Melony Bell’s journey to the Florida House of Representatives began when the working mother of two learned of plans to build a private prison in Fort Meade next to her daughters’ elementary school. She researched the company, smelled a rat, and took her questions to the podium at the city commissioners’ meeting.
After the meeting, Bell says dozens of people came up to her with remarks such as: You asked great questions. Will you help us fight the prison?
Bell, who describes herself back then as shy and timid, recognized that God doesn’t call the qualified. “He qualifies the called. I’m that person,” she says.
The next day, Bell, an auditor for the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles —ultimately for 30 years — organized a political action committee, launching a two-year battle against city hall, a David-versus-Goliath battle against business and political interests. Bell’s team kept the prison out.
In 1996, she ran for Fort Meade’s city commission and won, serving 14 years, including four yearlong terms as mayor. During that tenure, she sensed a leading to run for the Polk County Board of County Commissioners. But to do that, she felt earning a university degree would be essential.
Enter Southeastern University, which offered a bachelor’s degree in business and professional leadership tailored to the needs of working professionals such as Bell. When her dad died on her first day of class, however, Bell felt tempted to give up, before she even started.
Professor Ed Plastow prayed for her in class.
“When that happened, I knew I was in the right school,” says Bell, 59. “I was going to get a great education.” She believes the Bible-based curriculum at Southeastern has enriched her to be a voice for people who didn’t have one.
Plastow recognized Bell’s qualities of character essential for an elected official.
“She had a real heart for serving others and being in leadership in the community,” says the now-retired Plastow, who remembers Bell as a shining star among the top students in his tenure at Southeastern. “Her involvement politically was always outstanding. She’s recognized as a real leader in central Florida.”
Bell graduated in 2008. Two years later, voters elected her to become the first woman on the county commission. In 2018, she won her initial term in the House of Representatives, being re-elected in 2020.
Her assignments include the postsecondary education and lifelong learning subcommittee and the prekindergarten through grade 12 appropriations subcommittee, for which she is vice chair. She is on the education and employment committee and the pandemics and public emergencies committee.
Bell saw miraculous protection in 2019 when a city vehicle crashed into her office. A truck plowed into the desk of Bell’s assistant, out on an errand at the time. Bell herself was only a block away, en route to the office.
Bell’s decades in the state’s motor vehicles department made her aware of policies in need of addressing. Southeastern University, she believes, provided her with the tools to effect that change. The degree required her to take more math, leadership, and business courses than political courses, all of which prepared her for her work as a lawmaker that entails budgeting and debates, “just like they prepared me for life,” she says.
But a large part of that equipping was grounding her in faith.
“Southeastern has prepared me for being an advocate and standing on His Word,” Bell says. “It taught me a lot of ways to make my point, but to live by what I believe in as a Christian.”