It was the sectional high school track meet when 18-year-old Carl Cole got word that his friend and teammate would be taken off life support four days after suffering fatal injuries in a car crash.
The red-rimmed eyes of his grieving teammates turned to the team captain that day, searching for strength and direction. Cole can recall the pressure an entire community placed on him in the meet’s last race, which would determine the winner. It was then that the only child of a broken home first learned how heavy the burden of leadership is and how it’s placed only on those who are willing and strong enough to bear it.
As Cole crossed the finished line, winning the meet for his team and nabbing the most valuable player award, his friend Jeff Mashburn died in the hospital.
“Carl led his team to victory that day and then he led them in prayer,” remembers Earl Wynn, Cole’s grandfather, who watched from the stands as the brown-haired boy he raised showed the first signs of the man he would become.
“Carl and his team dedicated the win to that boy who died. Everybody looked to him that day, and he, even in his grief, stepped up.”
Wynn said there were many other displays of leadership scattered across Cole’s childhood and adolescence, but that day stands out as the summation of Cole’s character. And it was then that Cole’s ascent out of rural Sardis, a small, close-kit community on Sand Mountain that straddles the Etowah-Marshall county line, began. Now he’s 37 and a respected business attorney seeking his adopted city’s highest-profile political office against a former mayor, Decatur native and frontrunner Don Kyle.
Cole’s supporters say he would bring a fresh, progressive perspective to City Hall because he’s young, energetic and business-savvy. Nick Roth, Cole’s former colleague at Decatur law firm Eyster Key, has worked with him since he took a job as an associate out of the University of Alabama law school.
“Carl has a way of building consensus between very divergent sides,” Roth said of Cole’s work with clients. “He has a special mind, a broad perspective, that allows him to get his arms around a seemingly intractable problem and find a third way that works for everybody.”
“I think that’s one of his strengths he could bring as a mayor, especially working with the City Council and getting the council to work together.”
Cole left the firm this year to start his own practice.
“He has been very successful at our firm, and I think he’s at a point in his career where he wanted to be in control of his own practice,” Roth said. “We just hate to lose him.”
Since he was a child, Cole has had an innate ability to communicate with people from all walks of life, which has served him well as an attorney and could also as mayor, Wynn said. Cole helped younger classmates get on the school bus at Sardis and then charmed his grandparents’ friends with his manners every Sunday morning at Whitesboro Baptist Church.
Wynn, a retired Air Force master sergeant, said he witnessed just how much Cole had assimilated into his new hometown at his campaign kickoff party in July.
“He was working the room and was just as comfortable as he could be talking to all these different people and answering their questions,” Wynn said. “That’s something I never could have done, but it was a joy to see him doing it.”
Cole had confidence in himself from an early age, but his country upbringing by his grandparents tempered it with humility and respect, said retired Etowah County Superintendent Tommy Mosley. Mosley watched Cole grow up as his next-door neighbor in Sardis, and Cole spent several evenings and weekends at Mosley’s home when he was dating his daughter in high school.
“He was a heck of an athlete, at top of his class and very active in the church, Whitesboro Baptist,” Mosley said. “In fact, when he decided to run for Robert Aderholt’s (District 4 U.S. House of Representatives) seat, he held his campaign kickoff party at that little church.”
Cole was 29 at the time and just out of law school four years when he mounted the unsuccessful run as the democratic nominee.
“There’s not many people whose first run for political office is for the U.S. House, and you know he still managed to pull 25 percent of the vote,” Mosley said. “Carl’s always wanted to get involved in public service. He likes helping people solve their problems. I don’t see him as a politician. Those are two very different things.”
Decatur’s failure to implement the 2010 referendum to change its form of government to council-manager is what got Cole in the race. He wants to hire a professional city manager to run City Hall, reduce the mayor’s $106,000 salary by half and narrow the position’s duties to long-range planning, agenda setting and business recruiting.
“I’m not in this for a job because I already have one,” said Cole, who has been balancing his law practice with campaigning. “I want to give residents what they voted for. A city of Decatur’s size needs professional municipal management that offers continuity through election cycles.”
Since trailing Kyle by 17 points in the Aug. 28 election, Cole has crisscrossed the city to introduce himself to residents, who for the last eight years, have only known a “Don” as mayor. Both outgoing Mayor Don Stanford and Kyle grew up and are well-known around Decatur, while Cole has struggled with name recognition, particularly with older residents.
“There was a time, back years ago, when you about had to have helped dig the Tennessee River to get in with Decatur,” Roth said jokingly of the city’s perception of exclusivity, “but I really don’t think that’s the attitude any longer. Things have changed. There’s a lot more progressive thinking here now in terms of new people coming in and taking leadership roles.”
Sardis will always have a place in Cole’s life, but his home is in Decatur now, Mosley said. When work gets stressful, he returns to his rural home to relax with family, Wynn said.
On Tuesday night, Cole, his wife, Kate, and their 23-month-old son Wynn — named after his great-grandfather — will watch election returns with his supporters at downtown’s Magnolia Room. Sixty-five miles away on Sand Mountain, so will Earl, Bernice and the rest of the town that knows him as that polite little boy named Carl.
Family: Wife Kate and son Wynn
Education: Master of laws in taxation and juris doctorate from University of Alabama law school and bachelor’s degree from Troy University
Community involvement: Served on Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority, American Red Cross and Parents and Children Together boards, and Decatur youth basketball league referee
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