Bell touts his experience as better choice for city

After he lost the mayoral election four years ago, Charlie Bell vowed he wouldn't run again. "Voters seemed to prefer politicians," he said then. But one night in June 2004, while watching a City Council meeting on PACT-TV, he changed his mind. C...

After he lost the mayoral election four years ago, Charlie Bell vowed he wouldn't run again. "Voters seemed to prefer politicians," he said then.

But one night in June 2004, while watching a City Council meeting on PACT-TV, he changed his mind. Councilors had just approved a retiree health-care plan that would sink the city further into debt.

"Nobody voted against it. I couldn't believe it," he said. "I got mad. I said: 'Those people don't have a right to do that to the city of Duluth.'

"Then I said to myself: 'I'm going to run again, and I know I can win.' "

Bell is determined not to repeat the mistakes of his 2003 campaign, when he was criticized for shying away from controversy, being too cautious and too unfamiliar with city politics.


Now he's a man with a clear message: He's fed up with how the city has handled its money, and he's not going to take it anymore. With his business acumen and background of community involvement, his message goes, he's the guy to turn things around.

But some say the problems he had in his campaign four years ago remain.


Bell can trace his roots in Duluth back to the early 1900s and Charles Miller, a county commissioner who championed a road from Duluth to the Iron Range that was later named Miller Trunk Highway.

The son of a mortician and a homemaker who raised six children, Bell began his own life of success early. He likes to boast that, growing up in Duluth, he was ready for his Eagle Scout designation at age 14 -- an honor that can only be bestowed on boys when they turn 15 and is usually only earned at age 17 or 18. He went to Shattuck, a Faribault, Minn., college-preparatory boarding school, and returned to earn a political science degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth. In 1973, after getting training from a mortuary science school in the Twin Cities, he joined the family funeral home business.

"In Duluth, the name Bell Brothers is like Coca-Cola," he said. "Everyone knows what it is."

He worked there until 1998, when it was sold to a corporation of funeral home providers.

Bell became heavily involved in the community and grass roots development efforts, and he was among those who helped start the Spirit Valley Citizens' Neighborhood Development Association in the late 1970s, which Bell estimates has put more than $100 million worth of reinvestment into the community. When what was then Lake Superior Paper, now StoraEnso, was considering moving into the neighborhood at the cost of moving more than 100 homes, Bell said SVCNDA helped convince homeowners to make way for the project for the greater good of the city.


He is most at ease when talking about the numerous projects he's worked on over the years in West Duluth. He can drive around the area pointing to buildings, school projects, streets and even sidewalks he's helped build or rebuild in some form or another.

He has breakfast every Friday morning at the SunShine Café in West Duluth with a group dubbed "Charlie's Angels." They mostly consist of widowed seniors Bell has become friends with over the years, now some of his most ardent supporters. Bell said he rarely talks politics at the restaurant, instead engaging in typical water-cooler talk. It is a side of his personality voters rarely see in forums or commercials: friendly and jovial, peppering his conversation with jokes.

When he decided to run again, Bell said, he organized a campaign staff with more political experience: "People to suggest to me the right moves to improve myself as a candidate," he said. Part of that was defining a clear message and learning to be more concise in his debates.

For many who have followed both elections and know Bell, it shows.

"He's less frustrated, less emotional," said Scott Lyons, a former Duluth police chief. "He's more polished, more poised. He's come a long way from that time."

Four years ago, state Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, was quoted in the News Tribune saying Bell was "politically naïve." Bell gets irritated when he hears that comment repeated, saying: "That was completely false and part of her party being afraid of me."

Prettner Solon said Bell approached her last year for advice on how he could be a better candidate. He has taken some of the advice, she said.

"He's much more approachable, more confident, more assertive. He knows more about some of the issues," said Prettner Solon, who has known Bell for many years and considers him a friend.


But sometimes, she said, he has a hard time receiving feedback.

"He has a blind side," she said. "He sometimes doesn't hear what people are saying, if he perceives it as negative, when they may be trying to be constructive in helping him to change his direction that might be more profitable for him."

Prettner Solon said she still believes Bell can be politically naïve, in part because he sometimes makes controversial comments that distract from his campaign. Four years ago, he alienated a large bloc of voters when he touted his college degrees against the lack of Bergson's. This year, after the primary in September, he made a now-infamous comment that a parent of young kids shouldn't be a mayor, a remark he continues to defend at some forums and debates -- sometimes being the first to bring it up.

"He shoots from the hip sometimes and gets this idea of an image he wants to portray," she said. "But he doesn't think about the consequences or ramifications out there when he says some of the things."

Some of his supporters view the honesty as refreshing.

"He's not a phony. What he says, he means," said Eli Miletich, a former Duluth police chief who has given money to Bell's campaign. "If he disagrees with you, he'll tell you. He won't snow-job you."


To many in the community, the election presents a win-win situation. Neither candidate is an extremist, both are well-liked with strong political and business connections, and both would bring distinct strengths to running the city.


"In my mind, this is a dream election," said David Ross, president of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.

But Bell doesn't see it that way, painting the city in near-financial ruin and desperately in need of someone to turn it around.

"That's why it's so important that I get elected," he said.

His opponents say that, while Bell has had the luxury of not making enemies as an elected official, his attacks about how the city has been run over the past four years have burned bridges. That's partially why Jim Stauber, a right-leaning city councilor, said he's supporting Ness.

"He's been extremely disrespectful to this council," Stauber said. "If he's elected, it would take a lot of time to mend fences."

He might also have to mend fences with the unions and city employees. Chris Hill, a business agent with Carpenters' Local 361 in Duluth, said he and other union members are picketing a townhome project Bell is helping to develop in West Duluth because the project is using non-union labor and contractors.

"His record is very anti-union," he said.

Some in the city say the criticisms Bell has leveled against them aren't valid and show that he doesn't have a full understanding of how the finances work. When the city announced earlier this month that it had an unexpected $1.7 million shortfall due in part to not receiving expected money from the state, Bell issued a press release the next day blasting the city for not having a reserve fund and making it necessary for the state to manage the city's finances. But neither of those statements is true, said Genie Stark, the city's finance director.


Bell also has mentioned, in numerous forums and debates, that the city faces a $7 million deficit next year. But Stark said that hasn't been true since Sept. 6, when her department submitted a balanced budget to the City Council.

Still, Bell said he believes his business and economic development experience will help him slide into the mayor's job.

"Because of the nature that the city of Duluth is in right now, our turmoil, people today should be more interested in qualifications," he said. "I'm hoping so."

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