Curt Yeomans covers government for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Everybody knows an Eldrin Bell story.
Or, at least everyone has heard a story about Eldrin Bell.
Sometimes they have been odd, like when reports surfaced that he lost half of a thumb after a gun accident at the home of the late strip club purveyor, Jack Galardi.
Another time, he showed up in a 2008 newspaper picture, holding a broom to symbolize him as a leader although I still don’t get the symbolism there.
Other times they have been humorous, like when I saw him and Commissioner Gail Hambrick shuffling down a Soul Train line — during an attempt to set a world record for the largest Soul Train line ever — at the Senior Services Department’s Mayfest earlier this year.
There are countless stories out there to support a reputation of Eldrin as a ladies man.
Sometimes that reputation has come back to bite him, like when he was up for re-election in 2008. That was when he was accused of either licking a waitress’ neck, or biting it. It depends on who is telling the story as to which action took place.
Eldrin denied it, of course, and the accusations quickly went away.
He has a reputation as quite the singer — although I’m still waiting to see that for myself. He supposedly responded to a comment, comparing his singing to that of his famous son, Justin Guarini, with “Where do you think that boy got it from?”
He is also quite the orator when he pontificates on an issue in a public setting. When he really gets going, I like to think of him as “Brother Eldrin” because he’s in full preaching-from-the-pulpit mode.
There weren’t too many topics that I saw get him in that mode. It was mainly children, the elderly, the poor and public transportation.
But, those were the topics that he seemed to be most passionate about as the commission chairman. And as much as anyone wants to suggest otherwise, there continues to be a real sense that you have to go through Eldrin Bell if you want something done in Clayton County.
Of course, his long list of connections through metro Atlanta is legendary. Those connections are to be expected since he spent decades in the Atlanta police department and eventually rose up to become chief of police under Mayor Maynard Jackson. That gave him deep ties and influence with the power and money establishments in Atlanta.
He is on countless metro-wide committees and boards, most notably the Atlanta Regional Commission board, which put him in contact on a regular basis with leaders across the region.
One education leader in the county often refers to him as “The Godfather” because of the influence he has in the area.
I remember a “rally” he led at the ARC offices one very early August morning last year, when everyone from rail proponents, to state senators, to municipal officials from Clayton and Fulton counties spoke in support of the long-proposed Atlanta-to-Macon commuter rail line. Everyone sat at this boardroom table, with Eldrin sitting at the head of the table and totally channeling Marlon Brando as he led the speakers.
But, those kinds of images don’t really show how much he was able to wheel and deal to make stuff happen.
I remember talking to Eldrin in the ARC boardroom after he got elected leaders from nine other counties to agree to put $20,000 for commuter rail planning into the T-SPLOST project list after a long fight over the issue.
“How many favors did you have to call in to make this happen?” I asked.
He responded, “All of them!”
One of the things I will remember most about Eldrin is the work he put into making the Atlanta-to-Macon commuter rail line a reality. As much as people hear him talk about resurrecting bus service in the county, commuter rail was the original big transportation project he was pushing.
Even after C-Tran died, Bell continued to push for the commuter rail that elected leaders in so many communities — except maybe Henry County — wanted to see come to fruition.
Commuter rail continues to be elusive, but that just gives Eldrin a goal to work toward in his post-elected life.
Curt Yeomans is the Senior Reporter for the Clayton News Daily and an avid traveler. He can be reached at 770-478-5753, ext. 247 or via e-mail at email@example.com.