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.

"Jew Don said, 'You need to hire a minority,' " says a council colleague, "but it was Carroll who wrote down Peggy Foreman's name. Jew Don was on the right side of the law, Carroll on the wrong side."

His best friend on council, according to colleagues, is Republican Bert Keller. Robinson commissioned a poll last year that told him he's popular with fiscally conservative whites, and sometimes it seems that's where he's seeking approval. He briefly flirted with GOP support to run against Brown, a move that further estranged him from the mayor.

"It's hard to deal with Carroll because he's incredibly high-maintenance," says an executive city staff member, who credits Robinson with good suggestions and a knack for developing issues.

When the mayor attacked, Robinson hit back.
Kent Manor
When the mayor attacked, Robinson hit 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.

"It's so ironic he's capable of doing that, and yet he's very emotional and requires constant reinforcement and attention," says the staffer, who deals regularly with councilmembers. "That's my theory for why he and Chris Bell never got along: They both wanted to be the teacher's pet."

In the last few years, Robinson has relied on political advice from Bethel Nathan, a consultant whose prior political history includes working with white Republicans, such as U.S. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. Nathan has come up with some unusual tactics in handling Robinson's congressional campaign.

Although Robinson told the Pasadena News Citizen he's lived in the 25th Congressional District for years, his Travis Street residence is actually in Sheila Jackson Lee's 18th District. For months, his campaign Web site listed endorsements by Bill Clinton and Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe. Spokesmen for both told the Houston Press they do not endorse primary candidates. The bogus endorsements eventually were removed, and Robinson blames the Web page designer for the error.

Robinson recently e-mailed supporters with a snippet of a Press profile on Bell in which the candidate admitted smoking marijuana a handful of times when he was a college student. Bell dismissed the attack as last-minute desperation tactics by a floundering campaign. (Nathan orchestrated a similar attack against Congressman Ken Bentsen on behalf of Beverley Clark in her losing effort in the 1994 Democratic primary.)

Last week Bell received the endorsements of the defeated candidates in the congressional primary, former state rep Paul Colbert and attorney Stephen King. Fellow Councilman Gabe Vasquez endorsed Robinson, although the absence of any elected black officials in his column is glaring. With Robinson in his third and final term on City Council, he finds himself running out of options and allies.

Not so long ago Robinson was listed among the top ten newcomers by the national Democratic Leadership Council and a strong possibility for a place on a future statewide Democratic ticket. Nowadays few people would describe him in those terms.

"I think it's sad," says Giovanni Garibay, a former aide to Robinson who now works Tony Sanchez's campaign for governor. "When I first went to work for him, there were a lot of people who were really high on him at that time. Now, I can't find even one person out there who supports him for Congress."

If he doesn't win the runoff, Robinson would be limited as a city candidate, with only the mayorship or controller as possible pursuits in 2003. According to a former staffer, Robinson has said that if he doesn't win, he's through with politics.

It's another commitment few expect him to keep.

"For Carroll," chuckles the source, "giving up politics would be like cutting off his right arm." Unless he changes his political ways, it's an appendage he may have to learn to do without.

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