Native son enjoys role as mayor

01/06/2014 1:48 PM

01/06/2014 1:50 PM

It was the spring of 2008, and the political waters in Mansfield were simmering. An embattled mayor who had fought a council majority nearly his entire eight months on the job – and was facing a recall election – had resigned.

The city needed new leadership.

“From my perspective, it was a time in Mansfield that I would say we weren’t proud of,” said Mansfield native David Cook. “We were in the news quite a bit, and a lot of it was negative.”

Cook, a civil attorney who had been considering a bid for state office, decided to take on the challenge of running for mayor of his hometown. He won by a slim 1.5 percentage points over Bryndan Wright, after two other candidates dropped out of the race.

He took office that May, and set out to mend fences.

“I tried to unify the council as quickly as possible, and I tried to immediately show the council members that I am one of seven, just like that are,” said Cook, now 42. He didn’t call for an end to disagreement, though. “It’s OK for council members to disagree – in fact it’s good for being productive. But during that time it was pretty much unproductive, and not good for the City Council or the city as a whole.”

His colleagues soon noticed and appreciated how meetings, which had often stalled because of bickering and straying from the public agenda, started running more efficiently.

Councilman Cory Hoffman said it was a matter of putting the city’s business ahead of personal agendas.

“He gives us all equal time when we need it. He’s been very diplomatic,” Hoffman said. “I know he has a love for this city. He bleeds Mansfield. He’s just a good, very charitable person who cares about what’s going on in the city. We’re lucky to have him as mayor.”

After serving that two-year unexpired term, Cook has gone on to win two full three-year terms, running unopposed both races.

But he still has an eye on state office. He even considered a bid for the State Senate District 10 seat this year, he said. But he let the deadline pass in early December.

“I ultimately decided the time wasn’t right,” said Cook. He and his wife, Tonya, who married in 2002, have four children from previous marriages. “I still have one kiddo at home. But at this point I kind of regret not running.”

He said that’s partly because the candidate field is weighted toward the northeast part of the district, away from Mansfield. “I feel I could have made an impact representing all of District 10,” he said.

Home-grown

Cook is a lifelong Mansfield resident, something of a rarity in this city of 60,000 people, which was a rural town of 3,700 when Cook was born in 1971.

“We didn’t have a whole lot,” he said of his hometown. “Friday night football games and the Kowbell (Rodeo) is what I remember.”

He was good in school, and he had good teachers. The names of several now adorn Mansfield school buildings – Linda Jobe, Brooks Wester, Annette Perry and Nancy Neal.

His leadership traits began showing at an early age, his friends say.

“He’s always been a go-getter,” said Brian Wood, now a PE teacher at Della Icenhower Intermediate School. Cook was the first person he met when he moved to Mansfield and enrolled at Alice Ponder Elementary School. “I didn’t know anybody. He came up to me and introduced himself and introduced me to his friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

At the former Mansfield Middle School, Cook was a football player and a popular student. “He was Mr. Tiger Spirit in the yearbook,” Wood said. “I knew he was going to do something. He’s always been on top of things.”

Chris Whitfield moved to Mansfield as a seventh-grader and became football teammates and fast friends with Cook.

“David was a small guy then, but he was always really well liked,” Whitfield said. “You saw those leadership qualities back then, especially in sports. He was one of the smaller guys, but he played with a ton of heart. He was really field smart, and able to be in the right place at the right time.”

By the time Cook graduated from Mansfield High School in 1989, and moved on to Stephen F. Austin University, he had sketched out a rough draft of his career.

“I had two goals – I wanted to be in public service and I wanted to be an attorney,” he said.

Stephen F Austin didn’t have a law school, so he majored in public administration with an emphasis in pre-law. Then he went to Texas Wesleyan School of Law, which now is part of the Texas A&M University School of Law.

While Cook was attending Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches in 1990, he got a devastating phone call from his father, who told him that his mother Mary and older brother Terry Allen Jr., 22, where in a terrible car accident.

“He said Mother was in the hospital and she was going to live,” Cook, who was 19 at the time, recalled. “But my dad couldn’t talk about my brother. I kept asking what happened to Allen, and he couldn’t tell me.”

His brother was killed in the wreck. Cook drove home to help make the funeral arrangements.

“Steven is the youngest,” he said. “We were all three years apart. We were very close.”

Mentor guidance

Cook credits several people as mentors who helped shape his career path and his values. One was his high school football coach, Billy Whitman, who later died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. “He taught me that every day you’re either getting better or getting worse,” Cook recalled. “You don’t stay the same.”

His most influential mentor in both his legal and public service ambitions has been former State Sen. Chris Harris. Cook went to work for Harris in 1993, learning hands-on about the legislative process and politics.

“I’ve just finished my 20th year with him,” Cook said. “He had the biggest impact on my career – both as an attorney and as a mayor.”

It wasn’t all glamor. Harris initially put him to work filing papers in various courts to get judges’ signatures, intending to help Cook develop relationships with the judges, clerks and court reporters he would work with later.

“Therefore, when David passed the bar he was able to walk into any courtroom and be known at the courthouse,” Harris said in an email. “I also took him to Austin one term so he could see how laws were made and learn how to negotiate with members and their staff.

“He is a very determined man and loyal to his clients,” Harris added. “I just hope I was a primary force in his life and continue to be a good influence on him.”

In 2001, Cook said he considered running for the Texas House District 96 seat, currently held by Rep. Bill Zedler. But he decided against it, citing family commitments.

Tonya Cook said she would support her husband’s bid for a seat in the Legislature.

“I can see that in his future,” she said. “I know it’s important to him and important to who he is.”

Cook’s predecessor, Barton Scott, stepped down as mayor Jan. 24, 2008. His brief tenure was marked by months of squabbling with council members over several initiatives he proposed during his election campaign, particularly regulations on where sex offenders could live.

When Cook took the reins, City Manager Clayton Chandler said, “He first of all became a facilitator for the council, in the sense that he made everybody’s views, whether they were in agreement or not, welcomed at the council table.”

His next challenge came a few months later when the world economy took a nosedive. Cook and other city officials were in New York on their annual fall visit to the bond ratings agencies when the U.S. stock market started its plunge.

“We knew at that point that we were going to have to tighten our belts, hunker down and wait to see what the economy was going to do,” Cook said.

The economic slowdown reached Mansfield, chilling home construction and commerce that slowed the city’s sales tax and building permit revenues. That led to budget tightening, accomplished mostly by freezing staff vacancies. But the impact on Mansfield appears to have been less severe than it was many other area cities.

Cook gave some of the credit to the natural gas drilling revenues flowing into the city economy, which peaked around that time. Now budget revenues have rebounded, while residential, commercial and industrial development has blossomed over the past two to three years.

“I would think it is safe to say that the average citizen in Mansfield was not hit as hard as others in the United States,” Cook said.

The city has expanded its road programs, grown its park system and restored funding to other projects. But he said the most important achievement during his tenure as mayor has been the recent approval of state funding to build the long-awaited main lanes of Texas 360 through Mansfield, between the existing frontage roads. It’s a project that Harris and Chandler have worked on since the 1980s.

“That’s probably the biggest news in my opinion,” Cook said, although he added that he’s proud of the tougher smoking regulations passed during his watch.

The job has its smaller pleasures as well. Cook admits he enjoys attending ribbon-cuttings around town.

“Yes, I do, because it’s a celebration,” he said. “And lots of times I meet new people. So I try to go to as many ribbon-cuttings as I can.”

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