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.

Robinson himself toyed with the idea of running for mayor, but eventually endorsed Brown. It failed to smooth over the growing rift between the two. After Robinson surprised the mayor in the earlier tax rollback vote, Brown attacked Robinson at a gathering of black ministers at a northside church, accusing him of playing into the hands of upper-income whites whose communities historically get more than their share of city services at the expense of minorities. He essentially called Robinson an Uncle Tom.

A staff member for Robinson was present at the meeting and recalls that his boss nearly blew his stack. "Carroll went batshit. A couple of the ministers were afraid he was going to flip out."

"I'm a religious man," Robinson says of the confrontation, "but I believe in the Old Testament. I believe in an eye for an eye, and I don't turn the other cheek. My mama raised me right, and my daddy said if somebody hits you, hit 'em back."

Bert Kelley is one of Robinson's few friends on council.
Deron Neblett
Bert Kelley is one of Robinson's few friends on council.
Robinson consultant Bethel Nathan has past Republican ties.
Deron Neblett
Robinson consultant Bethel Nathan has past Republican ties.

If black people aren't treated fairly by the city, Robinson retorted, Brown has to share the blame.

"We've had an African-American mayor for four years. He has the megaphone and the platform to go out and make a compelling, substantive case about why we need to level everybody up in this city. If we can't do that on the merits, then I don't know why or what the advantage or benefit [of Brown] has been."

Yet Robinson later went along with a compromise that reduced the tax rollback by half. All that appeared to do was lose him any political points he had scored with conservatives, while it still failed to get him back in the mayor's good graces. As with the Pleasant Hill vote, he wound up antagonizing both sides.

Robinson explains his perceived indecision and unpredictable ways by saying people persist in stereotyping him rather than accepting him on his own terms, as they would with a white official.

Regardless, Robinson has been following his own star for a long time. He came to the United States from Jamaica at the age of nine. At 40, the former college athlete with the shaved head still retains a measure of the "anything is possible" wonder of an immigrant whose parents parlayed menial jobs into a college education for their children.

Attorney Darryl Carter recalls a conversation with his close friend one night in the Austin office of state Senator Rodney Ellis, where Robinson once worked as an aide.

"This has to be the greatest country in the world," Robinson told him dreamily. "Here I am, the son of a doorman, sitting in the capitol of one of the biggest states in the country."

"For a jaded African-American such as myself, it doesn't mean a lot," Carter laughs. "But for Carroll, he gets caught up in all that stuff. It's the immigrant philosophy."

Critics find Robinson inconsistent and unpredictable, but by his own account he's been traveling a straight line up from poverty ever since he arrived with a younger brother and two sisters at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in 1969.

Robinson's father, Eugene, was an orphan whose mother died giving birth to him. He was raised by town folk in the Jamaican parish of Maypen and migrated to Kingston, where he met and married Thelma Flowers. Carroll, the second of their six children, was born there in 1961.

Thelma migrated first to the United States and worked as a maid while taking nursing courses. Eugene followed several years later. They settled in Paterson, New Jersey. A Jamaican nightclub owner who knew the Marriott hotel family wrote Eugene a letter of introduction that helped him land a doorman's job at a Marriott inn in nearby Saddlebrook. After several years of having an aunt take care of the children, the couple reassembled their family.

Carroll quickly learned that both snow and his new country could be cold. Kids ridiculed his feminine-sounding name and his lilting Jamaican accent, which still resurfaces when he gets excited. He and brother Marchris shared one bed in an attic, and two sisters slept in the other. His parents had another room.

"It was a little rat hole," recalls Robinson. Eventually the Robinsons bought a house near Eastside Park, and two more daughters were born into the family.

"My dad's a proud man," says Robinson. "He has a three-book education, can't read and can barely sign his name. Never driven a car in his life, but he knew enough how to buy two houses, send all of us off to college and give each of us a car."

Carroll made the basketball, football and track teams at John F. Kennedy High School, and eventually snagged a scholarship to Stockton College, a small state school in Atlantic City.

It was there he met his first real mentor, Harvey Kessleman, who directed the Educational Opportunity Fund program. It sponsored internships for students in Washington, and Kessleman took special interest in Robinson.

"Everything I know, I learned from Harvey Kessleman about how people are, politics, the human dynamics of how the world works," Robinson says. Kessleman pointed him toward law school and put him on the payroll for the summer after graduation. "It was my job to read every management book that was out in preparation for law school. That summer was more important to me in terms of educational experience than law school was."

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