Former East Harris County Congressman seeks governorship

Democratic former East Harris County congressman Chris Bell wants to take on Republican Gov. Rick Perry badly enough that he isn’t waiting to see if U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison runs for governor instead of reelection.

Bell, a Houston city councilman who lost a mayor’s race before winning a seat in Congress, has set up an exploratory committee.

He can’t wait to see if former Comptroller John Sharp or the 2002 nominee, Tony Sanchez of Laredo, or former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, will chance running if they might wind up facing not Perry but Hutchison, or Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Neither woman can cut into Perry’s support from “the far right wing” enough to beat Perry in a Republican primary, but can “bloody” him, Bell said.

“I just don’t want to have Rick Perry come staggering out of a Republican primary with us standing there with no one ready to go,” Bell said in an Austin interview. He thinks Perry’s beatable.

“Many Texans see that Perry has brought some of the worst qualities possible to the governor’s office,” Bell said, including “a degree of partisanship that hasn’t been seen in recent memory, and . . . that impacts dramatically on his policies.”

Bell, 45, said once-proud Texas now seems in a downward race with Mississippi and Arkansas to rank last in category after category of services.

Bell lost the 2004 Democratic primary to former Justice of the Peace Al Green, an African-American, after redistricting engineered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick and aided by Perry — in special legislative sessions called by Perry — drew a district to almost guarantee that result.

Bell filed an ethics complaint against DeLay. It had little impact on the man known in Washington as “The Hammer.” But Bell said people from across the nation offended by DeLay’s heavyhandedness contacted him.

Now, the attorney and former television and radio reporter told an Austin crowd, “I’m not here because I lost my seat in Congress. I’m here because we’ve all lost our seat at the table.”

He’s traveling Texas, hoping to capitalize on the Internet-organized infrastructure developed in 2004 by the Howard Dean presidential campaign.

“I think that the internet is the new grass roots,” said Bell, whose website is

He’ll also court voters other than lock-step Democrats, who often make the mistake of “pretending that people will come to us,” Bell said. Bell hopes independents who voted Republican for the last decade decide Perry’s performance justifies backing a Democrat.

He’s also counting on the media and public spotlight a governor’s race attracts far more than down-ballot races.

In an Austin speech on Texas Independence Day March 2, Bell disputed Perry’s statement that government “cannot dispense hope.”

“We know there’s never enough money to solve every problem, but refusing to take responsibility for dispensing hope betrays a bankrupt spirit,” Bell said. He said “ignoring problems and refusing to consider new solutions (and) evading our fiscal and moral responsibilities so we can brag about budget issues” punishes the future of Texas.

“We cannot sustain budget cuts that demand compound interest from our children,” Bell said. “We pay a moral price when we pass the cost on to the next generation, whether they’re trying to get into college, into a doctor’s office, or out of an abusive home.”

Bell, a moderate, hopes to erase the hard-core partisanship in today’s Washington, and move more toward bipartisanship.

“I have no desire to spend the rest of my adult life stuck in a partisan trench, never giving an inch toward common ground,” Bell said.

“The New Mainstream includes all of us who believe in rewarding hard work, recognizing new ideas and relying on each other and ourselves,” Bell said. “Rick Perry leads a government that no longer reflects the ethics and values of the New Mainstream,” but rather of a “divisive” partisanship.

Perry spokesman Luis Saenz didn’t seem nervous about Bell. “He just lost a Democratic primary, and he’ll have to go through that process again,” Saenz said.

Bell disagrees that Texas is irrevocably a conservative Republican “red” state.

In the past three years, states “far more conservative than Texas,” including Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana and Wyoming, have elected Democratic governors, Bell said. He hopes Texas will join them.