Gary Bell knows how to make people feel at ease. He also knows a little bit about money and business principles. And at a campaign kickoff Thursday night at the Courtyard Marriott at Hilltop Mall, the president and CEO of Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union in Berkeley declared his intent to bring civility and leadership back to the City Council.
This isn’t Bell’s first political rodeo. He was a Richmond city councilmember in 1999, and ran for mayor in 2006. He said one reason he’s jumping back into the political shark tank is to finish some unfinished business. One: a small business economic strategy called the Downtown Main Street Program. Two: a better understanding of why the current City Council hasn’t enforced an industrial safety ordinance he helped create in 2001, to help prevent ruin and environmental dangers like the Aug. 6 Chevron refinery explosion.
Bell said accountability for the Chevron fire comes from both sides. “Why wasn’t pressure [by the City Council] put on Chevron to shut down and fix that pipe?” he asked. “Where is the document that the city was enforcing the inspection process?”
Between musical sets performed by the young RPAL Originals, and Eddie and Freddie Moore selling spirits for college scholarships, Bell addressed issues of jobs, education, the environment and public safety for an audience of more than 50.
“It’s time to get business-minded people on the council that know how business works,” he said. “It’s hard to attract business when people are openly against business. I’m not anti or pro business—I’m for what’s right in our community.”
To make a point that he’s not a freewheeling businessman, Bell said he wouldn’t support businesses that aren’t complying with environmental standards, or doing the right thing.
With regards to education Bell said city taxes needed to be spent on city schools. “The City of Richmond and industrial sector provide the largest tax base, but the largest funds are spent in El Cerrito, Hercules and Pinole,” he said. “I’m looking for parity. Let’s be fair.”
To highlight organizational leadership, Bell said he’s not afraid to listen and communicate with the likes of the Richmond Progressive Alliance or big business. “In order to maintain a civil society, people have to respect each other and be able to work with each other,” he said. “I may not agree with you, but I can talk to you. That’s how you get to problem solving.”
Bell told supporters that he’s equipped and qualified to deal with the uncertainties of the future, and they only had 68 days to let other residents know they can make a positive difference in their community. “We must be unselfish in our lives to make this campaign work,” he told the crowd. “To me it’s all about giving. What do you believe?”
Two things Bell made clear are that he doesn’t support the soda tax or the state’s Proposition 32. Proposition 32 is a payroll protection plan that, according to Bell, would hurt local union workers.
“I understand the intent of the soda tax and I think we should do things to help reduce the levels of obesity, but I’m against the whole approach of taxing people to solve that problem,” Bell said. “To me this is no different than a check cashing place coming in and saying, ‘We’re providing a service that the banks don’t provide, so we’re going to charge you more. We’re doing something good for you, but we’re going to charge you more.’”
So far Bell’s campaign has not received campaign contributions from Chevron or the soda industry. He told supporters he had a budget of $65,000 and that he’s raised $20,000 so far. He listed endorsements from the Black American Political Action Committee, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, the Contra Costa Labor Council, and Black Men and Women.
Bell said endorsements are important for any campaign and that he’s not going to turn down support. But that doesn’t mean people should assume he’s campaigning on their issues, he said.
Jan Fagley, of Richmond, said she supports Bell because he has his heart in the right place and he can bring something to the table with his business background. “He’ll make the biggest difference in jobs,” she said. “He’s young, he has energy, and we need that.”
Steven Hsigo, of Berkeley, owns Late Night Option restaurant on University Avenue. He said Bell taught him a small business management class at Contra Costa College several years ago and that Bell’s class inspired him to pursue his own business. In addition to teaching the class, Hsigo said Bell helped him tailor a business plan that he used to obtain a bank loan.
“He’s one of the most compassionate and down to Earth people I’ve ever met,” said Hsigo about Bell. “I think what’s most important is that he’s a people person and very approachable. I don’t think people would ever be intimidated by him—he’s just willing to help and talk to you.”