Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Interview With a Black Republican 2: Theron Bell (2005)

This is the 2nd of two interviews I conducted in 2005 with prominent Colorado Black Republicans.  Theron doesn't like the term "Black Republican" — he's a "Republican" just like any other — but his record as a Black man in government positions as early as the 1960s is a testament to the vision of both Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.

Please also read my interview with Arniter Jamison and my analysis of who really made the 1964 Civil Rights Act possible (well-meaning people, Black and White alike, were on different sides of that Act, but the point is the Democrat claim that they were the only champions for civil rights in the '60s is a lie).

Theron Bell: A Black Republican for Reagan in 1966

“Can you go down to Santa Barbara?” asked the voice on the phone. “What for?” asked Theron Bell, sitting next to his friend Herb. “To meet with Ronald Reagan.”

They had gotten an inkling to get involved in local politics. Herb was a Democrat, but Bell convinced him that if they could find a good Republican candidate to back for Governor of California, they would both volunteer.

That’s how these two black men in 1966 ended up spending an hour riding horses and talking with Ronald Reagan at his ranch. And that’s how Bell ended up committing most of the rest of his life to implementing Republican policy from Sacramento and Washington D.C..

Most of Bell’s experience had been in middle and upper management in auto sales, insurance and trucking. His only experience in politics had been campaigning for Alaskan statehood. But that planted a bug in him that would be with him for the rest of his life.

Bell was asked to chair Reagan’s speaker’s bureau. He would call up Reagan’s movie star friends, and ask if they’d speak for him. But if no one could, then the task fell to Bell.

At one such appearance in Sacramento, Bell arrived late and hung out at the back of the room as the other candidates made their pitches to the audience. Bill Bagley, a state legislator who was speaking for one of the other candidates, told the crowd what a racist Ronald Reagan was – that was the angle his opponents were using. Then, to great effect, Bell took the stage on Reagan’s behalf and said, “It’s obvious Mr. Bagley doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Reagan got the endorsement that night.

Because of Reagan’s positions on welfare, and his support in 1964 for similarly tarred presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, the charge of racism would not go away. But opponent George Christopher once called Reagan a bigot within his hearing. Reagan’s response was, “If you say that about me one more time, I’m going to knock you right on your ass.”

For that matter, Bell says, Goldwater wasn’t a racist either. The Goldwater’s department store was the first in the country to hire a black man as vice president.

Much of the charge of racism for both Goldwater and Reagan stemmed from their opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But Bell said he, himself, had mixed feelings about the Act. “I was the first black business manager in the country,” Bell said of his time as an auto dealer. “It’s still a mixed bag,” he says. “I think [the Act] probably set blacks back about 10 years in their progress, because people were already beginning to make inroads into decent jobs and into the professions on their own merits, without the legislation.”

“Obviously, the legislation helped open doors, to the restaurants and things like that, in certain parts of the country. And broke down some of the racial barriers in the south... I’m not sure that wouldn’t have happened anyway. Especially after World War II and the Korean Conflict, when they integrated the armed services. It was already taking place.” Bell was one of those pioneers who forged a path for the future, on his own, without the Civil Rights Act.

Governor Reagan tapped Bell to head up his California Office of Economic Opportunity. “Reagan ended up appointing more blacks to policy-making positions than all of the previous governors of California combined,” Bell said.

As Director, he helped generate business and jobs. “We had put together in California a program to increase the number of minority owned businesses,” Bell said. It was so successful that Richard Nixon used it as a nationwide model when he became President.

Partly because of that notoriety and experience, Bell was appointed as state director for Nixon’s ACTION agency, where he served through most of the '70s.

Bell was called back into service by President Reagan in 1981. He took over as Director of the Minority Business Development Agency — the federal agency Nixon had created on Bell’s California model.

Ironically, President Carter had slashed funding for minority business development. Its budget had fallen to $20 million. Bell’s connections with Reagan and his team paid off. “We tripled the budget each year for three years,” he said.

Bell helped set up national and local business groups, such as the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which still helps local minority firms today. He funded 100 centers to lend support to minority-owned businesses. He helped owners network between themselves to their mutual advantage. He set up an international export program, and launched several trade missions. It was all more ambitious than what previous administrations had tried, and it got to the root of the needs of struggling minority-owned companies.

Bell also got Reagan to proclaim “Minority Enterprise Development Week” to pay tribute to their economic contributions. That recognition, Bell said, “means a lot when it comes to getting new business, especially with major corporations. They do a lot of networking at those events... They tend to increase their revenues, hire more people, and pay more taxes.”

And he’s proud of having ended a form of corporate welfare. There was a program that gave taxpayers’ money to major corporations to encourage them to help minority businesses. “They can fund the program,” Bell said to himself. “They just throw away that much money. So I told them they weren’t going to get renewed.”

Reagan and Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge ignored complaints, backed Bell’s decision, and the corporate welfare died away. Bell says the program still supports minority businesses, but today it’s funded entirely with corporate money.

After Reagan left office, Bell worked for President George H.W. Bush, and then for the governor of Virginia. Once, Bell ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Alexandria, Va., on a Republican platform. Then he and his wife moved to Littleton, Colo., where they remain very involved in local Republican organizations.

Bell believes in Republican philosophy, and he feels those concepts of individual rights, free enterprise and opportunity are beneficial to all Americans — black and white alike. To Bell, few people represent the very best of Republican philosophy as well as Ronald Reagan.

“There is only one man that I admired and respected more than Reagan,” Bell says. “And that was my Dad. The man [Reagan] was sincere, he was a delegator, he had a vision for this country, and what you saw was what you got. I just loved him. In my opinion he was the best president we’ve ever had.”

Bell doesn’t understand why most black people today identify with the Democrat Party, rather than with Republicans. “Many people have forgotten that it was Abraham Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was Dwight Eisenhower who established the Small Business Administration, and also made certain that discrimination in the military was reduced, and eventually eliminated. It was Nixon who established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise. And it was Ronald Reagan who funded that same program at an increased level and created minority enterprise development, which opened the doors up for a lot of minorities to now become big companies.”

“The Democrats’ approach is a joke," Bell says. They act like if you're Black you have to be a Democrat, like there's no choice. Like they "own" Black people. Successful Blacks are a threat to the stereotype the Democrats promote. "I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been called an Uncle Tom by some of those so-called honorable black Democrats.”

What do Republicans need to improve? “The Republicans don’t reach out like the Democrats do. It’s almost as if they’re afraid to reach out. The door is open, and Republicans expect blacks and other minority groups to walk in the door just like they did.” He says it doesn't always work like that.

Bell contrasts the parties like this. “The Democrats promise a lot and don’t deliver. The Republicans don’t promise a lot. They do promise the right to earn a good living.”

To Theron Bell’s mind, that’s worth everything.