Setting sights on a second term

By Gus Bode

The giant, maroon sign emblazoned with the words “Our Mayor” across from Lewis Park Apartments makes the message clear – Brad Cole is running for re-election.

Four years ago, many people were wary of having a 31-year-old mayor, but now Cole said he has a firm record and unfinished projects he’d like to see completed during a second term.

“I think at 31 I was a little untested,” Cole said, “and I have proven myself and I don’t think that youth is an issue anymore.”

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In 2003, Cole was sworn in as the city’s youngest mayor, after narrowly beating former City Councilwoman Maggie Flanagan by 21 votes.

Today Cole faces twice as many opponents as he did four years ago – fellow council member Sheila Simon, SIUC law student development director Jessica Davis and local personality Pepper Holder.

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Carbondale’s face has seen some changes over the past four years.

New businesses have come and some have gone. Enrollment, and in turn population, has dropped. Old buildings were demolished and new ones were built.

In his platform, Cole said he wants to increase the work being done in the city’s first-ever tax-increment financing district in downtown Carbondale. The area gives tax breaks to businesses to attract them downtown.

He stated that he also wants to continue emphasizing retail and outlet stores as a regional attraction as well as “unique specialty shops that provide customers with products that they would normally only find in major metropolitan areas.”

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However, some owners of those specialty stores are seeing the big-box retailers as more of a threat than a pleasant co-existence.

Richard Reeve, owner of Shawnee Trails, said the recent announcement that Dick’s Sporting Goods would move into the empty K-Mart store on the east side of town shows that the city is more interested in the big retailers than preserving Carbondale’s small businesses.

“While they are bringing in business, it’s at the expense of existing businesses,” Reeve said. “We don’t seem to be important in the big game plan anymore.”

Carbondale residents have also taken a more active role in public safety and neighborhood appearance. Jane Adams, treasurer of the Arbor District Neighborhood Association, said the city has been very flexible in working with the group’s problems.

She said cars speeding down Rt. 13, crime and housing appearances were some of the problems. The group saw the city quickly responded to their questions and issues.

“I think he sets the tone for the policing,” she said.

For this campaign, Cole is using social networking sites such as MySpace to broaden his reach, but even for a 35-year-old, the newfangled tool can be difficult.

“I don’t really understand this whole thing. I’m still learning it,” he said.

Aside from his campaign site, Cole’s presence can also been found on a site devoted to helping him fulfill his New Year’s resolution – to get married.

Marrythemayor.com site manager Dave More said the committee, which consists of local businesses, has received applications but has not yet selected finalists. The deadline is Feb. 14.

During Cole’s tenure as mayor, he has become president of the Southern Illinois Mayor’s Association and has worked closely with many small-town leaders.

Marion Mayor Bob Butler said he was impressed with his young colleague, who has led Carbondale to work more closely with neighboring communities.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air in that respect, and I’m sure that is mainly due to Mayor Cole,” he said. “We don’t always agree on everything, but on fundamental principles we see eye to eye.”

Along with spreading Carbondale’s reach throughout the region, Cole has become a world traveler. The city is a part of the a program that connects communities worldwide as sister cities. Cole’s office is decorated with pictures and tokens such as a hat from India from these visits.

He has also been dubbed “Colonel Cole” by the state of Kentucky through his work in the Mississippi Delta region.

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“Colonel” Cole was nearly “Doctor” Cole when he was a student at SIUC more than a decade ago.

But his dislike of school steered him away from medicine and toward a degree that shaved a few years from his time as a college student – political science.

“I don’t like school, period,” Cole said. “I kind of wish at times that I would have followed through with a career in [medicine].”

He said he found he was naturally good at politics. While an undergraduate, he was elected student government president.

At 25, he was elected to the Carbondale Park District board and went on to win a seat on the City Council.

The mayor of Carbondale is set up to be a part-time, $8,000-a-year job, with most of the governing power in the hands of the city manager and City Council. However, for Cole this is a full-time job.

“My sole job is to be the mayor of Carbondale,” he said.

Still, how does anyone except a college student survive on an $8,000-a-year job? Make friends in high places.

Before leaving office, former Gov. George Ryan made more than 60 appointments to state offices. Cole was among those, becoming deputy chief of staff for southern Illinois and later holding a position within Central Management Services.

Cole was fired within hours of Gov. Rod Blagojevich taking over in Springfield. That began a lengthy court battle filled with arguments and appeals, and eventually resulting in back pay to all fired workers. Cole no longer holds those positions, he said.

Tax returns from 2003, 2004 and 2005 -which Cole made available – show the state of Illinois paid him $28,508, $140,665 and $27,965, respectively.

In 2005, Cole listed $5,000 that he received in business income, but said he had no knowledge of from what that would be.

During his last campaign, Cole laid out a plan with multiple goals for the city, which he fulfilled. Cole said he doesn’t believe in failure.

“Failure means you try something and you don’t achieve it and you quit. If we try something and it doesn’t work,” he said. “I don’t think those setbacks are failures. I think we have come so far that everything has been a success.”

Cole’s perfectionist, take-no-prisoners approach and dry humor can sometimes be misread, he said.

“My job is to get my work done. My work is to make Carbondale better for people. I’m very deliberate about that,” he said. “Some people may morph that into aloofness, arrogance, or over-determination. But that’s just the way I am and I don’t really think it is any of those things.”

[email protected] or 536-3311 ext. 274

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