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Fundraising woes take toll on Bell


Wayzata, Minn. - Dr. Ford Bell's uphill battle swelled into a small mountain.

WAYZATA, MINN. — Dr. Ford Bell's uphill battle swelled into a small mountain.

Bell's hasty exit: The candidate who raises the most, wins by the most. In the end, under $1 million just wasn't enough.

Sixteen months on the campaign trail earned the veterinarian candidate for U.S. Senate an army of followers touting the democrat's anti-war stance and universal healthcare plan. Yet despite support from the American Veterinary Medical Association and a handful of party heavyweights, Minnesota's split political climate promised a tight red-versus-blue race with little room for two primary candidates.

Bell says those who run for public office know the deal: the candidate who raises the most money wins. A $4-million campaign coffer and an endorsement from the National Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee vaulted fellow liberal Amy Klobuchar into the party's seat. Bell, raising less than $1 million, fell to the wayside before the August primary. During a July 11 press conference, he conceded to the high-profile attorney. Bell says the decision was made a day earlier, sparking sadness as well as "a huge sense of relief."

"I didn't want to run in the primary and have a negative impact on the election," Bell says. "I felt the noose tightening. I came into the office, and I just couldn't begin the process of making 60 to 70 fundraising calls that day for less and less money. I realized that we were in a situation of diminishing returns."

Bell, a former Spanish teacher, board-certified oncologist and grandson of General Mills founder James Ford Bell, sat down to tell his campaign manager. "It was tough," he recalls. "We'd been in the trenches for 16 months. Our team had been together for about a year. You get pretty close. You travel with these people, stay in tiny motels and spend a lot of time together."


He still felt passionate about the issues. Yet long days as former president of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, one of the nation's largest cardiologic research centers, were nothing compared to the campaign trail. Bell estimates he made 10,000 phone calls personally, starting with his Rolodex. Then he began cold calling, a dreaded job that involves soliciting funds from constituents including veterinarians across the country. Road trips were the most rewarding, Bell says.

"When you're not fundraising, you're going to fairs, picnics and meeting all kinds of wonderful people," he says. "The best thing about campaigning is the stories you hear."

Harsh reality

That made withdrawing no easier. Soured by the realization that a lack of funds stifled his political aspirations, Bell now expresses disappointment in the election system.

"I raised almost a million dollars in 16 months," he says. "More than 300 of my colleagues supported me, which was gratifying, but it's a statement that that's not enough. It's terrible. I don't think it's the way we should be choosing our elected officials, but that's the reality."

Another campaign blow came with a bout of fungal pneumonia that developed into pulmonary histoplasmosis. The disease came on during a crucial time and caused Bell to miss a month of work.

"I often think of what I might have been able to do if I'd had that time," he says. "I wonder if things could have been different."

Next chapter

Bell also ponders his next career move. It's been nearly a year since the former candidate was employed after leaving his job to campaign full time. His wife and four children have since welcomed him home, and on Nov. 2, he plans to vote for his former opponent.

After all, it's a ticket that might afford him another election race.

"Being a veterinarian is a tremendous asset; people like us," Bell says. "I've gotten hundreds of letters and e-mails from people urging me to run again, but it's just hard to think about right now."

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