Just a few months into his ninth term in the N.C. House of Representatives, Dr. Larry M. Bell has announced that he will not seek a 10th, saying it was time for a younger person to bring their insight and leadership to the Legislature.
Bell, a Democrat, has served as the representative for the N.C. House of Representatives’ 21st district for the past 16 years, beginning his first term in 2001. The Sampson County native, a former educator, principal and superintendent in Sampson, represents residents in his home county of Sampson, as well as Duplin and Wayne.
He announced at a recent Wayne County Democratic Party Convention that he would not seek reelection in 2018. In a phone interview with The Sampson Independent, he expounded on his remarks, citing an “age factor” that went into the decision.
“I’m 77 years old. I have been in public service for a long time and it’s time for somebody else to move in and take over what I’m doing,” said Bell, who has been in the N.C. House for more than 16 years now, which will grow to 18 by the end of his scheduled term in 2018. “And I spent 36 years in the school system. I just feel like it’s about time for me to give it up and do some other things.”
Bell contemplated stepping down after his eight term, but said he was talked into running again. He earned his ninth term in the November 2016 election, running unopposed for his seat. The legislator knows well that the “age factor” is often accompanied by health issues, a circumstance he has seen affect some of his colleagues in the N.C. General Assembly.
“I didn’t want to wait until something happened and have to get out under pressure,” he stated. “I wanted to make sure that when I leave, I can leave on my own terms and not be forced out.”
Bell also has other goals he wants to accomplish in retirement. He is in the process of writing a book, which he describes as memoirs, incorporating his experiences, stories and “silhouettes of the past.” His hope is to help a younger generation who might be growing up amid the same circumstances that he did.
“It might be an inspiration to them,” he said.
An introspective Bell said he has grown from the experiences in the N.C. Legislature, and encouraged those wishing to seek office to come in with an open mind, but to be prepared and stay involved in their communities so that they can gauge the feelings of their constituents and the impact laws made in Raleigh have on rural Sampson, Duplin and Wayne counties.
That community involvement is paramount, Bell asserted. Prior to his time in the N.C. House, he served as a community college trustee for eight years, a county commissioner for 10 years, a teacher for 15 years and as a school administrator for 20 years.
“All of those experiences helped me in dealing with the issues that faced me in the General Assembly,” said Bell. “I think the more experiences that you have at the local level, that will help you at the state level when you’re trying to make decisions that impact the entire state. You will understand how it will impact the people at home, and I always think about that first of all.”
Regardless, there will always be tough decisions. When the idea of an educational lottery was first floated for North Carolina, many were in an uproar. Now, it is commonplace. Bell recalled going back and forth on the matter.
“I was there when that passed, and it was very hard for me to make a decision to support that, but I did. And now, people are almost fighting over what to do with those funds,” Bell said with a laugh. “They want to use them for things that we actually didn’t want to deal with in the beginning. It was for educational purposes, and that’s why I voted for it. It bothers me when I think they’re using it for other things.”
When the Republicans took the N.C. House years ago, the district lines were redrawn in an effort to form more Republican districts, packing African-American voters into the 21st district. Bell said the forming of the “minority district” meant the African-American population in the district — a large portion of Sampson was taken away as as result — went from 44 percent to close to 60 percent, Bell noted.
“It makes it easier for them to get a majority,” he remarked.
Bell understands the move, but is quick to say that he won’t miss the politics of being a politician. In fact, he eschews that title all together, always favoring bipartisanship, or at least a well-intentioned discourse.
“I never call myself a politician. Democrat or Republican, I always believed in doing what was best for people,” he said. “It makes no difference what party you belong to, there’s only two determinants of an issue — what is right and what is wrong. I believe in doing what is right and there’s no right way to do what is wrong. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you’re going the wrong direction, I am going to vote against it.”
That voting process comes with party pressures, with a great deal inside and outside Raleigh riding on the “yeas” and “nays” of lawmakers.
“I think the sooner we can get to the time we can vote on the issues based on the merits, and not on the politics, the better off we will be,” Bell attested. “We waste a lot of time and a lot of money doing that when we could sit down as individuals and say ‘what do we need to do to make North Carolina better.’ I think we can reach a consensus that way rather than everybody trying to get one-up on somebody, sometimes for the wrong reasons.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.