On the other side of the House, Minority Leader David Toscano also holds an aisle seat.
The men who want to be AG: Mark Obenshain and Rob Bell in September at the signing of a bill they both carried-- life sentences for child rapists.
photo by lisa provence
Rob Bell is drinking a Slim-fast in his corner seventh-floor office in Richmond. It's 10:40am and the delegate has already been to two committee meetings. The Slimfast isn't a weight-loss solution for the already trim Republican; with no breakfast, the drink is a snack he can keep in his office, he explains, and it will tide him over until lunch.
Like so much in the General Assembly, the primo office is a result of 12 years seniority, says Bell, who was first elected in 2001. Its decor reflects his 58th District. Photographs of Monticello, the Rotunda, and the Fluvanna courthouse are on the wall, bottles of wine–– and beer–– from the district sit untouched atop a cabinet, and orange-and-blue accents dot the room, a tribute to UVA where Bell earned both his undergraduate and law degrees.
If all goes according to plan, this will be Bell's last year in this office. The 45-year-old former Orange prosecutor wants to be Virginia's top cop, and after the General Assembly session ends February 23, he can continue his quest for the Republican nomination for attorney general.
His day starts with an 8am appropriations committee meeting, which reviewed three of Bell's bills. The committee approves stiffened penalties for identity theft, criminalization of taking advantage of the mentally incapacitated, and mandatory minimum sentences that run consecutively rather than concurrently.
These initiatives are typical of the law-and-order bills Bell has carried over the years, which make sure there's a penalty for wrongdoing if it's not already covered–– or toughen existing penalties. For instance, last year, one of his bills made certain sexual assaults on children a mandatory life sentence.
After shepherding his bills through the appropriations committee, Bell now has a 9:30am meeting of the health, welfare, and institutions committee, and he takes the stairs down seven flights to the first floor, where a bill requiring school employees to report suspected child abuse and one having to do with the transfer of nursing facility beds and certificates of public need are quickly dispatched with approval by the 22-person committee.
Bell is back up in his office (via elevator–– he only uses the stairs when going down) and has time for the Slim-fast® and a quick chat with a reporter before the Republican caucus at 11am.
The day before, on January 30, the confirmation of Helen Dragas cleared its last hurdle and passed the House 63-33 with Bell, who hadn't indicated how he would vote, joining Albemarle's other delegates, David Toscano and Steve Landes, in opposing her confirmation.
While Toscano and Landes had vocally opposed Dragas for months, Bell had earlier pronounced himself undecided on the rector. Now, he says a Virginia alumni magazine article on the events of June was one factor in his decision. And he says he heard from "more than 100 constituents," far fewer than Toscano, who numbered his constituent contacts on the Dragas affair in the thousands.
"I would rather the governor appoint someone else," says Bell.
On the House agenda for January 31 is the controversial redistricting bill passed by the Senate Republicans on inauguration day, when they had a majority because of the absence of Democratic civil rights leader Senator Henry Marsh.
The bill is postponed, but Bell correctly predicts the speaker will rule on its germaneness. As for Bell's feelings about the bill, "I'm not going to take a position," he says.
With the attorney general race looming, Bell describes what's different about this session. "More people talk to you. You have more visitors from across the state."
Not different: "The bills I'm carrying are the same type I always have," he says. "A number of public safety bills, the photo ID bills, Tebow I've carried for four years."
The Tebow bill, which would allow home schoolers to participate in public school sports, he inherited from another delegate, and he compares bill carrying to carrying the flag. "You pass it on, you don't drop it," he says.
Bell says he's trying not to let the upcoming AG race against state Senator Mark Obenshain for the Republican nomination influence his actions during the session. "I'd like to think I'm transparent," he says.
But he's holding some positions closer to the vest, particularly ones in which Republicans are split, such as the aforementioned Republican-led Senate redistricting bill, or those in which he differs from McDonnell.
Two weeks earlier, when a reporter quizzed him on some of the session's big issues, he answered in a noncommittal way–– very much like a man aware of a statewide run in front of him.
On Governor Bob McDonnell's transportation package: "I'm still reviewing the governor's plan," he said.
On putting armed guards in elementary schools: "I'd want to see the specific bill."
On ending the uranium mining ban: "I'm going to wait and see. I'm on the committee."
And on the aforementioned Dragas confirmation: "I'm going to wait to see what the committee recommends."
He caught himself. "I've just said I'm going to wait on three in a row," he acknowledged.
It's time for the daily Republican caucus over in the Capitol, and Bell heads down the seven flights of stairs for the second time.
"No, you can't go to the caucus," he tells a reporter.
The House convenes at noon, and pages scurry back and forth delivering sandwiches to delegates. Everyone seems to be eating lunch in the historic hall, pausing only to applaud introductions to visitors in the gallery, even while continuing to chew.
Bell sits on the aisle–– another perk of seniority. So does Toscano, who as minority leader also gets an aisle seat, only closer to the front.
By 12:40pm, the introductions are done. Bell's Tebow bill is the second up for vote.
"Home schooling has changed a lot in the past 20 years," says Bell, noting that religious students are now a minority. "And it's a local option," he reminds the opposition.
And there is opposition.
"It is simply impossible to equate academic requirements when one group of students is mandated to be physically present in a school and to pass at least five subjects," says Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), "and a second group has no similar requirement."
Before the House convened, Bell said last year his Tebow bill passed with 20 votes. "I'm not expecting a nail biter," he says.
But the vote is closer this year, 56-43. And on February 14, once again, it dies in a Senate committee.
The House adjourns at 1:25pm, which gives Bell enough time to return a couple of media calls before his 2pm commerce and labor committee meeting.
He serves on three committees–– commerce, the morning's health, welfare and institutions committee, and his favorite, courts of justice.
"I have background," he says of the latter. "I can bring something to the table."
He's 10 minutes late to commerce, which has several bills before it that anticipate implementation of the Affordable Care Act. HB2246 requires navigators–– those who help people find the right health care insurance–– be regulated by the state as insurance agents are.
"Isn't it already illegal for them to sell insurance?" he asks.
During the discussion, Bell is moving on the dais and confabbing with Delegate Ben Cline (R-Amherst), then Delegate Greg Habeeb (R-Salem), then back to Cline with paper in hand. The bill passes, with Bell voting against it.
The next bill, HB1769, is carried by the committee chair, Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City and twin brother of former AG Jerry Kilgore), and it sets up insurance exchanges. Bell breaks with Kilgore and is one of five "no" votes, but the bill also passes.
"Those are the first few bills coming through under Obamacare–– the Affordable Care Act," explains Bell. "Obviously, I'm not a proponent of the plan. We're being asked to implement it. There's no requirement we do so."
At 4:30pm, Bell cuts out, and says of his next appointment only that it's "far away."
Not so far away is the upcoming May 16-17 Republican convention, a method of nomination that convinced Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling he couldn't win the nomination for governor against Ken Cuccinelli.
What does that bode for Bell? We checked in with political pundit Larry Sabato.
"I don't know anyone who thinks Rob isn't up to the intellectual challenge of being attorney general," says Sabato in an email. "My guess is he'd be a good one, though very conservative and ideologically indistinguishable from the last several."
Bell's problem, says Sabato, is political.
"He's running against someone with a magic name in Republican circles," Sabato explains, recalling the 1978 death of GOP Senate nominee Richard Obenshain in a plane crash and the expectation since then that another Obenshain would eventually run for statewide office.
That time has come as Mark Obenshain, a state senator from the Harrisonburg area, has picked up the mantle.
"This convention is going to be a small gathering of über-activists on the Republican right," says Sabato. "So anything can happen, but Obenshain is regarded as having the early edge. Bell is competitive, though, and has raised a fair amount of money."
Bell had $750,000 on hand at the end of 2012, well over Obenshain's $247,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
As the General Assembly session winds down, Bell seems to be savoring his time in the Capitol and not taking it for granted. "We get to work in an historic building Jefferson built," he points out. "Most of the Founding Fathers spent time here–– Patrick Henry, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington...."
And so did recent attorneys general–– and the governor. Standing in the front of the Capitol, Bell points out the office of the attorney general across the way.
Rob Bell is ready for a different view.
Correction 2/26: Bell's office is on the seventh floor, not the ninth.