Getting paid $25 to do a campaign commercial as a high schooler is what pulled Ashley Bell from his sickbed and onto a political path — leading eventually to the White House.
“You never know how these things work out,” said the Gainesville native, now 38.
And they’ve turned out fine for the Gainesville High graduate, who had several federal appointments on his resume before he was tapped in October to become the White House’s policy adviser on entrepreneurship and innovation.
Bell, who is married and has three children, still lives locally and says he hasn’t forgotten his roots.
“It’s important that, no matter where these positions that I take are, I wouldn’t be where I am without the people in Gainesville — the type of folks we have there, that sense of community,” he said in a phone interview earlier this month.
“That’s why I woke up in Gainesville this morning and now I’m talking to you from the White House.”
In his new role, Bell is joining the White House Office of American Innovation, which is led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The office, created in March 2017, makes recommendations to the president “on policies and plans that improve government operations and services, improve the quality of life for Americans now and in the future, and spur job creation,” according to the White House.
“Even though I have a national role, my job is to help local communities come up with local solutions to … revitalize neighborhoods, break cycles of poverty and attract innovation to communities that otherwise would not be there,” Bell said.
Heavy topics became a real thing for Bell after he shook off sickness and made the commercial for then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Lewis Massey, a Gainesville native, while at Gainesville High School.
“When it aired, I watched it and thought, ‘Wow, the issues in this commercial directly affect me,’” he said. “(The commercial) was talking about what happens to high school kids who may or may not get in trouble. I got really curious from there and started paying attention to everything.”
Bell would go on to Valdosta State University, where he formed a College Democrats chapter.
A year later, he became national president of College Democrats and, by virtue of that position, became a Democratic National Committee executive committee member and the party’s highest-ranking young person.
His resume as a Democrat would only grow.
Bell spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, worked with John Edwards on his presidential campaign and in 2009, he was personally invited to the White House by President Barack Obama.
Outside of politics, he started a retail store on Old Athens Highway in Gainesville while going to law school at Louisiana State University.
Further expanding his horizons, in 2005 he founded Generation Inspiration, a program that helps at-risk students with life skills, volunteer experience and opportunities to learn about the Hall County area’s history and economy. Students also compete for scholarships.
“More than a thousand kids come through that program,” he said.
While an attorney and partner at Bell & Washington LLP, Bell’s foray into local politics would be via election to the Hall County Board of Commissioners in 2008.
Then came the switch to the Republican Party in 2010 — a move that drew shock and awe but also instant analysis.
“Republicans ... for a number of years, have tried to recruit African-Americans to run,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, at the time. “I think Republicans’ thought is if they can showcase some African-American officeholders, this may then help them make headway in attracting black voters.”
“I’ve always been a conservative,” Bell said, reflecting on that era. “My politics always leaned that way because our community leaned that way.”
He felt he acted as a conservative on the commission.
“I had always been for trying not to overburden people in businesses and that we did what we had to do to live within our means as a government,” Bell said.
He noted that he also served during the Great Recession, when belts were tightened and budgets cut.
“We didn’t have the luxuries (Hall County has) today of a booming economy and surpluses,” Bell said.
He said that while the party change garnered “a lot of attention … it sort of propelled us more in a national spotlight.”
A higher calling was certainly ahead, but first there would be disappointments. He lost his re-election bid in 2012 to fellow Republican Jeff Stowe, who still serves on the commission. And he lost a bid in 2014 for state school superintendent, although he still remembers fondly solid polling numbers in Northeast Georgia.
Bell would go on to serve as a senior strategist and national director of African-American political engagement for the Republican National Committee.
Then, in December 2016, he joined President Donald Trump’s transition team, responsible for recruiting State Department staff.
From there, the federal posts would come in rapid succession: in February 2017, as special assistant to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; July 2017, associate director for external affairs of the Peace Corps; and then, February 2018, regional director for the Small Business Administration in the Southeast.
He is keeping the SBA job even as he moves into his new White House post.
“It’s back to my roots as an entrepreneur, meeting with people from towns like Gainesville all across the country,” Bell said. “Far too many times, you’ve got people who think that if you come from a small town, success means leaving it, going off to the big city and finding a big job somewhere.
“But being an entrepreneur, if you have the heart for it and you have the skillset for it, you can live anywhere — and that’s a vehicle for people to come home or to go back to the communities that are important to them.”
Bell has high praise for Trump, whom he’s met several times.
“From the campaign until today, he’s definitely somebody who loves this country and is really enthusiastic about seeing this country do better,” Bell said. “I’ve just been humbled by every opportunity I’ve had to be around his staff and be around all the senior officials.”
As to the future and whether he might take another swing at elected office, Bell had a quick response.
“I don’t look past anything but what’s right in front of me,” he said. “If you asked me last year if I saw myself working in the White House, I would have said the exact same thing.
“God has been good. My family and I have been blessed, and we’ve been fortunate enough to be where he wants us to be. We know that with good favor and a little bit of hard work that we’ll continue to be where he wants us to be.”