NASHVILLE — Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Bell, R-Riceville, announced Monday he won't seek re-election to his District 9 seat in 2022, ending what will be a 16-year political career in the General Assembly.
In a statement, the 58-year-old Bell, first elected to the state House in 2006 where he served two terms before entering the Senate in 2010, called his service in the legislature "the highest honor of my life."
"I am incredibly thankful for the continued support, friendship and kindness of my constituents who have entrusted me to represent for the past 15 years. Just as I knew it was time for me to run for office in 2006, I feel it is now time to move to the next chapter of my life and pass the leadership mantle to a new state senator."
His Senate term will end Nov. 8, 2022, the date of the general election. Bell said he is announcing his decision early to give potential candidates "plenty of time to come forward."
"I love representing this district," added Bell, who routinely attends events across the district, which includes part of Bradley County as well as McMinn, Meigs, Monroe and Polk counties in Southeast Tennessee. He also runs a pressure washing business cleaning houses.
He thanked his wife and children for their support. Bell did not say what he plans to do when he leaves the legislature.
"I don't have anything lined up, but I'm sure there's something else out there that I can do," Bell said in a Times Free Press interview in a Cordell Hull State Office Building hallway. "I'm 58 years old, not too old but getting to where I need to think about what I'm going to be doing, just to make sure my family and I are taken care of for the rest of my life."
In a statement, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate Republican speaker, described Bell as a "consistent conservative and a true friend."
"Mike has brought a true working-class perspective to the Senate that has been simply invaluable," McNally said, calling Bell an "authentic citizen legislator."
Bell is a close ally of McNally and Senate Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and the three share an apartment in Nashville when the legislature is in session. Their collective nickname among Capitol Hill lobbyists is the "Big Three," because if someone gets all three on their side, the legislative path can often go more smoothly in the upper chamber.
In a text to the Times Free Press, Watson called Bell "one of the most capable" senators at the Capitol, adding Bell's dedication to his district and the state is "unparalleled," while adding it had been an honor to serve with him and forge a "very deep friendship."
While he never went to law school, Bell earned respect from colleagues and attorneys as Senate Judiciary Committee chair. He previously headed the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Bell's entry into politics was propelled by the pro-life activist's protests against abortion, often at the then-abortion clinic in Chattanooga during the 1980s and 1990s.
During a 2019 Senate debate over an abortion-restriction measure Bell feared went too far and might jeopardize legal progress made by abortion opponents, the senator recalled joining Operation Rescue in the 1980s. He described himself as a "foot soldier" joining nonviolent sit-in demonstrations at the Chattanooga abortion clinic. He noted how he, his wife and their 6-month-old baby went to clinics "praying and being part of what I saw as an awakening on this issue."
He noted he was once arrested in a nonviolent demonstration where abortion opponents linked arms to block entry to a clinic.
In December 2018, Bell launched a bid to become Senate Republican Majority Leader, vying with Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Bell sought to ply GOP colleagues with a generous serving of sausage balls made from bear meat. It didn't work, and Johnson was elected.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat and attorney, noted he has "disagreed with Mike Bell more than I've agreed with him.
"But he's a gentleman and someone who conducts with integrity. And while it will probably surprise a lot of people, I will actually miss Mike Bell in the Senate," Yarbro said.
Yarbro said one of the most important things about being a legislator is "knowing what you don't know" and working to address that.
"And whenever Mike runs into an issue that he isn't immediately familiar with, he spends some time trying to learn it. And he will listen to both sides. He tends to come down on the wrong side," Yarbro said, laughing. "But he is at least someone who takes the time to listen, who understands that the person on the other side is bringing their honest passions to bear as well."
During his legislative tenure, Bell has pressed for Second Amendment expansions, including sponsoring the 2020 law allowing Tennesseans to carry a firearm without a gun-carry permit. Other major laws sponsored by Bell include:
— Legislation revamping the state's Textbook Commission to provide for greater transparency and more public input in the textbook selection process.
— Bills removing what he says were unfair restrictions concerning the eligibility of home school students for Tennessee's lottery-funded college scholarships.
— A bill to protect Tennesseans' access to health care through telehealth services.
— The Broadband Accessibility Act to improve access to broadband through investment, deregulation and education, spurring development in rural areas to open them to job growth.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.