Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole has spearheaded numerous projects since she was first elected to Austin City Council, but she said the moment that had the most impact on her political career came when she was PTA president of her sons’ elementary school.
“I always say that my start in politics began as PTA president,” Cole said. “When you’re balancing the interests of parents, teachers and the community at large, you learn how to bring people together.”
After Cole became the PTA president, the school superintendent asked her to co-chair a school bond campaign. Cole said her two co-chairs encouraged her to visit school campuses to see their conditions.
“When I saw those schools, they were in such bad shape — leaky roofs, rodents, I mean rats everywhere,” Cole said.
Cole said many of the schools didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and needed restroom and gym repairs.
“I got really mad, so I started telling every person I knew, especially the PTA moms,” Cole said.
She said the school bond was not predicted to pass because similar bonds proposed in several other cities in the region had failed to pass.
“On the night of the bond election, when I saw the ticker go across the screen at 60 percent, that’s when the political bug hit me,” Cole said. “That’s what government is supposed to do — provide funding and solutions for people.”
As the first person in her family to graduate from college, Cole said education is an issue that is important to her.
“I knew that education was the path for [my sons] to have a successful future, so I was determined to make sure that they had a good education,” Cole said.
Since Cole became the first African-American woman on Austin City Council in 2006, she has often paid particular attention to issues involving University students. In November 2013, Cole helped pass an affordable housing bond, and more recently, she contacted student groups to try to increase their involvement with the “stealth dorm” ordinance.
Cole said that when she first joined the council, she was concerned about how to balance the interests of the African-American community while also serving the needs of the greater Austin community.
“I remember that I carried a resolution for Barton Springs Pool and their master plan, and I remember that there was a write-up in a newspaper article that said, ‘She is showing that she will not be pigeonholed to the black issues.’”
Cole said she wondered if she was making everybody mad because she couldn’t do enough.
“You sort of wear two hats where you’re expected to handle the issues that affect the African-American community, but I’ve tried really hard not to limit myself to only those issues,” Cole said. “You want to show that an African-American can do both, but at the same time, you don’t want the African-American community to feel like you’re not representing them.”
Michael McGill, Cole’s policy director and chief of staff who has worked with her for about three years, said sometimes professionals who come by the office ask if they can get a “Sheryl Cole hug.”
“She’s definitely a hugger,” Nancy Cardenas, Cole’s executive assistant, said.
McGill said it’s apparent to him that Cole loves the part of her job that involves interacting with people.
“She’s a genuinely warm person, and that’s in short supply in a job that can wear you down,” McGill said.