Gary Bell was the first person in his family to go to college, a star football player, and the youngest city council member ever elected in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas.
But don’t ask the Richmond City Council candidate about his defeats.
“Did you just use the defeated word with me?” he asks, his eyebrows arched incredulously.
“Well, you lost the election, right?” I say, referring to his Richmond run in 2005.
“Isn’t that what you just told me? You didn’t get reelected?”
“That’s what happened. I didn’t get reelected. There are very few things I have ever lost in my life.”
Not being re-elected in 2005, missing a win in 2006 for mayor, and suspending a campaign in 2010 because of his wife’s health issues haven’t put a damper on Bell’s optimistic attitude towards the Richmond City Council election
“We just didn’t work hard enough” the last time, he says, “and there was an anti-incumbency environment.” Bell had previously served on the Richmond council from 2000 to 2005.
This year, the candidate focused on fixing the city’s budget and adding jobs went door to door angling in voters most likely to pick him, leaving personally signed fliers at their door if they weren’t home.
As he walks through the northeast upper Macdonald neighborhood, he is careful to avoid houses with gates; a dog bite from his childhood still brings back memories.
“I was shaking back there,” he said after two pit bulls leaped to the door after he rang the bell at one house.
Bell believes those most likely to vote for him are his prior supporters, between 35 and 55 years old, minorities, earn an income of $25,000 and above, and have at least a high school education.
Bell has been active in the community despite not being in city government since 2005, serving on half a dozen committees and volunteering at the Souper Center and the National Institute of Art and Disabilities center, where he is also a board member.
“I know what I’m getting myself into,” the City Council veteran said with a smile, adding that he hopes to bring people together with a bipartisan approach – an attitude much like that of President Obama, who he strongly supports. As with Obama’s generally centrist approach, Bell fiercely guards his position as a candidate independent from the influence of political groups like the Richmond Progressive Alliance, or its nemesis, Chevron.
When asked if existing council members support him, Bell sighs. “I have mixed feelings on accepting their endorsements because right now the council is split, so if you accept one person’s endorsement then it almost puts you in a situation where you’re supposedly matched up with someone else, and I don’t want to create that environment.”
But part of the reluctance to take sides may also be because Bell grew up as the middle child with five brothers and four sisters sharing one bedroom, sleeping on bunk beds, on pallets, and on the floor.
“I grew up with more people in my family than there are people on the City Council,” he said. “I know how to get along and how to negotiate to some extent.”
Bell was raised in Wichita — along with his numerous siblings — by his single mother. His father, who was in the army, left the family when Bell was five years old.
“When you watch somebody who figures out a way to raise 10 kids on their own and none of us are in jail and none of us have turned out really bad … she passed some of that on to us,” he said, explaining that it has contributed to his work ethic.
In high school, Bell, an athlete, didn’t think about going to college until a friend on the wrestling team got a college scholarship.
“I seriously said to him, ‘Do you think I can get one of those?’” Bell recalled with a laugh. He’d soon pocketed a half-scholarship for wrestling.
It wasn’t long before he managed to get a full football scholarship to Garden City College, and eventually, another one to Wichita State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business. It wasn’t long before Bell made his way to Richmond for a job opportunity at Imperial Bank, eventually getting an MBA from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, and finally becoming CEO of Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union in Berkeley. He was also recently appointed to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Some in the community have raised questions about support Bell has received from Moving Forward, a group created by a San Francisco law firm and funded entirely by Chevron. The group spent nearly $12,000 on signage supporting Bell; but Bell said he never asked for their endorsement and was not given any money directly from the organization.
“This moving on group? I don’t know them, I’m not sitting down with them,” he said. “My support is widespread, very widespread. Because one organization or one entity makes a larger contribution doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to be more beholden to them than someone who’s out walking doors. That means more to me.”