Four years ago, Ashley Bell was considered a rising star in the political world.
Having beaten an incumbent to become Hall County’s youngest elected official, the then-27-year-old was full of promise.
Fast-forward to Tuesday, when Bell lost a bid for re-election to the Board of Commissioners by more than 15 percentage points. The star, once rising, was suddenly suspended in mid-air.
Bell, admittedly, is done with local politics. But as a man who demonstrated so much political ambition before age 30, he promises to have a few more tricks up his sleeve.
He might even try his hand at kingmaking.
But first, Bell still has another five months left of work on the local level.
“It’s not like I go anywhere or do anything different tomorrow,” Bell said.
After his loss to Jeff Stowe in the Republican primary, Bell discussed plans for a political action committee that would support conservative candidates who are minorities or women. He said he hopes to use it to stamp out what he calls “hyphenated Americanism” that seems to use race to determine party affiliation.
As a black Republican, Bell has gotten a lot of attention in the state and national arenas. But he said his future endeavors are an effort to take race out of the discussion.
“A lot of times in politics, people try to divide us by these hyphens — be it African-American, Asian-American or whatever — and I always try to put that aside and talk about being American first and talk about American values,” Bell said.
Switching like Reagan
Bell was originally a Democrat, deeply involved in the party. So when he changed his party affiliation in 2011, it was a big deal.
News outlets across the nation picked up the story of the switch. Pundits analyzed what it meant for the Democratic Party’s last bastions in the Deep South.
Even in a video Bell’s campaign made called “The Switch,” Bell’s party switching is likened to President Ronald Reagan’s decision to change parties.
Bell, in a panel discussion recorded and posted to YouTube, joked that the switch “made a couple headlines here and there and probably spawned a book, you know.”
Bell had built up a solid resume as a Democrat. He’d been president of College Democrats of America. He’d spoken at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He had worked with John Edwards on his presidential campaign. In 2009, he was personally invited to the White House by President Barack Obama.
But in the summer of 2010, as Gainesville’s own Nathan Deal ran for governor in a hard-fought battle for the GOP nomination, Bell began showing up at Deal’s very Republican campaign parties.
When he actually jumped the broom that December, the Georgia Republican Party held a press conference with the party chairwoman, calling it a “historic announcement.”
The switch carried promises of attracting black voters in Georgia to the Republican side.
“We’ll probably be inviting you again for more African-Americans that are seeing that we are the party of their values,” the state party’s chairwoman, Sue Everhart, said at the press conference.
Bell, too, told reporters that his move showed Democrats that they could “no longer take the African-American vote for granted; it’s going to have to be earned.”
“We look forward to earning that vote going forward,” the newly-minted GOPer said.
A spokesman for the College Democrats called the move one of “opportunism.” Eric Gray, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, called the move a “sham.”
In an interview last week, Bell said, “I had no idea it was going to get that sort of response. But the reality is that what I learned, when I switched I got a lot of pushback from liberal organizations and from the left because there always was a feeling that African-Americans couldn’t be Republican.”
The former supporter of Edwards’ presidential campaign went on to stump for GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich in Iowa and South Carolina earlier this year before those states’ partisan contests. When Gingrich left the race, Bell became a surrogate for the presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney.
In the meantime, Bell’s campaign gained a lot more friends. His new Republican backers placed some $52,550 into his campaign account in 2011, a result of what Bell at the time called “friend raisers” organized to acquaint him with his new party.
“When I saw that pushback, I also got a lot of support on the other end,” Bell said.
None of his new friends — at least those whose names were listed on campaign contribution reports filed with the state — were from inside Hall County.
All of that new attention from afar may have been a problem for Bell when it came time for his re-election bid as a district commissioner.
One reader, Randy Locklear, said what happened to Bell on Tuesday is a “prime example of what happens when you change party affiliation midstream and take on more national politics than your own district.”
This year, Bell’s obligations to Republican presidential candidates caused him to miss county board meetings.
Even Bell admits the possibility that voters felt he was paying more attention to his national political allies than to his local constituents, saying he more than has his “hands full” juggling the local and the national.
“I’ve had a full plate trying to also help out with Gov. Romney’s campaign,” Bell said.
And Bell said that “when you get a certain profile, you get a target on you.”
Still, Bell said the fact is only a small part of the reason he lost. And he contends that he focused his campaign on local issues, no matter the perception that he was moving on.
“Those who did not want to see us succeed, it was easy to try to remind people of the politics of the national level,” Bell said. “And they did. That had probably a little to do with it. Kudos to them. It was a good political move.”
Bell lost by a margin of 515 votes Tuesday (out of 3,407 cast) to political newcomer Jeff Stowe.
Some wondered if Bell’s defection from the Democratic Party cost him the gig. For some 20 years, the District 4 seat Bell now holds has been represented by black Democrats.
Yet even as Bell sought re-election as a Republican, local Democrats didn’t challenge Bell by offering a candidate.
And Bell says the assertion that his party switch affected the outcome of the election has racial undertones.
“I think when people say that, I think they’re trying to be some kind of code there for turning my back on African-Americans,” Bell said. “I think if you look at the results of the election ... if the question was ‘did black folks think I turned my back on them,’ I think the results actually in the election are contrary to that.”
“I never tried to forget the people that did vote for me,” Bell said.
‘Blessing in disguise’
The voting numbers may back his claim.
District 4’s boundary includes most of Gainesville, areas east of Atlanta Highway down to Poplar Springs Road, neighborhoods along Gaines Mill Road and those from Riverside Drive to Black and Cooley drives. The district’s voting age population is 39 percent white and 12 percent black.
Bell won the predominantly black county voting precinct, Gainesville II, by a 3 to 1 margin. He also had the most votes from voters at the Tadmore and Candler precincts, though the margins there weren’t as big.
Stowe took every other precinct in the district.
Turnout in District 4 was far higher Tuesday than it was in 2008, when Bell, then a Democrat, challenged and beat incumbent Deborah Mack. Then, a total of 920 district residents voted. That number is less than the number of ballots cast in the race from just two precincts Tuesday.
Bell is no stranger to losing.
Before he was elected in 2008, his campaign taking a cue from the national political zeitgeist, Bell had made two unsuccessful runs for local and state offices.
“Win or lose, there’s always another election,” he said.
And on Tuesday, Bell said he wasn’t completely shocked at the results. In fact, he said he “kind of had a feeling” that he would lose. Before votes were counted Tuesday, internal polls had already keyed Bell into the fact that his support wasn’t as big as Stowe’s.
“I probably lost this election for the same reason I won the last one: People wanted change, and Hall County’s never been afraid of switching up their county commissioners,” Bell said.
As he looks on to the future, Bell said his third loss “could be a blessing in a bad disguise.”
And there are still plenty who believe he will succeed.
“When you go with what you believe, and people don’t like it, sometimes you pay a price,” Clint Hamlin, a Gainesville resident said. “Ashley will rebound. He always does.”