Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: Bell, a coolant on Durham’s hot cores

By Tom Gasparoli

Tom Gasparoli
Tom Gasparoli

It feels as if Bill Bell has been Durham’s mayor since the ’80s, and I wasn’t even here in the ’80s.

Actually, he’s only been mayor since 2001. Only?

Bell looks the same as he did when he was first elected. Heck, I color my hair a little each month just to look 45 minutes younger, while Hizzoner never seems to add a crinkle.

I was reminded of Bell’s seemingly endless tenure when he said this upcoming race was his last for mayor. That’s a huge deal, for him and for us. He’s a Bull City tradition.

Those trying to break Bell’s reign this fall are John Everett, Tammy Lightfoot and James Lamar Lyons. I commend their courage.

I also thought of Bell’s tenure when I saw former mayor Nick Tennyson all over the news recently, as he ascended the ladder to become state secretary of transportation.

Tennyson is talented. He will do as good a job as the job lets him. Pretty cool nod for the man Bell succeeded as mayor oh so narrowly in 2001.

You can’t debate Bell’s dedication to Durham. First, he did 56 years (hyperbole alert) as county commissioner, and was chair for a good while, before eventually swinging over and winning the mayor’s job.

He’s been a public figure here since Watergate, for goodness sake.

You can’t fault a guy for being admired. For staying focused. For rolling up his sleeves (even though I can’t recall him ever rolling up his sleeves) to find resolution.

Sometimes, Bell’s public discussions on city dilemmas put you to sleep, but we all need more sleep.

He is low-key but sharp-tongued, too, in a (usually) good, sharp-tongued kind of way. Bell doesn’t bite, but he’ll take a little piece out of your hide and your pride when he sees fit.

He is more no-nonsense than a pharmacist with 100 scrips to fill and the phone ringing off the hook. The guy just doesn’t play with his time.

This one-time, long-time “IBM man,” an engineer, is always busy looking at the systems to see if they’re running smoothly for the customers.

In a city manager form of government, the mayor doesn’t have notable day-to-day power.

Bell’s power comes in helping to shape (along with the entire council) who gets hired for the big jobs, including city manager. It comes in others knowing in advance what Bell is going to think, and deciding not to ring that bell.

He doesn’t create controversy out of thin air, either. He most certainly does not pander, bless his heart.

Bell’s influence also stems from in the fact that he’d be just fine if he weren’t re-elected time and again. He doesn’t need the mayor’s job to feel good about himself – you can tell.

The wild and wooly, creative and chattering Durham has been led for 14 years now by its opposite: the sleek, near-stoic man in the crisp white (and sometimes pastel) IBM-style dress shirts and the dark blue suit. Bold tie to boot.

On the down side, I do wish Mayor Bell had more charisma. It inspires people. Gets the juices flowing.

Bell also seems too patient. I think utterances of urgency are valuable. Without them, how do we know what’s important?

And how has Bill Bell done on leading the fight against our distinctive and destructive patterns of crime that afflict year after year? He hasn’t had a lot of impact, and neither has anyone else.

Crime seems to march to its own deadly drummer in parts of Durham. In the end, it’s up to the folks with the guns to stop firing, no matter how young or rudderless they are. It’s a choice to pull a trigger.

Bell has definitely watched over a sharp rise in downtown’s fortunes and aesthetics in the last decade or more. He’s been a steady hand, too, on the kinetic cultures, boisterous voices and multi-pronged politics here.

He’s a countervailing balance: a coolant on Durham’s hot cores.

To his challengers this time – Mr. Everett, Ms. Lightfoot, and Mr. Lyons – I say: go for it. Maybe it’s finally time to throw the non-rascal out.

But beating Bill Bell at the ballot box is like wrestling a bear.

In a crisp white (or pastel) shirt and blue suit. And he never forgets the knockout tie.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.