Bell Seeks to Heal Caucus Divide

Posted March 17, 2004 at 6:37pm

On the heels of his stinging primary loss, freshman Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) met privately Wednesday afternoon with the top three House Democratic leaders and offered to help bridge the divide that his race created among colleagues.

Bell, the first incumbent Democratic casualty of the year, said he sought the three separate meetings to talk with Democratic leaders about whether they want him to address the full Caucus in an effort to dampen the controversy that has enveloped his race.

The first-term Member, once viewed as a rising star among House Democrats, lost handily in last week’s Texas primary to former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green.

The race spawned hard feelings among House Democrats since several members of the Congressional Black Caucus supported Green over Bell.

Many House Members, most notably those in the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, were angry over the fact that CBC members actively helped Green, the nonincumbent, in a primary.

The episode has ignited a debate among leaders over whether they should do more to enforce an unwritten policy that Members must support Democratic incumbents — regardless of the challenger.

The Texas lawmaker said he wanted to hear from leaders, all of whom backed his candidacy, about whether they feel it would be fitting for him to publicly urge Members to move beyond his election and come together as a party.

Senior-level Democratic aides said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) welcomed Bell’s overture, but no decisions have been made about what role Bell should play in mending the rift.

“They may want to have it rest,” Bell said before the meetings. “I will follow their lead. The last thing I want is to be the poster boy for racial division in the Democratic Caucus.”

One leadership aide said regardless of whether Bell ultimately speaks to the Caucus, his offer to help “shows unbelievable political maturity and foresight into what it will take to unite our Caucus to win in November.”

Bell said he would do whatever the three top leaders think would be most helpful to House Democrats, but he has considered addressing the full Caucus as well as inviting and introducing Green to the Members at such a meeting.

“If they want me to address the Caucus and lay out what happened and where they think we should go from here, I will do that,” Bell said. “I think it would be helpful for Members to hear from me and get past this and move forward.”

Bell said he harbors no ill will toward Green, and said he will meet with his former opponent on Friday to talk about the results, healing the wounds of the Caucus and the possibility of a future visit to meet the Members.

The Lone Star State lawmaker said regardless of what the pundits are saying, his loss can be attributed to the GOP-driven redistricting map that placed a heavy minority population in the redrawn seat.

He also said he was hurt by a higher-than-expected black turnout fueled by the fact there were several black candidates on the ballot and Green’s ability to galvanize his support.

“We ran a textbook campaign,” he said. “Had it been any other race, it would have been a landslide going the other direction.”

Bell, a newly appointed senior Whip, said he will spend his final months in Congress representing his constituents and helping the party. He said he isn’t sure what he will do next, but he won’t rule out running statewide, returning to broadcasting, consulting or the law.

“My plan is to finish my term with my head held high,” he said. “I take a lot of solace in knowing I was the victim of redistricting and not of any poor performance in Congress. The people of Houston very much understand that.”