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The Contender

Ray Bell, Heavyweight

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Ray Bell walks into Romano’s Macaroni Grill at CoolSprings Galleria. He orders a glass of cabernet sauvignon and then asks for his usual lunch—a bowl of chicken pasta.

He’s halfway through his meal when a waitress walks up to chat. Clearly, Ray Bell is a regular customer.

“You going to any UT games this year?” he asks.

“What other kind of games are there?” the waitress retorts.

“I’ll get you some tickets,” he promises. “You want some?” She takes him up on the offer.

Bell has plenty of contacts at University of Tennessee. His company, Bell Construction, has won the contracts for many of the university’s biggest building projects. In 1986, for example, Bell was brought in to take over construction of UT-Knoxville’s $25 million, 25,000-seat Thompson-Boling Arena. At the time, the Thompson-Boling Arena was the largest on-campus facility of its kind in the country, but its construction had been dogged by cost overruns and public criticism. Apparently, Bell’s performance stood him in good stead with the university system. At present his company is working on the expansion of UT’s Neyland Stadium.

But Ray Bell, at 55, has other kinds of influence. His contacts reach not only into the inner workings of UT but into the Metro Courthouse and up to the highest levels of Capitol Hill. When it comes to influence and power-by-association, Ray Bell is the envy of virtually every other contractor in Tennessee.

When then-state House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter decided to run for governor in 1986, Ray Bell was one of the first people he called. In short order, Bell joined the intimate circle of friends with whom McWherter discussed his political ambitions and his campaign strategies. After he became governor, McWherter appointed Bell, a die-hard sportsman, to serve as a commissioner of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency; eventually, he became chairman of the commission. On Capitol Hill, these were Bell’s glory days. He was married at the Executive Residence, with McWherter officiating. Meanwhile, McWherter’s two terms in office also proved to be very good years for Bell Construction, which snagged an ample share of state building contracts.

More recently, when former governor—and former UT chancellor—Lamar Alexander campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination this year, Ray Bell was very visibly on the Alexander team. Because of Bell’s well-known associations with the Democratic hierarchy, many political operatives wondered at his support of a Republican candidate. But Bell is a man who knows the value of staying close to power.

Bell’s list of political connections reads like a virtual Rolodex of Tennessee’s big names and heavy-hitters. Perhaps predictably, the list is long on Democrats. Bell has supported the campaigns of former U.S. Sens. Jim Sasser and Al Gore, U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, state Sens. Thelma Harper and Joe McKnight, as well as all-purpose candidate Bill Boner.

There is no love lost between Bell and Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, but Bell still has his share of well-placed friends in the Sundquist administration. Bruce Saltsman, current commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, was formerly the head of Bell Construction’s bridge-building operation. It is the state Department of Transportation that decides who builds bridges in Tennessee, and Bell Construction still has a bridge-building division.

Bell Construction’s work schedule is heavy with government contracts. There have been a lot of roads, a lot of bridges, a number of UT projects, and a lucrative series of Metro projects.

Bell is one of the busiest contractors in the state and in the city of Nashville, and he has built a reputation consistently presenting the lowest bids. When specifications for road and bridge projects are written, his company usually has no trouble meeting the standards. What’s more, there are probably times when the specifications have been written with Bell Construction in mind. This is not an uncommon practice in state and local government. For example, when Metro needed a lobbyist at Capitol Hill during the first term of Mayor Phil Bredesen’s administration, the bid was written to favor hiring the local PR firm of McNeely Pigott & Fox, which had managed Bredesen’s campaign. When a new architectural design was needed for the East Bank football stadium, the bid was clearly tailored to fit the Kansas City-based architectural firm HOK Sports. “You find out one thing the contractor has that other companies don’t, and you put it in the specifications,” explains one local construction source.

Contractors have come to accept such sweet deals as a way of life. “Everybody swears they don’t do it, but sometimes that’s how it’s done,” the source says. “You write a combination of specifications that you know only one or two companies can fit.”

When Tennessee Transportation Commissioner Saltsman, a former Bell employee, discusses the awarding of contracts, he talks the party line. According to Saltsman, Bell’s campaign contributions and political friendships have had no part in his winning contracts with the state. “In [the Transportation Department], politics makes no difference,” Saltsman says. “I don’t care who [the contractor] is or what he is, he has to adhere to the specifications; then he has to be the low bidder.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to political back-scratching, nobody beats Ray Bell. It’s an accepted fact that, at the point where the rough-and-tumble construction business meets the political world, Bell has leverage like nobody else.

Bell knows how to steer his way through state and city bureaucracies. Even though he has turned down opportunities to bid on some large projects—the Nashville arena, for instance—he still stands out among influential, well-heeled, more patrician-style competitors such as Walter Knestrick, Hall Hardaway, and R.C.H. Mathews. Even in a crowded field, Bell still has plenty of elbow room.

Ray Bell has not achieved success through graciousness and good manners. Stories abound of his boorishness, his aggressiveness, his pushiness. He has been known to harbor a deep-set grudge. Just months ago, during a late night of hard drinking at Jimmy Kelly’s restaurant, he almost came to blows with a longtime adversary, Bredesen political mastermind Dave Cooley.

Bell has even been known to take on politicians with whom he has developed close, and profitable, personal relationships. Stories of his temper tantrums, and his fierce mood swings, are legendary. “I guess what I always found in Ray Bell was a person who, if you asked him a question, he sure as hell always had an opinion about it,” says McWherter, who is a deer-hunting buddy of Bell’s. “There are two or three sides to Ray. One side is when you don’t agree with him and he has strong feelings about it. He’ll beat on the table and raise hell.”

A Metro official who has worked closely with Bell on several projects describes him as “the kind of guy who would absolutely walk all over you if he had to. But then he’d pick you up and buy you a beer.”

Bell’s appetite for politics is immense. It is matched only by his passions for red wine and football. His political involvements and his political savvy have played a major role in the growth of his 26-year-old company. Often, the realities of the political game have led Bell to choose sides while keeping an eye on his company’s bottom line. At other times, he has looked like the proverbial, long-sighted insider, supporting candidates who will, ultimately, support him.

Bell admits to playing the game, but he insists that he always plays fair. “All [the connections] help,” he says. “But the only way you get a job is with a low bid.”

Much of the time, Bell looks like he’s just walked off a construction project. His oversized stomach hangs over his belt and strains against his suspenders. He sports a beard and a sometimes disheveled Dutch-boy haircut. The only thing that’s missing, even at a black-tie fundraiser, is the hard hat.

Still, Ray Bell is a charmer. Even when he is angry, his drawl remains notoriously slow. It’s as if he’s made no attempt to shake off his relatively modest upbringing on the family farm in Shelbyville, Tenn. His home life, he says, was “working class.” His father, a farmer, was also a contractor who specialized in home building.

After graduating from Shelbyville Central High School, Ray attended the University of the South, in Sewanee, where he played football—right guard—for Coach Shirley Majors, the father of former UT coach Johnny Majors. In 1963, Bell graduated with a degree in economics. Then he returned home to work for a Shelbyville construction company.

Over the course of the next six years, Bell supervised several UT projects, including the Hume and Reese dormitory buildings on the Knoxville campus. Then he moved on to work for other contractors, including the Nashville-based Hardaway Construction. In 1970, he started his own company, and Hardaway Construction became one of his competitors. “I found out early that it was a hell of a lot more fun giving orders than taking them,” Bell admits.

During his first year in business for himself, Bell obtained $1 million in construction projects. In 1988, his 18th year in business and a boom time for construction in general, Bell Construction’s business climbed to $121 million. Last year, the company eclipsed even that total. In 1995, Bell Construction did business totalling $150 million. This year’s books are expected to look pretty much the same.

Some of Bell’s best-known projects are the $36 million state-funded Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the $95 million BellSouth building downtown, more than 30 major penal institutions, more than 20 hospitals, Pearl-Cohn Comprehensive High School, and Harris Hillman School. The preponderance of these highly publicized contracts are government-related.

These days, Bell is deeply tied to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). His company is building CCA’s new prison in Hardeman County, where the state hopes to alleviate overcrowding in other prisons. “I’ve probably built about half of all of CCA’s facilities,” says Bell, who has good relationships with CCA founder Tom Beasley and company chairman Doctor Crants.

Prisons have been “a big thing” for Bell Construction, says Bell, who estimates that his company has built $500 million worth of prisons for the states of Tennessee and Kentucky and for CCA. About $150 million of that total came from the Tennessee state budget.

Bell Construction has also built, or is working on, a number of bridges in Tennessee, and the firm was partially responsible for building the Bicentennial Mall. That project required moving railroad tracks and building a new railroad trestle.

Such challenges are an everyday occurrence in the big-time construction business. But Bell still remembers the criticism that surrounded the construction of TPAC. After many delays, construction of the building, an office building/arts center complex, finally got under way in 1976. Before long, Bell was being criticized because the building appeared to lean. Some skeptics predicted that it would collapse. “[TPAC] was a monster every inch of the way,” Bell says. But he also argues that it has done “more to rejuvenate downtown than anything.”

To all appearances, Bell really cared about the success of TPAC and about its impact on Nashville. A gruff, burly man whose interests lean toward hunting and fishing, he has also made sizable contributions to Nashville arts organizations and to other community groups. He has served on the board of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation and on the board of the Tennessee Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, for which he has been an active fund-raiser, at least in part because his wife, Glenda, suffers from arthritis.

When it comes to politics, perhaps the most important relationship in Bell’s life is his friendship with Ned McWherter.The two got to know each other in the smoky halls and committee rooms of the Legislative Plaza, back in the days when McWherter was a member of the state House and when Bell was putting in appearances on Capitol Hill, arguing for or against bills that might affect his business.

From the beginning, Bell and McWherter seemed to understand each other. Each was a big, imposing, powerful man who had come from humble, rural circumstances and then had gone on to build a fortune. Bell fit right in with the good ole boy’s club of the Legislature. He was comfortable with the back-room culture in which conversations in bars could be just as crucial as the debates in committee rooms and on the House and Senate floors.

As House speaker, McWherter served as an ex officio member of the State Building Commission, the body that holds the power to approve—or reject—state building projects. Prison construction, for example, must be red-stamped by the State Building Commission. .

For the most part, Bell has remained faithful. “When I ran for governor and people on my campaign asked about Ray Bell, who was helping me, I told them I thought he had Republican leanings,” McWherter recalls. “That was OK with me. As long as he had McWherter leanings, that’s what I was interested in.”

Bell can’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved in politics. He has supported both Republicans and Democrats, but he says he always tends to support candidates who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, or at least socially tolerant. He voted for Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush, but he says he can’t muster much enthusiasm for Bob Dole.

Over the years, Bell has not just nurtured alliances with elected officials themselves; he’s also courted the people close to them. He is well acquainted with Sundquist Chief of Staff Peaches Simpkins, who, like Bell, has put in plenty of time working both sides of the aisle. She worked for Alexander when he was governor, then for McWherter. Now she has emerged as the most powerful figure in the Sundquist administration. At the same time, Bell remains in good standing with former state Finance Commissioner Bob Corker, a Republican whose working relationship with Simpkins was tempestuous at best.

During the 1994 governor’s race, the last political race in which Bell maintained a high profile, he backed former HealthTrust CEO Clayton McWhorter, a Democrat. McWhorter’s campaign was short-lived. After a couple of publicity gaffes, it became clear that McWhorter was unlikely to emerge as the Democratic front-runner, so he pulled out of the race. For Bell it was an emotional moment.

Fuming, he called up Butch Eley, then president of political strategy and public relations firm the Ingram Group. In typical Ray Bell style, he announced that he was taking Eley for a drive.

“With Ray, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing or who you’re talking to when he calls,” Eley says. “I could be talking to the mayor, and, if Ray said to be downstairs in two minutes, he’d expect you to be there. I got in the car, and he drove around the block several times before he even said anything.”

Eley, now vice president for university relations at Belmont University, remembers listening while Bell vented his frustration. McWhorter was his candidate, he said, and in the whole field he didn’t see anybody else he wanted to support. “When Ray decides to do something, he really puts everything into it,” Eley explains.

Bell’s next candidate in the 1994 gubernatorial race was Public Service Commissioner Steve Hewlett. The campaign spawned bitter feelings between Bell and other local political figures, many of whom were key figures in Mayor Phil Bredesen’s gubernatorial campaign. To this day, those sharp antagonisms persist, and they influence some decisions made by the Bredesen administration.

Before hopping aboard the McWhorter bandwagon, Bell says he had approached Bredesen to ask whether the Nashville mayor had plans to run for governor. Bell had already had his share of disagreements with the progressive Bredesen, most notably over the issue of a proposed landfill in Bell’s neighborhood.

In 1991, the Bredesen administration was touting the idea of a landfill in Bell’s Bend, claiming that it would be good for the business climate in Nashville. Meanwhile, Bell, as president of the Tennessee Business Roundtable, a strong statewide lobbying organization, was actively arguing against the landfill. When the state ultimately denied the city’s landfill application, Bell was accused of using his political influence with McWherter to get his way.

But if Bell had really used his influence, he didn’t do it all that skillfully. The day after the landfill application was denied, Bredesen held a press conference to announce that an 808-acre parcel in Bell’s Bend would be held in reserve for a landfill site.

City officials who were fighting Bell head-to-head on the landfill issue remember his vehement opposition to the plan. During a 1990 protest, he had actually been arrested along with a number of other activists. Bell had also been accused of financing a protest by Native Americans at the Bell’s Bend site, providing them with groceries to sustain them through their vigil.

However, Bell had other reasons to be unhappy with Bredesen. In 1994, when Bredesen struck a deal with labor unions to handle construction of the downtown arena, Bell did everything he could to kill the agreement. “Tennessee has always been a right-to-work state,” says Bell, always a vocal opponent of labor unions and a man who gets much of the credit for keeping Nashville, in the words of those in the business, an “open-shop town.”

Bell informed Bredesen advisors Dave Cooley and Mike Pigott that, as far as he was concerned, the union deal was not going to fly. In short order, the Nashville Business Journal published an extensive story on Bredesen’s alliance with the labor unions, and the mayor backed down.

Despite those controversies, Bell approached Bredesen in 1994 to ask whether the mayor was indeed planning to run for governor. Bell says he was just checking out the field before choosing a candidate to support. According to Bell, he had two conversations with Bredesen. Both times, Bell says, “He told me that, no, he wasn’t going to run.” Bell went ahead and shifted his support to then-state Public Service Commissioner Steve Hewlett, a former contractor and friend of Bell’s.

Already, there were rumors abroad that Hewlett had used his influence and his position on the PSC to help Bell get the construction contract on the downtown South Central Bell Building, now the BellSouth Building. Ray Bell admits that he had a personal relationship with Hewlett, but he says no questionable dealings took place. No charges ever resulted from the accusations that Bell had obtained the contract in an illegal way.

While Bell backed Hewlett’s campaign, however, the Bell/Bredesen relationship grew even rockier. The mayor, who had told a group of elementary school children that he would not run for governor, did in fact jump in the race.

In the weeks before the August primary, the campaign for the Democratic nomination grew particularly nasty. On June 23, newspapers across the state received a fax about Bredesen’s first marriage, which had ended in a divorce. The fax implied that Bredesen had, in some way, abused his first wife. The suggestion was untrue, and the mayor’s former wife came to his defense.

Meanwhile, speculation was rampant about the origin of the fax. The Bredesen campaign suspected the Hewlett camp, where Bell was firmly entrenched. Hewlett himself openly accused Bredesen’s campaign of sending the fax, so that the mayor could play the part of the victim. Hours after the fax was sent, Bredesen issued a statement, saying, “I don’t know where this cowardly act originated, but I do know that members of the Steve Hewlett campaign have bragged that they were going to do this.”

Bredesen specifically accused Bell, charging that Bell had “bragged...to a member of my campaign staff that ‘it was going to get nasty’ and that Hewlett had information about my divorce he was going to use.”

Bredesen was referring to an incident at the Nashville restaurant Jimmy Kelly’s. As it turned out, a Bredesen campaign staffer had overheard Bell, in a conversation, bragging that he had a “silver bullet” with which he could destroy Bredesen.

Recalling the incident, Bell admits he was talking a little trash at Jimmy Kelly’s just days before the fax went out, but he says his remarks were all in jest. He says neither he nor the Hewlett campaign had anything to do with the fax.

Bredesen went on to win the Democratic nomination, and it is now assumed that the fax was the work of Memphian Bill Morris’ campaign. Bredesen and Bell are said to have resolved most of their differences. But there is still plenty of bad blood between between Bell and the Bredesen camp.

On the night of the May 7 stadium referendum, a victory party gathered at Jimmy Kelly’s. Stadium supporters, Bredesen’s political friends, and others gathered to celebrate the hard-fought win. Bell himself had been on the “NFL Yes” side.

It was late in the evening, and the celebration had involved a good bit of drinking. According to eye-witness accounts, Pigott, the ultimate Bredesen operative, walked by Bell’s table. Bell cursed at him, raising his voice. Afterward, Cooley approached the table, only to set off another round of cursing. Before Cooley and Bell could be restrained, Bell had been thrown up against a wall.

Because there was so much liquor involved, accounts of the incident vary. “It probably looked like more of an altercation than it really was because of all the screaming and because people were holding them back,” one observer remembers. On the other hand, Bell admits that he has a penchant for saying what he feels. “It’s a weakness of mine,” he admits.

Bell’s support of Bredesen’s stadium referendum was pretty much inevitable. After all, Bell is a member of the 13-member Nashville Sports Authority. Even that appointment, however, was hard-won.

In the months before the referendum effort snowballed, Bell had lobbied fiercely for a place on the Sports Authority. When Bredesen appointed the first nine members of the Authority, however, Bell was passed over. Insiders say Bell’s appointment was blocked by Cooley and by attorney Byron Trauger, who were still steaming from the arena debacle and the landfill controversy.

Metro Council, meanwhile, was highly critical of Bredesen’s choices, nearly all of whom lived in either Belle Meade or Green Hills. Council insisted that the mayor add four more members to the authority. Bell was Bredesen’s first choice to fill one of the new positions.

The appointment may be a mixed blessing. Bell would like to have a piece of the $292 million stadium project, which is being managed by the construction company McDevitt Street Bovis. He’s made it known that he would be interested in some of the demolition work, which could be worth about $2 million or $3 million to his company.

The Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) is responsible for approving stadium construction contracts, but that doesn’t change that fact that, if work comes Bell’s way, he could be accused of conflict of interest. “I guess I touch some things that do have an apparent conflict of interest,” Bell says, pointing out that neither McDevitt Street Bovis nor MDHA has yet asked for his company’s proposal on the work. “We have to get out there and hustle on this stuff just like everybody else,” he says.

Bredesen says he wanted to appoint Bell to the Sports Authority, even though he knew there was a potential for conflict of interest down the road. “I don’t want any appearances of impropriety,” Bredesen says. “If that happens, then we’ll have to have a conversation about that. I may tell him you might have to resign or not do the work.”

The construction manager and city officials may be tempted to involve Bell Construction in the stadium project. Bell Construction has a reputation for involving a solid percentage of minority-owned firms on all the jobs it subcontracts. Right now, when Bredesen and other city officials are accused of failing to recruit enough minority businesses for city projects, they can proudly point to Metro’s current contract with Bell. That contract, which involves a series of small and medium-sized construction jobs, makes Bell the manager for up to $10 million in construction projects over a year’s time.

For the three-month period, April 1 through June 30, Bell Construction managed $1.8 million worth of city purchase orders. Eighty-one percent of those jobs went to disadvantaged businesses—25 percent of them to small outfits, 38 percent to minority firms, and 18 percent to companies owned by women. Bell says he already has minority contractors who are “qualified” to handle demolition work for the stadium.

Finishing up his lunch at Macaroni’s Grill, Ray Bell talks openly about the potential of the stadium job. It’s as if he never thought about sidestepping the issue or postponing it as a bridge he has yet to cross. “I have played the game a whole lot, but I’ve never had to lie,” Bell says.

Bell, the grizzled warrior, seems to be perfectly at peace with himself. On this afternoon, after a second glass of cabernet, he is feeling pretty good about himself. He has promised to get UT tickets for his friend the waitress, and that makes him a good guy.

He acknowledges that he is not without conflict or controversy, but he stresses the fact that he is a guy who has pulled himself through life with a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat, and even a few tears. He’s fought hard, he says. He’s made his own friendships. He’s paid his own way.

At the moment, however, Ray Bell has other things on his mind.

He’s thinking about dessert. With little prompting, he agrees to share a tiramisu.

The pudding arrives, and he plunges in.

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