Hardball: Linden Hills resident is tough public face of bus strike

Met Council chair Peter Bell is the no-compromise leader willing to keep the bus system shut down

He blinks hard as he talks softly. The twitches are an endearing imperfection in the heavy P.R. armor worn these days by Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell.

The small nervous tremors that quickly blossom and fade on this face of management in the ongoing transit strike contradict the confidence in his voice, and nibble away at the sharper edges of his conservative political philosophy. He appears more human and frail than the portrait of the hardline union-buster that his harshest critics paint.

Still, the Linden Hills resident has no problem playing what he believes is a strong hand in the bus strike. "We’re saving $220,000 a day. [In] most strikes, there’s a race between the business going out of business and people trying to pay their house note."

At the same time, David Strom — head of the antitransit Taxpayer’s League of Minnesota and a patron of Bell’s patron, Gov. Tim Pawlenty — has called for Bell’s resignation as Met Council chair.

And Southwest DFL State Rep. Frank Hornstein — who has bitterly criticized Bell’s and Metro Transit’s hardline positions during the strike — says of Bell, "We’ve often been allies, but this is one we disagree on."

Sipping coffee in a shop not far from his home near Lake Calhoun’s southwest shore, Bell described himself as "a moderate conservative."

Said Bell, "I describe my politics as selection from a Chinese menu. I take one from Column A, one from Column B and one from Column C. Some issues I’m fairly conservative on, other issues I’m fairly liberal on.

"To the extent that I’m judgmental, I tend to be judgmental of people who are doctrinaire, either Left or Right."

What a long, strange trip

At 52, Bell has been the founder and head of a human service agency for 15 years, run a consulting business, written books such as "Chemical Dependency and the African American," toured the lecture circuit, worked as a banker and then as a publisher, and currently serves on the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, as well as chairing the Met Council.

"I don’t have a clue, literally, what I’ll do after this," he said.

For a time, he wanted to represent an unlikely constituency for any conservative: Southwest Minneapolis.

In 1999, Bell ran for Hennepin County Commissioner against then-St. Louis Park Mayor Gail Dorfman.

He laughed before he shared what he had learned from the lopsided defeat.

"I learned that it’s the most liberal district in the state," he said. "And that even a Republican with my profile would have trouble."

Bell admits that he should have known more about transit issues before making his run for office.

"People were intensely interested in issues of transportation. That was a major theme. That was probably a weakness in my r/sum/," he said.

"I didn’t have a firm view of transit, and probably have become more of a supporter. I think it is a piece of the congestion puzzle. The debate, to me, isn’t should we have transit, but how much, what kind, where and how should we pay for it? I think we have underinvested in transit. It carries between 4 and 5 percent of the commuters, and on a per-capita basis we spend less."

Bell said he now realizes that traffic congestion is the region’s "number-one livability problem" and that there is no one approach to solving it. He said more roads need to be built, as well as more mass transit. Striking a middle-of-the-road stance that drives opponents and comrades alike crazy, he said. "I reject the all-roads guys and I reject the all-transit guys. This isn’t a David Strom approach."

Clear as a bell

Bell is no stranger to the extremes.

Born and raised in St. Paul, he’s the product of a middle-class upbringing. His late father was an accountant for that city’s Parks Department and his late mother was a schoolteacher.

Bell was elected president of his high school, embracing the Leftist politics popular of the Vietnam War era. He said he was "more radical" than either George McGovern or Ted Kennedy.

"Very far Left of center," he said.

His evolution into the conservative of today has its genesis in the addictions to heroin, cocaine and other drugs that consumed a part of his youth.

"Frankly, one of the things that made me more conservative was my recovery because embedded in recovery is the notion of personal responsibility for behavior."

By the time he was 23, Bell was off drugs and heading up his own Institute on Black Chemical Abuse, a treatment center for African Americans. His own experiences as an addict, and his exposure, as a sober activist, to addicts in the African American community opened his eyes.

"The African American community is the poster child for a community that has been destroyed by kind of a victim’s entitlement mindset and holding hostage the legitimate realities of racism and oppression as a way not to advance," he said.

"I would argue that as long as 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock, it doesn’t matter if we fully fund [Operation] Head Start. It doesn’t matter who’s the mayor of Minneapolis, it doesn’t matter what the student-teacher ratio is, it doesn’t matter how many jobs programs we have. That reality is so debilitating that it overwhelms everything else. And the government fundamentally can’t do anything about it.

"What I’m looking for, or value, is moral clarity."

Bell sees that elsewhere in the world, when poverty is so pervasive and debilitating, people don’t have the proverbial bootstraps with which to pull themselves up.

"When I look at poverty overseas, particularly in Africa or Latin America, I get more moral clarity. There isn’t the question of did they participate in their own situation? Are they truly victims? Did they have an entitlement mindset? Does our assistance perpetuate that?"

Bell is on the board of the American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit group raising money for refugees in Bosnia, Iraq, Sudan, Thailand, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere.

"I don’t have any of those questions when I’m working on setting up a refugee camp in Sierra Leone," he said. "And I don’t have that same moral clarity here."

Rubber hits the road

The four-week-old bus strike defines Bell for most people in the metro area. He has beat a consistent drum since before the strike began: there’s no more money for the Met Council to put on the table. Take what’s there or leave it and learn to get along with your $150-a-week strike check from the union.

The 2,220 Metro Transit employees have so far refused to take the Met Council’s offer.

When asked how the strike will be resolved, Bell shook his head. "I don’t know. I mean I really don’t know."

It’s obvious, however, that Bell thinks he and the Met Council hold the upper hand. "The union still has the economic challenges of their membership, and we’re saving $220,000 a day."

The implication hangs in the air as clear as a picket sign: as bus drivers have to dig deep to pay their bills, including health insurance, the rubber is going to hit the road.

According to the transit union’s Web site, if the strike lasts longer than a month, employees will pay substantially more to continue their workplace health coverage (which is available for 18 months thanks to federal law).

Under their recently expired contract, transit workers paid $265.55 per month for family coverage. Beginning April 1, those workers will pay $1,153.72 monthly. Single workers, who paid nothing, will pay $461.47 a month.

Bell firmly believes that whenever those drivers return to work, it will be with reduced benefits that more accurately reflect what those employees would get in the public sector.

Under the previous contract, Metro Transit had a multitiered retirement system, with some workers age 55 and older eligible for full healthcare benefits at retirement after 10 years of employment. Bell has repeatedly said he and the Council won’t raise fares, cut services or ask for tax monies to continue to pay for that level of care for workers.

He asks, "Can I go to a transit-dependent person who works at a minimum wage job at McDonald’s and increase fares to that person so that someone can retire after 10 years and at age 55? Under what rationale should we be allowed to do that?"

Ron Lloyd, president of Local 1005 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, declined to return several phone calls for comment.

Connections

Bell has had what some believe is a more useful antagonist in Taxpayer’s League of Minnesota President David Strom.

Strom’s sharply worded comments on the strike sparked controversy in its first days. "Transit just isn’t that important to the smooth functioning of the Twin Cities transportation system," Strom told the Star Tribune. "That’s the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the lack of chaos engendered by the bus-system strike."

Strom has also said that it would be more cost-effective for the state to buy used cars for poor people who ride the buses than to maintain a mass transit system.

Bell said he disagrees with Strom on the strike and on the role of mass transit in the metro area but added that he thinks Strom’s voice "is useful in creating a dialogue and a debate."

For those who think Strom says out loud what Bell is really thinking, the Met Council chair notes that Strom has asked for his resignation. "I’m more moderate than he would like," he said with a laugh.

Strom’s group was behind Tim Pawlenty’s pledge not to raise taxes that helped propel Pawlenty to the governorship two years ago. Pawlenty appointed Bell to chair the Met Council. Some folks connect those dots and wonder if the popular governor isn’t a puppet master with Bell as his dancing "no-new-taxes" marionette.

"I think that people do think that the governor is calling the shots and that I’m just one of his minions," Bell acknowledges. "That isn’t the case. First of all, I work for the governor, that’s clear. But it’s more of a collegial relationship. The governor says, ‘Peter, what do you think? How do you think we should proceed with this?’ We really arrive at joint decisions. It is not him pulling the strings. And I’m not sure why people perceive it that way.

"If they just want to attack the governor, or if they’re trying to protect me, or if I’m giving off some signals like that, it’s just not true."

DFL lip service?

Bell sees evidence, though circumstantial, that there’s support for his position. He doesn’t see a "public clamoring" for him to give in to union demands, and he doesn’t see the traditionally pro-union DFL standing tall with its ally.

"I think, frankly, that the DFL has not rushed to their aid because this is not a case they want to take on. They’re giving them lip-service support," Bell said.

"How come some people in the Minnesota House and Senate aren’t putting a bill in to say we’re going to give Metro Transit more money so they can maintain these benefits?" he asked. "No politician, in my judgment, would run on that. They’d get killed."

Bell’s comments were made a few days before Southwest DFL legislators Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble introduced a bill to shift $10.9 million in motor vehicle state taxes to the Met Council to help end the strike.

Hornstein said, "We’re proposing to give him [Bell] help. He himself challenged the Legislature, and we’re stepping up.

"He can’t just simply stay dug in in this rigid position and try to pit workers against other workers in a race to the bottom when it comes to benefits. That’s unfortunately the continued rigid posture of the Met Council leadership," Hornstein said. "This is hardball, corporate-style negotiating. People are suffering while Peter Bell is posturing."

While Hornstein, who served on the Met Council prior to Pawlenty’s election, is critical of Bell on the transit strike, he’s quick to note that Bell has served as a moderating influence on fellow Republicans.

"He’s been in the awkward position of having to defend the Council’s overall mission from attacks from the far Right Wing," Hornstein said.

Bell knows that allies come and go in politics. In fact, he says he’s an ally of public transportation, though that’s not the public perception of him.

"When I go to another city or another country, I love public transportation," he said. "This is how you talk to…real people. I love the bus. I don’t ride it much here, but I love it."

He knows that when his name is spoken by the real people on the picket lines, it’s not said with a generous amount of respect. "People can call me whatever," he said. "Do I feel it? Does it sting sometimes? Sure, but you know, it doesn’t get to me. Well, let me put it this way, it hasn’t yet. Now in a month, I don’t know."