The Immigrant's Song

Carroll Robinson has been running for something ever since he arrived in Houston. Now he may be nearly out of track.

The showdown at City Council came in late February, during the vote on an African-American minister's controversial $90 million affordable housing plan. Despite mounting criticism of the financial stability of the Reverend Harvey Clemons's Pleasant Hill Redevelopment Corporation, Mayor Lee Brown had made it clear that he saw this as a black-and-white issue with no shades of gray. He had demanded that his council supporters play good soldier and line up behind him for the project.

However, critics of the apartment rehab scheme were numerous. They included former city housing adviser Michael Stevens and Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt. Conservative Anglo councilmembers opposed the plan. As the debate wound down, it became clear that the vote wasn't going the mayor's way. Councilmembers Annise Parker and Gabe Vasquez also ignored Brown's blandishments in refusing to back the plan.

Based on council discussions, however, the mayor counted Carroll Robinson to be in his corner on the Pleasant Hill issue -- at least until his vote was cast. After speaking favorably of the plan, the councilmember changed course at the last instant, joining the 9-5 majority to kill the proposal.

Robinson's peers viewed it as only the latest example of the kind of maneuver for which the councilman and 25th Congressional District candidate has become famous. Robinson views his flip-flops as political independence. To others, the term "political suicide" comes more easily to mind.

The irrepressible 40-year-old Jamaican-born attorney won his at-large city seat in 1997 mainly on the strength of sharing a last name with his predecessor, Judson Robinson III, as well as being connected to a coterie of Houston black attorneys and Democratic Party officials. Once in office, Robinson set out to do things his way, mindless of the consequences to his relations with fellow officials or his own political future.

"We call him the weather vane," laughs one colleague. "It's whichever way the wind's blowing when it gets to him." Robinson, as the last councilmember in roll-call voting, has the advantage of knowing the winning side before he casts his ballot.

Asked whether he would have voted for the deal if it had had a majority, Robinson now says enigmatically, "No, not necessarily."

"His rhetoric at the table was pro-Pleasant Hill. His vote was against it," says a mayoral staffer. "Didn't make any sense to me. He's sort of his own worst enemy."

Robinson puts the onus on the other side.

"Lee Brown and the people around him, their opinion is 'You have to do it our way no matter how ugly it looks, no matter how much it lacks in substance,' " Robinson says defiantly. "My position is I'm willing to lose my job to do what's right."

At the rate he's going, Robinson might just get his wish.

Until recently, the two finalists in the 25th Democratic primary were colleagues in arms in the running battle with Lee Brown. The story of former councilman Chris Bell's conflict and later rapprochement with the mayor is familiar to those who watched the mayoral contest play out last fall (see "First Out of the Gate," by Tim Fleck, February 8, 2001). But the continuing bitterness between Robinson and Brown was of interest only to City Hall insiders -- until the mayor went out of his way to target Robinson's congressional ambitions.

"The mayor has given Chris an unbelievable amount of help," says Councilman Bert Keller, a friend of both Bell and Robinson. "He's done more than I've ever seen him do, almost on his own campaigns. He's thrown tons of parties, made phone calls and made a lot of appearances for Chris."

When Robinson ran for council in 1997, he was considered part of the mayor's team. That rapport quickly chilled as Robinson began churning out press releases critical of the administration and pursuing his own agenda.

"They are different generations of black leadership," says another councilmember of Robinson and Brown, "and I think the mayor feels he didn't get proper respect from Carroll. It's sort of a father-son thing. He felt like he was looking out for Carroll; they had agreements and Carroll betrayed him. Hey, it's King Lear here."

It does seem like Brown has given Bell a pardon, while sentencing Robinson to political capital punishment for the same offense. Both joined conservatives to ram through a two-cent property tax rollback in 2000, tagging Brown with his first major council defeat. Bell declared his position in advance, but Robinson -- in his "weather vane" way -- stunned the mayor by casting a surprise deciding vote in the 8-7 split.

In retaliation, the mayor stripped Bell of some choice committee assignments, and their feud escalated into Bell's insurgent campaign against Brown for mayor. But after losing in the general election, Bell mended his fences by endorsing the mayor in a runoff against then-councilman Orlando Sanchez. The mayor's own campaign staff credited that Bell support with helping the incumbent to a narrow victory. In exchange, Brown endorsed Bell in the Democratic primary for the congressional race. That aided Bell in taking a good chunk of the black vote in the first round and positioning him as the favorite for the runoff to be held April 9.

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