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For whom the Bell tolls

A conversation with Mayor Bill Bell as he enters his last term

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“I can’t answer that,” Mayor Bill Bell said. “I don’t want to say.”

I had asked Bell what his favorite Durham restaurant is. It’s Friday morning, and at the UDI Community Development Corporation, there are only three cars in the parking lot: Bell’s, the receptionist’s, and mine. We meet in the conference room, which is cluttered with historical photographs, rolled maps of architectural plans, photographs of recent construction, shovels wrapped in ribbon for breaking ground, and a large portrait of Julian Abele, the famous black architect who designed most of Duke’s West Campus.

Bell is not known as a particularly fiery speaker. Bell’s tone has been described by some local media over the years as “measured”; by others, “watered down with plenty of qualifiers.” He is the type of person to respond to questions about his regrets as mayor with an explanation of crime indexes in the city over time, complete with data. I would best describe his speech as “careful.” Though an electrical engineer by training, and the current executive vice president and chief operating officer of Durham-based UDI Community Development Corporation, Bell has spent almost 50 years on the city's political scene—first as county commissioner from 1972 to 2000, with, he notes, one two-year period in which he lost the election, and then, beginning in 2001, as mayor. He has been in office ever since. 

In that time, the population of Durham has grown by more than 50,000 people and violent crime per 100,000 has decreased by 30 percent. He’s worked with the last four Duke University presidents—he lists them by name as “the late Terry Stanford, Keith Brodie when he was in, Nan Keohane, and now Dick Brodhead”—and once appeared on Larry King Live during the Duke lacrosse scandal in 2006. He’s said that this term will be his last. 

 “I don’t want to leave anybody with the impression that it’s all been done because of me,” Bell said when describing the improvements in the quality of life in the city over the past 15 years. “It’s been a real privilege to have had the opportunity to serve as an elected official in Durham over the years that I’ve been able to serve. I didn’t intend to serve as long as I have served as mayor when I got into it, because I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into. As I got into it more, I enjoyed it, and I’ve seen where we’ve been able to make some accomplishments— and when I say 'we' I really mean 'we': the Council, the public sector, and the private sector.” 

Though Bell has been in politics for 44 years, he said he isn’t particularly interested in discussing his own life. 

“You know what? I really don’t like to talk about me,” Bell said. “I really don’t, but unfortunately when you do this, you have to do a certain amount of that. When you’re campaigning you’re sort of forced to talk about you— I learned early on if you don’t define yourself, somebody else will do it for you.”

Bell said he never considered being mayor as a kid growing up in the North Carolina city of Winston-Salem, or even when he first moved to Durham for a job at IBM in 1968. 

“No. No, no, no.… I didn’t come here with the intention of getting involved politically, I came here to work for IBM,” Bell said. “[At IBM], you’d probably stay somewhere four or five years and then you got promoted somewhere else and you moved, so that’s the route I thought I would be on. No, I never thought about that.”

But once he took office, Bell found plenty of motivation to continue.

“I like to be involved in planning something and seeing it come to fruition, and moving on to something else,” Bell said. “That’s what you’re fortunate to be able to do if you do things locally, whether it’s downtown or parks or streets or affordable housing—you can be involved in conceptualizing it, and hopefully you’ll be around long enough to see it come to fruition.”

Though Bell said he’s “not an early morning person,” a typical workday for Bell spans more than 12 hours between his role at UDI, meetings as mayor, and events in the community. 

“It’s just constant,” Bell said, “and you don’t count the time that you get the phone calls, you go through emails. My emails that are mayor-related go into the mayor’s office, and I can check them on my iPhone, but if I don’t get a chance to check on them my staff will look at them and forward them to me.”

Bell said he has few regrets about his time in office. 

“There are always things you can look back over and say had I known I might have done something different, I might have taken a different approach to it, but I can’t really say there’s anything I have regrets over,” Bell said. “I’m the type of person that I worry about the things I know I can control, and things I know I can’t control I don’t worry about. It doesn’t mean I don’t have the concern, but I just accept that it’s out of my hands and put my mind to things I can do something about.”

Bell was again measured when asked about the best that’s happened to him as mayor.

“I don’t know if there’s any one best thing,” Bell said. “It’s always gratifying to a certain extent to know that people have chosen to reelect me as mayor. Nobody made me run for this job, nobody made people vote the way they voted. It’s good. We’ve had some downtimes with everything, but that’s gratifying.”

Bell is 74 years old and has five grandchildren. When asked what’s next for him, he said “certainly not elected office.”

“I’m serious when I said this was the last time I was running for any office. I’m here [at UDI], and I enjoy what I’m doing here. My wife and I now have five grandkids and they’re all in the area, so I’m at the point now where I’d just like to spend more time with them and see them develop,” Bell said. “I tell people, Durham for me now is by choice, not by chance.”

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