Chris Bell ain't lookin' for trouble.

Ringing Bell

We recently chatted with Independent gubernatorial candidate/big-black-hat-wearin' Kinky Friedman about his environmental tour, which featured a Houston stop. Well, Democratic candidate/longtime politico Chris Bell has also been on the road this week for an environmental tour (it's all the rage with candidates) as part of his Healthy Texas Tour.

In the interest of equal time, we thought we'd call up Bell, who's looking all statuesque in his new glitzy TV ad, and get his thoughts on his hometown, too.

Steven Devadanam: Looks like you're incorporating sports into your health tour.

Bell: When we were outside Minute Maid Park, we we were talking about the fact that there in the downtown area where the Astros play, not only are their lungs being infected, but also all the fans. And the little guys, when they're emulating their Big League heroes, are really at risk when they play outdoors. Hence the retractable dome at Minute Maid Park, huh? How about your other stops?

Bell: We went to Port Arthur, where we wanted to drive home the idea of environmental racism. We were in the heart in the community standing in the park, and the refinery smoke stacks are right across the street. We were with Hilton Kelley, who has had a years-long battle organizing the neighborhood and trying to clean up the air. Lots of cases of asthma and cancer have been reported there.

Then we did a tour with Mothers for Clean Air of Chavez High School, and how it stands right in the wake of a polluting factory. Then we went to Milby Park, which basically has pollution bookends, with smoke from smokestacks on either side of the park.

Is there one place that stands out as particularly foul?

Bell: The one that hit me the hardest was Port Arthur. Here's a situation where the community was there first, it's overwhelmingly African-American, and many people are low income and not in a position to move. And it seemed, from what I was hearing, was that the refinery's view was "Well, tough. Shelter yourself. Close your windows if it gets too bad." These people are trapped and many of them have to suffer from the health effects of the pollution.

You've said that these situations basically boil down to "environmental racism." Is that a Chris Bell-ism?

Bell: Well, I haven't heard anyone else talking about it, so I'd say I'm the first. The strongest example of environmental racism in the Houston area is Milby Park. I was looking at two different directions and seeing smokestacks. I said to one of the women in Mothers for Clean Air, "I don't think you'd see this in Memorial Park."

Are we getting to the point where environmental issues aren't completely politicized? Bell: I don't think this is an issue that's owned by the Democratic Party anymore. I see people from all different backgrounds who are concerned and frustrated because they know Texas can be doing more both to clean up its air and on the research and development of alternate sources of energy.

Speaking of different backgrounds, Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn have been getting a lot of press. Is this the year for Independents? Bell: I think there's a certain degree of fascination with them. While Kinky's a great news story, the truth of the matter is that there's a reason he has twice the name recognition that I do, and he still polls ten points below in any legitimate poll. So I don't see it taking off. And I think Carole faces problems because she's trying to be all things to all people, and you end up offering nothing to anyone. I can reach out and take common sense stands and unite the Democratic Party and bring over some disaffected Republicans and some Independents as well.

You're a Houston guy. What's your take on the current Richmond light rail debate?

Bell: I had to deal with that a lot in Congress and City Council. Now that I'm focused on the state level, if I don't have to get involved in a controversy, I'm not gonna go looking for trouble. -- Steven Devadanam

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