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.

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.
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.
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'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.

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."

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."

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.

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 thoseRobinsons, 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.

"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.

"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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