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.

Thanks to the internships, Robinson already knew his way around the Capitol when he enrolled in George Washington law school.

"Affirmative action played a part in me going to George Washington. Good grades, small school." Contacts helped him find an efficiency at the Dorchester Hotel, his residence for three years while earning a law degree with honors. He also continued the networking concept he had learned from Kessleman, rising up the organizational ranks of the Black Law Students Association. Following his election to the national board, he met fellow member Lisa Ross from Houston. After becoming president of the association, Robinson visited Houston in 1986. He fell in love with the city and Ross at the same time.

He moved to Houston and began running in a circle of black lawyers, including Algenita Scott Davis, Zinetta Burney and her business partner, Peggy Foreman. Robinson eventually married Ross in 1989. That union would end in divorce as the two pursued different career paths years later. Robinson would go on to marry Mikita Kirkland, daughter of T. Larry Kirkland, a Los Angeles-based bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The couple has one son, Kirkland Eugene.

Former opponents Paul Colbert (left) and Stephen King rally around Bell.
Tim Fleck
Former opponents Paul Colbert (left) and Stephen King rally around Bell.
Brown's fight with Robinson spilled over into the congressional race.
Brown's fight with Robinson spilled over into the congressional race.

Robinson fondly remembers the friendships he cultivated soon after coming to Houston. He would eventually work with Burney and Foreman, then start his own firm with Ross. But Robinson's connections expanded even more when he agreed to sponsor a 1990 fund-raiser for then- congressman Mike Espy of Mississippi. As a college student, Robinson had spent a week campaigning for Espy, who later became president Bill Clinton's agriculture secretary.

"I didn't know anybody," Robinson recalls about planning the fund-raiser. "Some guy calls and says, 'This is Rodney Ellis. I'm calling you from Florida and I'm at the fat farm. I'm coming back 'cause I don't want you to embarrass us. I'm gonna come and help you on this fund-raiser.' "

At the time, state Senator Ellis was a city councilman. The event drew the likes of several elected officials of that era: state senator Craig Washington, councilman Anthony Hall, congressman Mickey Leland and mayor Kathy Whitmire. It put Robinson on Houston's black political map. Ellis eventually hired Robinson as the state senator's chief of staff in Austin. Robinson stayed two years, using the time to expand a web of contacts in the Texas Democratic Party.

Ellis tends to run through staff quickly, but he has a knack for moving them on to other jobs rather than leaving a trail of disgruntled ex-employees. Ellis recommended Robinson to the Texas Southern University administration, and in 1993 Robinson became a TSU assistant law professor and then chief of staff for university president James Douglas. (Ellis would later perform the same favor for Robinson's brother, Marchris, helping him get a lobbying job with Enron.)

By 1995, Robinson was ready to become a candidate for state Democratic chair. Most thought the position, being vacated by Bob Slagle, was way out of the lawyer's league.

"Nobody else would run," explains Robinson. "African-Americans were the most consistent, stable portion of the Democratic Party, but no African-American had been mentioned as a viable candidate for the state party chairman, and somebody had to go out there and lay the predicate."

When Houston attorney and corporate CEO Bill White entered the race, Robinson bowed out with a tactful endorsement.

"My point in running was I thought there was a role in leadership for African-Americans in the state party. So when I got out, I wanted to get out in a style that showed I was capable of leadership in the Texas Democratic Party. I wanted to be a part of making a difference." Robinson accepted White's offer to take the largely ceremonial position of party general counsel.

Robinson used the counsel post to bone up on the state party rules and develop more contacts. White would be one of his first supporters when Robinson decided in 1997 to run for an at-large seat on City Council. It was being vacated by Judson Robinson III, who had followed in the footsteps of his father, the first black elected to Houston City Council. Though Carroll was unrelated to those Robinsons, the shared name didn't hurt.

"I ran for council because I'd built relationships across a lot of communities, lawyers, civic clubs, and I was lucky," he admits. "I had a good last name."

The glow of his debut on council five years ago has been tarnished in the war with Mayor Brown. Robinson's own actions also have contributed to the image of an erratic, impatient grandstander. Like former congresswoman and councilmember Sheila Jackson Lee, Carroll buzz-saws his way through staff and regularly spices his nonpublic language with four-letter words.

" 'Motherfucker' is his favorite expression," says a former staffer. "We used to take bets on whether he'd blurt it out during a council meeting." Robinson also has Lee's penchant for using his council employees for menial tasks like chauffeuring him. The councilman says he takes his staff along to events to let them build connections and experience as he did in the past.

According to lobbyist Dave Walden, who had a much-publicized shouting altercation with Robinson at a bar, Robinson is among the councilmembers who are most blatant in pressuring those who do business with the city to hire friends and associates. At a committee meeting early in Robinson's tenure, Councilman Jew Don Boney pressed a Rice University official to hire a bond attorney. However, Robinson took it a step further, passing a note to the university official that listed the names of Robinson's old law partners.

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