Last Saturday afternoon, on the shady front lawn of Hugh and Sandi Bender, across the street from Lee Elementary School, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole officially announced that she is indeed running for mayor of Austin, thereby revealing the worst kept secret in Austin politics. She became the fifth officially declared candidate in the mayor's race, following attorney Steve Adler, Council Member Mike Martinez, rancher/musician Todd Phelps, and aviation mechanic/businessman Randall Stephens. (Official filing for the November municipal election begins July 21, but campaigns have been in progress for weeks.)
About 100 people gathered to hear the candidate, who had chosen this spot to mark the recent end of her "10-district House Party Tour." Lee holds special meaning for her. Her three now-grown sons – Femi, Nelson, and Marcus – had each attended the school, and she began her public work there as a PTA mom and eventually PTA president. "Some of the best lessons I've learned," she told the crowd, "are from the PTA."
That personal history was also emphasized by sixth-grade Lee teacher Julie Brown, who spoke of meeting Cole as a nervous school mom who grew into a confident school leader, who "maintained her cool" and was "committed to the children and to the belief that everyone needed to be heard." Brown was followed by Dick Perrone of the Onion Creek Homeowners Association; he briefly summarized Cole's career as a CPA, attorney, and public official – noting her three terms as a Council member, beginning in 2006. He particularly praised her early attention to both the residents and the city's responses in the aftermath of last fall's Halloween flood. "Answering [residents'] questions," Perrone said, "she didn't try to dance around anything. She was very forthcoming, and as a result, people [were] very satisfied."
Cole acknowledged some familiar faces in the crowd – her family, her pastor Rev. Joe Parker, the NAACP's Nelson Linder, longtime Dem activist Cecilia Crossley – and recalled arriving at Lee to enroll her eldest son, Femi. Her obvious maternal anxiety was reassured by new teacher Brown – "Sheryl, Sheryl ... We got this!" – and that became the theme of her speech.
"There are some debts you can never pay back," Cole said. "That you can only pay forward."
Cole cited her proudest public accomplishments as attempts to do just that: the Waller Creek Project ("a park-like, family-friendly setting Downtown"); the second campaign for the successful 2013 affordable housing bond ("we are one as a city"); her sponsorship of ordinances supporting marriage equality and paycheck equity; her work on "heavy-lifting" Council committees like Audit and Finance and the Comprehensive Plan, all under the theme of "engaging [Austinites] with information and a voice."
Cole said her 10-district tour redirected her perspective to re-emphasize that the focus of politics must be "the people you are there to serve," and she looks to the new 10-1 system to help the Council "embrace that concept." She said she was impressed by the energy and ideas people brought to her house parties, from new neighborhood trails to traffic solutions, and called on her audience to respond, "We got this!"
"She's always been with the people," said longtime labor and Democtratic Party activist Walter Timberlake, while waiting for Cole to address the crowd. "That's why I'm supporting her." Speaking for himself and not the local NAACP, Linder said he's backing Cole because of her leadership on issues regarding poverty and equity, and other matters that are important to the African-American community. "She has the ability to bring people together – she's fair, she's not polarizing, she's accessible, and I like that about her," he said. Accessibility is also one reason she has the support of Gavino Fernandez, a longtime Eastside activist with El Concilio, a coalition of Mexican-American neighborhoods. "She has the skills to navigate this new Council and help move it forward," he said, adding that she's worked collaboratively with Central East Austin neighborhoods on the ongoing development of the Holly Shores Master Plan.
Like Adler and Martinez, Cole is also hoping to win the support of environmental leaders. Her votes haven't always been favorable to positions taken by environmental activists, but she nonetheless manages to maintain favorable relations with them. Austin Sierra Club's Roy Waley, who attended Cole's kickoff, says he's continuing to talk with the three leading candidates to determine which one would best represent the interests of his organization.
Wrapping up her remarks, Cole said the new mayor must be committed to "raising all our voices," and one who will gather the "creativity, talent, and brainpower" of Austinites to "move the city forward."
"I want to be that mayor," Cole declared, "and I am ready to be that mayor!"
For more on the mayoral and City Council races, visit the Chronicle's election page at austinchronicle.com/elections.
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