse strings. Brown already has $2 million bankrolled and will raise more this month in a fund-raiser at the home of River Oaks power broker Ned Holmes, one of those conservative businessmen touted as a future mayor.

Bell's forces were legally restricted from collecting funds before the February 1 start of the political hunting season. They'll need every day until the November election to raise enough cash for advertising to boost his name recognition and run a credible campaign.

Also essential is that Bell remain the only major challenger in the race, because a more conservative candidate might siphon off anti-Brown money and votes. A potential wrench in Bell's strategy is Republican Councilman Orlando Sanchez, who faces a forced retirement from council this year because of term limits. He's been sounding out supporters about a mayoral run, although he gracefully sidestepped the question of a candidacy when asked by the Press.

"Sanchez was in, and now I hear he's out," reports Sims. She notes that City Controller Sylvia Garcia is keeping her options open as well.

At Bell's recent war-games session, his team based its optimism in part on the last city election in 1999. Unfunded unknowns, one with the outlandish ballot moniker "Outlaw Josey Wales," pulled in more than 30 percent of the vote against Brown. Going one-on-one with the mayor, Bell probably starts the campaign with a minimum of 40 percent of the vote. Issues like the recent rash of city water-line ruptures can only boost that standing.

Dan Jones, a former Brown staffer, tells the strategy group that the extent of the water-main problems is leading to "an evolving understanding out there that these folks cannot run the city." With experience as a public works spokesman and mayoral aide dating back four mayors to the '70s-era Jim McConn, Jones possesses a formidable institutional memory about City Hall. He joined the Bell campaign after earning his city pension -- the last year or so on paid leave while he successfully fought misdemeanor charges of violating bid laws in the purchase of deluxe leather chairs for City Council during the Lanier administration.

Lanier's public works officials maintained emergency crews to immediately pinpoint broken mains, Jones says, but now water leaks go unrepaired for weeks. In the session, Bell picks up the thread, exclaiming, "Lake Lee Brown!" He refers to the city contractor who botched a water-main repair, turning a woman's driveway into an impassable pond for six months.

The mayor got the driveway fixed and, in a well-publicized recent consolation visit, brought the woman flowers. But he still contended that the mess was the responsibility of the contractor -- not the city and its staff.

"Since they don't manage them, I guess he's right," chuckles Jones. "It is the contractor's own responsibility."

As usual, Bell provides the comic capper:

"And apparently there's so many of these broken driveways there's not enough money in the budget to buy flowers for all these people."

Jones suggests a campaign slogan of "Stop the Lies." Others in the group protest that the early spin needs to be more positive, stressing Bell's advocacy of customer-oriented city services and responsible management. Still, the only reason to throw out a mayor seeking his final two years is to tell voters what he's not doing right, and the Bell team believes it's got more than enough ammunition.

Jones and Sims say they are working with Bell to use his time at the council table to apply more pressure to Brown, hoping to force him into more gaffes and over-reaction.

"Brown is more and more confrontational with Chris, which is what you like, because it makes him look like he's losing his composure," Sims says. "Chris is rattling him."

Jones cites Brown's recent off-the-cuff comment to reporters about reducing out-of-city trips as evidence that the mayor has turned defensive.

"He apparently got in one of his silly-ass dufus moods when somebody asked him about his travel plans this year," Jones tells the delighted team. "What he said was he was going to cut back on travel this year because he wants to be here next year. Which means that [the Bell] campaign has already benefited the city."

The City Council session began routinely enough in early December 1999. Then came the prearranged signal. One councilman got up and slipped out the door behind the mayor's chair. More followed.

For a few minutes, Mayor Brown and his allies didn't realize what was happening. Then it became obvious: They'd just been the target of a Chris Bell-organized walkout. Council was left without a quorum, depriving Brown of a vote on his controversial ordinance to privatize city airport parking.

Protesting councilmembers felt that Brown's aides deliberately hid a key aspect of the airport parking measure: A contract was going to a group that included Danny Lawson, the mayor's close friend and political supporter. Council dissidents wanted the contract to return to committee for review.

Several of the participants eventually returned to the council session, enabling the ordinance to be approved. But the incident marked a rite of passage for Bell.

He had been an ally of the mayor's and chairman of the powerful Fiscal Affairs Committee, which plays an important role in shaping the city budget. Lanier had first appointed him to lead the committee after Bell's 1997 election to council.

After the walkout, Brown retaliated by stripping Bell of his committee chairmanship. The mayor replaced him with John Castillo, a fellow walkout participant who made amends with the mayor. Significantly, Castillo was not seen as a threat to Brown, while some mayoral detractors were already touting Bell as a viable opponent in 2001.

"There was a time when Chris purported to be a supporter and the mayor was going to count on him and play to his ambitions," recalls an administration source. "You know, 'You can be mayor after me' and that kind of stuff." The walkout "sort of threatened the mayor's manhood a little bit," the aide says. "My sense was that hurt."

The mayor blames the split on Bell's ego and ambition for higher office. The councilman says it resulted from Brown's inability to get along with fellow elected officials.

"Lee Brown's idea of working together is agreeing with him," claims Bell. "And if you disagree, that's where the togetherness ends. And it doesn't work that way, especially when you're talking about a mayor and 14 elected councilmembers."

Bell says the parking contract was just the last straw in a string of measures that the mayor pushed through without consulting council. He points to an earlier airport insurance contract that was awarded to another mayoral pal, Lutfi Hassan. Bell says his beef is with the way the measures were handled -- not with the recipients.

"By just handing it to them, that's when everybody started holding their nose and asking questions and changing the deal and amending it at the table and making it a much worse deal as it ended up than it was going in," says Bell. "A lot of us are kinda like, 'Don't put us in this position anymore, where we have to bail out the administration and stand up for these types of measures if you're going to bring them to us in this unclean fashion.' "

Bell had some hopes of salvaging a working relationship with Brown. They met and discussed their differences, and the councilman says he thought they could move on from there. But a dinner party dashed that prospect.

Bell invited the mayor and the incoming councilmembers to the party at his house. Brown and his council allies interpreted it as Bell trying to exert leadership in advance of a mayoral bid. They stayed away.

Then Bell met with Brown and learned that he was out as leader of the Fiscal Affairs Committee. The councilman describes the exchange this way:

Brown told him he was still chair of the ethics committee and would head a new panel on education, then asked for comments.

"Are we just going to play like you're not removing me and taking away the fiscal affairs and customer services committees?" Bell fired back. Brown replied that he was making several committee changes, leaving Bell to point out that Castillo was the only other ousted chairman -- and Castillo had asked to be removed.

"I said, 'Fine, Mayor.' Then I walked out. And we've never met again and have rarely spoken," recounts Bell. He's still bitter that Brown "would go that far to try to publicly humiliate me and not have the guts to stand up and take credit for it."

If Bell was in the mayor's doghouse, he earned a ticket to Siberia last fall after he joined the council's conservatives to temporarily roll back the city tax rate. It was a victory marked more by the mayor's bumbling than the skill of the opposition and was effectively reversed a few weeks later when Councilman Carroll Robinson returned to the administration fold.

Brown immediately blasted the conservatives for engaging in partisan machinations and Bell for jumping on their bandwagon to boost his mayoral ambitions. Bell claims he wanted to "send a message" to the administration to cut government spending. One of the mayor's council allies, who did not want to be identified, disputes that.

"Most of us were absolutely stunned to have Chris lining up on that side," the councilmember says. "He says we needed to get control over spending. Well, why didn't you cut spending instead of income? If you don't have a logical underpinning for doing something, it seems like a dumb mistake or a crass political move."

Crass or not, the gesture did not go unappreciated among council conservatives like rollback organizer Mark Ellis, who says it proves Bell can be fiscally conservative.

"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."

The road split on Thanksgiving 1987, as Bell was driving home from the television station.

"There was a fork in the road," recalls Bell. "I could go straight and head on to Dallas, or I could go west and go home for Thanksgiving and try to play like things were fine."

His fork led to Big D. He called his wife, and she suggested the separation. By March the divorce was final. His brother Peter chalks it up to a young couple's misguided quest to escape a confining environment.

"I think they just found each other at a time when both knew they shouldn't be in Amarillo," he says. "I think that's why they got together."

Another career move was on the way when Chris Bell came to Houston in late 1988. He had signed up to attend South Texas College of Law, although his student loans wouldn't kick in until the following spring. In the meantime, he had no job and had convinced himself that journalism was another dead-end road.

The news business was filled with too many catch-22's, he explains. He quotes a lawyer friend who had explained to the TV anchor: "Yours is the only profession I know where you can rise to the very top and still have to work till 11 o'clock at night."

He landed a holiday position in an unlikely place: clerking in the clothing section of Macy's in the Galleria.

"I found myself arguing with a woman who worked there -- 'cause it's a catty business -- as to which one of us was folding the sweaters correctly," laughs Bell. It's not a totally dissimilar scenario from the pettiness of some of the quarrels that erupt on City Council these days.

His job applications to Houston media outlets eventually paid off. KTRH radio hired him as a contract reporter, which evolved into a perfect assignment for a law student: covering the courts and reporting on the county's judicial establishment.

In a grueling routine, Bell would cover the courts during the day, feed stories until late afternoon and rush to evening law classes. Then it was back to the newsroom to prepare stories for the next morning, then home to study. Bell received Houston Press Club and Associated Press awards for his KTRH work, including a series on the costs of capital punishment and an investigative piece on a victims' rights advocate who had written a string of hot checks.

Bell, who relied on unnamed sources in his job, also became involved in an effort to get a state law passed to protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources. Houston Post and Houston Chronicle reporters had been briefly jailed when they refused to turn over notes from a crime scene.

While the push for legislation was unsuccessful, he eventually testified before a state committee studying shield laws. Bell introduced himself to state Senator John Whitmire as a journalist-turned-lawyer. "What are you going to be next?" Whitmire cracked. "A politician?"

When Bell came to Houston, he was told to contact Mike Hinton, an Amarillo native who is a noted criminal defense attorney here. Although his first call wasn't returned, Bell eventually ran into Hinton on the courts beat and struck up a friendship.

While Bell prepared for the state bar exam, Hinton's firm employed him as a clerk. Bell says it was a mix of legal research, chauffeuring lawyers and picking up laundry. It led to a chat with the boss:

"I knew when I came I'd have to check my ego at the door and get some experience in the legal field," Bell recalls saying. "But Mike, I was a pretty good driver before I got over here, and I don't need that much experience in that area."

During his clerking days, Bell had been introduced by his friends Allen and Elizabeth Blakemore to a young woman named Alison Ayres, who worked for Rob Mosbacher. The son of former president George Bush's commerce secretary, Mosbacher would go on to become a candidate against Lee Brown in the mayor's race.

Alison had worked as campaign scheduler for Rob in a losing 1990 race for lieutenant governor against Bob Bullock. She occasionally sang backup in Mosbacher's band, Midlife Crisis and the Hot Flashes. And then she became Chris Bell's wife.

Bell recalls the quick string of successes in 1992: Clinton was elected president. Bell passed his bar exam. One week later came his marriage to the GOP-connected Alison: "At the rehearsal party, one of my remarks was I felt it was a good time for the nation with Clinton as president but a great time for me. I think half the audience booed."

Bell joined the civil law firm headed by crusty, white-haired lawyer Tom Alexander, then set up his own practice with attorney Annette Henry. At first things seemed to be on a fast track, with the young attorney racking up his first million-dollar judgment. He represented a variety of clients -- even a ship captain who was injured when a stripper overturned a golf cart at a tournament sponsored by a topless club.

But just as he made headway into a legal career, Bell sensed the same distraction he'd felt back in his television days. The political itch was back. And it wouldn't go away.

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.

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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