Things started looking up for Chris Bell’s beleaguered campaign in September 2006.
Bell, then a candidate for Texas governor, had run into John O’Quinn, a high-powered Houston trial lawyer, at former Gov. Ann Richards’ funeral. O’Quinn told Bell it was time to discuss his race.
The two met soon after and struck a deal: O’Quinn would give the campaign some much-needed lifeblood and, in return, get to help Bell prep for the upcoming gubernatorial debate.
Bell didn’t know it yet, but O’Quinn would end up infusing the campaign with $3 million of his own cash — enough fuel for the aspiring governor to air television ads in the final weeks of the race.
But it would not be enough to win. On Election Day, Bell placed second behind Republican Gov. Rick Perry. Bell took nearly 30% of the vote to Perry’s roughly 39% in an unconventional race that featured a country singer whose band was called Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys and a second independent candidate with the campaign slogan “One Tough Grandma.” Bell came the closest a Democrat had to winning the keys to the Governor's Mansion since Richards 16 years earlier.
Bell, though, is no stranger to losing elections — and has, in fact, spent more time running for office than serving in it. Now Bell is again running for statewide office, leaning on his experiences — from both the campaign trail and elected office — to take on Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is considered a shoo-in to win his own primary.
Bell is not the only candidate in the unsettled 12-way Democratic primary branding himself as someone who brings enough experience to the table to take on a well-funded incumbent in Texas. He is, however, the only candidate in the race who has served in Congress.
“What I hear is that people like the fact that someone has experience and is ready to start the job on day one,” Bell told Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith in January, “who’s actually been to Congress, who knows the ways of Washington and knows how to get things done there.”
A losing record
Bell, 60, is a journalist-turned-lawyer who has long been interested in politics.
In 1984, he ran for a seat in the Texas House — and lost. Bell later turned to the Houston City Council and ran for a seat in 1995 — and lost. He won a seat on the council in 1997, serving for nearly five years before he ran for mayor in 2001 — and lost. Bell then tried his hand in Washington, where he served a term in the U.S. House, ran for a second stint — and lost. He lost in the 2006 gubernatorial race. He lost in a 2008 special election runoff for a Texas Senate seat. And he lost in his second run for Houston mayor in 2015.
Such a track record has, at times, seemed to afflict Bell, who is navigating a field that includes other candidates with resumes filled with public service, various organizing roles and even military experience. Some suggest it also doesn’t help that Bell is a white man who is seeking a nomination from a party that has worked hard to recruit minorities and women.
“Here’s the problem for Chris Bell — when’s the last time you heard a Democrat say, ‘Guys, there just aren’t enough white dudes in the U.S. Senate?’” said Harold Cook, a Democratic political strategist. “You’re never going to hear that because that attitude just doesn’t exist.”
Bell acknowledges that his party has changed considerably since 2006. In fact, Bell embraced it during his conversation with the Tribune in January, before retracing his steps on how much experience — his experience — matters in this race.
“[I joined the party] because I wanted to be the party of diversity ... the party that was looking to lift folks up and lift up the minority community — and I love the makeup of this Senate primary,” Bell said. “But it also, for me, in this race … gets back to the point of experience. And I continue to believe that experience is really important.”
Bell’s experience mainly includes his stint on the Houston City Council before he served a term in Congress. He considers his time as a local elected official “invaluable” to his tenure in Washington, where he was appointed to his party’s whip team as a freshman — “it was quite an honor,” he said — and helped start the Port Security Caucus, which focused on improving the security of the nation’s ports.
Bell was, by all appearances, riding a trajectory that included plum committee assignments and key leadership roles. But he lost reelection in 2004 after GOP lawmakers in Austin redrew the state’s congressional and legislative maps, rejiggering Bell's district to include more black voters.
On the campaign trail in the U.S. Senate race, Bell has said he would push for increasing access to Medicare for everyone and supports a mandatory ban and buyback of assault weapons. He has also emphasized a need to fight “man-made climate change,” which he thinks Cornyn has failed to address while in office.
Bell has also not hesitated to cast doubt on some of the other candidates who spout experiences of their own, such as state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat who has served for over 25 years in the Texas Senate, or MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who did three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
“My dad was a decorated Marine. He would have sucked as a United States senator,” Bell said when asked about whether he discounted other candidates’ experience — such as Hegar’s — as less relevant than his own. “I don’t think the Texas Senate is the same as the United States Senate. And the United States Congress is a hell of a lot different than the Texas Legislature.”
A sleepy race
For some, Bell embodies everything right in Texas politics. He is disciplined. He is strategic. And, as one former political rival put it, “Politics needs people like him.”
“Sometimes, having a lot of experience in this field is not a good thing, but in Chris’ case, I think it is,” said Kinky Friedman, a country singer and author who ran as an independent in the 2006 race. “He’s not all politics — he has a kind heart and would be good.”
A kind heart aside, Bell’s fundraising so far has been modest at best. His name ID has not yet set him apart from the pack. And, in what has been described as a largely sleepy race, polls show that swaths of voters are still undecided.
So can Bell, barring a last-minute $3 million infusion like the one he got in 2006, propel himself into what is widely expected to be a runoff?
“I don’t think any Democrat primary voter is thinking they are going to vote for Chris Bell because he ran for governor in 2006,” said Deirdre Delisi, a former top adviser for Perry. “What would [Bell] have to offer that would be different than any of the other candidates running?”
Bell, for his part, is aware of how much name ID can matter in a race — “I certainly learned [that in 2006],” he said — and he noted that “it’s been a huge benefit” to travel across the state for his U.S. Senate campaign “and not feel as if you’re a complete stranger.”
With less than a month until voters cast their ballots March 3 and with early voting beginning Feb. 18, Bell is more confident than ever that his experiences and lessons learned along the way will translate to some form of success this time around.
“Usually when people get into politics, it’s because they’ve seen an election night celebration or a political convention,” Bell said. “What nobody ever knows is that if they’re gonna be good at the other part of it — and that’s governing.”