Sunday Interview with Pete Robinson: 'In my whole story, there are mentors all over my life'

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJune 7, 2014 

At 59, Pete Robinson has been a successful politician and lobbyist, and he is now a managing partner of one of Georgia's most prestigious law firms.

He may work in a Midtown Atlanta highrise, but he still lives in Columbus and is quick to answer when you ask him where home is.

"Columbus is a comfort zone," Robinson said. "Atlanta is where I have to be on my game. In Columbus, I'm home."

He recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to discuss his jobs, political career and his hometown.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

You're an Atlanta lawyer but you are a Columbus resident. That seems tricky on its face.

Like a lot of people, I live one place and work in another.

What's your role with the firm?

I joined Troutman Sanders in January 2002. I had been practicing law in Columbus and they recruited me to bring my government relations and lobbying practice to Troutman. I joined as a partner with the law firm, but we also set up a subsidiary of Troutman Sanders to do the lobbying work and government relations consulting work, with the idea that a lot of the work performed in that area is not necessarily done by lawyers. A lot of the best talent in that area may not be members of the bar. I happen to be. So, we set it up in a separate structure, Troutman Sanders Strategies, which is a limited liability company owned by Troutman Sanders.

Troutman Sanders has offices where?

Various places around the country: Washington, D.C., New York, Richmond, Raleigh, Chicago, out on the west coast, Portland, San Diego, and some other places.

How many lawyers work in Atlanta?

We have about 625 or 630 lawyers in the firm, give or take.

So are you a lobbyist or a lawyer?

Yes.

You have a dual role as a governmental lobbyist, right?

My law practice involves lobbying. Not all of my law practice involves lobbying, but my law practice does involve lobbying.

Sometimes lobbying gets a bad name. What does a lobbyist do?

It's issue advocacy, in working with policy makers to make sure that people who you are advocating for are heard.

Most highly effective lobbyists -- and you've been named one of the state's top lobbyists by numerous publications -- understand the governmental process inside and out.

I would suggest to you that there is not a good lobbyist who doesn't understand the governmental process intimately. In order to be good at what you do, you have to fully understand the process.

You spent how many years in elected politics?

10 years.

And you also were on the appointed Muscogee County School Board, correct?

I was. Eleven years if you want to drag the school board into it.

You were an attorney at the time?

I was practicing law in Columbus, young, getting started in my professional career. I was nominated to be on the school board and I had never thought much about it. I went through the interview process. I think there were 20-25 people. You met with the grand jury for a few minutes, they asked questions and you made a little presentation, and then they selected the members.

I was one of the people they selected. I was a little surprised. I thought it would be a good experience for me to have to look at policy and learn something about what was going on. I served a year on the board.

Then ran for the state House?

I ran for the Legislature in 1984. I ran in the Democratic Primary against a Democratic incumbent, Milton Hirsch, who was in his first term. He's really a fine guy that I've gotten to know well since then, and I think a lot of Milton. Then, I had a Republican opponent, Gary Cason, who had served for a period of time in the Legislature and had stepped out. I think he stepped out and Milton had gotten elected to take his place.

Who were some of your mentors?

Tom Buck was first and foremost. Tom and I represented districts that were contiguous.

Tom had been up here for 20 years almost?

Tom had been in the legislature for 18 years when I got elected. He was elected in 1966, I was elected in 1984. And he gave me very, very good advice all the way through my elected career.

Tom was one of your first legislative mentors.

He was definitely my first legislative mentor. I had others, other good ones. Denmark Groover was one. He took an interest in me. When I first came into the House, I sat between Tom and Denmark.

That was a pretty good seat?

That was a great seat. Tom called me ahead of time and said, "You don't know it, but you just got a great seat assignment, and you'll learn so much." He was referring to Denmark -- but he was modestly not referring to himself. I sat between Tom and Denmark and I learned a lot.

How long did you stay in the House?

Six years.

How did the Senate seat open up?

I saw it as an opportunity to do more for the community. We had a senator, Ted Land. Ted came to me mid-session in 1990. Ted and I were good friends, and he told me that he had decided not to run again and he wanted to let me know in case I was interested. Ted was a Republican, I was a Democrat at the time, but he said, "In case you're interested, I wanted to tell you." And I talked with Tom about it and I talked with other folks. And we decided that it probably would be a good thing for the community to have the experience I had gotten in the House and take it to the Senate.

You quickly rose to a position of power in the Senate, to a position of leadership, right?

I think power is relevant. Not many people have as much power as people may think they do or they may think they do. But they do have leadership roles. I had a leadership role.

Early on, right?

Yeah, and that was one of the reasons I looked at the Senate. We knew there was going to be a big turnover that year, a lot of people were leaving, and there was a huge freshman class. I had an opportunity to make a difference in that class. I was elected in 1990.

In my whole story, there are mentors all over my life. They may be transitional mentors or transient mentors, but for their efforts or their confidence in me, I did better than I would have otherwise.

And one of those mentors was Zell Miller. Zell was running for governor -- he was lieutenant governor at the time. He was elected, and he called me. He had been my professor at Emory. He had known me then and he had been one of the people who encouraged me to get into politics.

What kind of professor was Zell?

He was very good, very interesting, very engaging, just presented well. He brought in outside resources and was a lot of fun. Made you enjoy the course. Made me enjoy it enough that I got into politics.

What course did you take from him?

Georgia politics.

Do you remember anything about those classes?

Absolutely, I do. We had to write a research paper on a topic, and mine was an analysis of the 1974 governor's race that George Busbee won. As part of the project, he made me go interview all the candidates and the behind-the-scenes players. One of the first people I interviewed was (former Gov.) Carl Sanders. The first time I came to Troutman Sanders was to interview Carl Sanders as a 21-year-old student. I interviewed Burt Lance, Gov. Busbee, Norman Underwood, who worked for Gov. Busbee. (Underwood) ended up being a partner in Troutman Sanders and reached out and hired me 25 years later. None of them remember those interviews. But that was my first exposure to this law firm.

But Zell was my teacher. I remember his guest lecturer was Pierre Howard, who was in the state Senate. The two of them are the ones who sat me down one day and said, "You ought to go into politics. We like you. We like what you're saying. We like what you're thinking."

Well, in 1990, Zell became governor and Pierre became lieutenant governor. Right after the election, Emily and I were out of the country on our honeymoon -- that was before cellphones or before cellphones made it to Columbus. I got back to the office and there were these frantic messages to call Zell Miller. I called and they said, "Please come up and meet," and I did. He ask me to be a floor leader in the Senate.

It was unusual because there was no precedent that someone who had never served in the Senate was already an officer. So, I was able to be a sponsor of the HOPE Scholarship, some other major legislation, but I was able to be one of the primary sponsors of the HOPE Scholarship, and the lottery. That was an opportunity to do something that a freshman senator would not have otherwise been able to do.

How has the HOPE scholarship changed Georgia?

It probably has had as dramatic an effect on higher education as any policy heretofore. Maybe the only other major change would have been desegregation on changing the face on higher education. And that would probably be a fair analysis. It has changed the quality and the quantity of the student base in the entire university system.

Let's take two schools. How has it changed the University of Georgia?

It has enhanced the academic standard because high-achieving students who might have gone elsewhere are now at Georgia.

Anybody can look at the statistics and see it's changed dramatically. Their admission standards have changed dramatically. The output has changed dramatically. But Georgia is not alone. The same thing has happened at Georgia Tech, the same thing has happened at Columbus State, the same thing has happened at Georgia College, the same thing has happened at Georgia Southern, the same thing has happened at Kennesaw, and elsewhere. I've probably named too many because now I've left somebody out.

The other school I was going to ask you about is Columbus State. When you were a co-sponsor of HOPE, did you foresee the changes it would drive at somewhere like Columbus College?

I had no clue.

What do you think now?

I think it has had a dramatic impact on the Columbus States of the world. Columbus State -- what was a primarily greater community-based higher education product -- is now a destination place for certain types of students -- music, arts, performing arts. And you can be in a discussion in the Metro Atlanta area and people will be talking about their child at Columbus State.

That wouldn't have happened ...

I didn't envision that. Someone may have, but I didn't. I wasn't smart enough to see that big change on the horizon.

At the time you were in the General Assembly, you were a Democrat, right?

I was, and I served the 1993 session as majority leader. The last day of the session in 1993, the appropriations committee chairman announced he was resigning from the Senate to take another job. I was given the opportunity to be the chairman of the appropriations committee for the interim, in addition to being majority leader. The governor asked me to do that. So, for most of 1993, I was both. Then in the fall, the president pro-tem job came open, which is the elected senator who is the ranking senator. And that is an officer of the Senate as opposed to an officer of the caucus. And I was nominated for that and elected in 1994, as president pro-tem, and served that year as president pro-tem.

You were clearly on a track if you had stayed in the political process where you could have been in the conversation for governor at some point, right?

Maybe, but that's really a bigger dynamic than holding a position. To credibly be in the discussion of leading a state or any state is really a matter of time and place. It's a core level of ability, there's a core level of political sense, but it is also where you are in your life.

I once heard a man describe it as the train comes through the station on a somewhat regular schedule, but you have to be there when it comes to get on. Not everybody is there at the station ready to get on the train when it comes through.

You've obviously worked across the political divide. How would you describe the political divide in the state now as opposed to what it was 30 years ago?

It's obviously different. Outwardly the labels are different. Thirty years ago the elected statewide officials were predominately Democrats and they are now exclusively Republicans. There were some Republicans statewide back in the early '80s when I was there. ...

I think it's more of a labeling rather than a substantive difference. Nathan Deal is not a different person than he was in the 1980s. He was a man of great integrity then, he's a man of great integrity now -- a man who was very respectful then, a man who is very respectful now. He has core issues he believes in. They're not substantially different.

Talk about your relationship with Gov. Deal.

To use a word that you like from your sportswriter days, I'm a fan. I think he's one of the finest, if not the finest, governor Georgia has seen in my lifetime, at least in my adult life.

I think he and Zell Miller are the two best governors Georgia has had in the 30 years I have been observing.

He was a model leader for me as a young legislator. Not really a mentor because I didn't know him that well. He was a person I put on a pedestal when I was first elected because he worked, he worked hard, he had excellent skills, he practiced law, he went home to Gainesville every night, he raised his family, he was a good husband, he was active in his church, he obviously was a community participant. He had great integrity and great analytical skills, he was just the role model.

He was the successful citizen legislator in every aspect. I'm not saying he's perfect because, again, I didn't know him that well, but he appeared that way to me and he still appears that way to me. He is a model of integrity, he's the model of a thoughtful, respectful leader. He may not agree with what you're saying, but he will listen to what you're saying and he'll do it respectfully without being judgmental.

Why did you get out of elected politics?

Very simple: Emily and I had a young family. We had one child, one on the way, and subsequently had another. It was just taking a toll on me financially. I didn't have the same needs when I was in the Senate that I had with two children and a wife. I had different needs and different responsibilities that I didn't have when I started elected politics. Elected politics takes a big toll on families, and probably takes more of a toll now than it used to.

In what ways?

The time you have to put into it that you take away from your business.

Three months out of the year?

Oh, it's not three months out of the year. You're all in or you're all out. The only part-time politicians are soon-to-be retired politicians. If you're not on a daily basis taking care of your constituents -- thinking about your constituents -- someone else will be.

That simple?

It's that simple. It shouldn't be, but it is.

During your 10-year span, Columbus had a very influential delegation -- you, Tom Buck, Calvin ...

I'd put it a different way. It had Tom Buck and Calvin Smyre. It had other people who were influential, too. I was a lesser part. Those were the primaries. We also had Floyd Hudgins, Sanford Bishop, Roy Moultrie and Mary Jane Galer. It had Ronnie Culbreth. It had Jed Harris, Carolyn Hugley, Maretta Taylor, Ted Land -- it had a lot of people that contributed to our delegation, we had very good members of our delegation -- Robert Steele. And we had a good mix of people, but obviously Tom Buck and Calvin Smyre stood out.

Why was this delegation successful?

Because it worked well together with respect for the abilities of its other members. We did it with a high element of respect for each other -- respect for their ability and respect for their devotion to the community, and respect for their goals.

... I remember talking with a civic club about how good we had it in Columbus in terms of the delegation. Forget partisanship -- forget Republican, forget Democrat. We had good people. I used the example of another community, I won't name them. I think we had nine members of our delegation, but we have one voice. We collaborate and we come to a consensus and we work it together. If you go to this other community, if they had nine members, they would have about 11 different opinions and they would be fighting over it.

Not to say we don't have disagreements -- we did have disagreements -- but because there was respect, because there was collaboration, we worked them out and came out with an unified position. And it worked very well. Columbus was very well served by it.

How did Columbus benefit from this leadership?

The most dramatic one was the Special Option Sales Tax. Columbus had a serious budget crisis in 1988 or 1989. They desperately needed revenue. There was a one-cent option sales tax passed by the General Assembly for consolidated governments.

How many consolidated governments were in the state at that time?

One. And it passed and Columbus adopted it, and was able to use the revenue through the budget crisis. Had it not been for Tom Buck and Floyd Hudgins and Calvin Smyre, particularly, but the rest of the delegation, too, it wouldn't have passed.

The RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is an example, right?

The RiverCenter really is an example of why Columbus is special. Not legislatively. So much of that money was raised locally. I'm not sure what the state's portion was, but it was not nearly the private portion.

Why is Columbus able to do that?

Columbus is just special. And that's why I would submit to you we had a special delegation at that time because we were a product of the community. We were a cross-section product of a really special community and you don't see it. There's not one answer you can put on it, but it's a lot of things. It's the business community. It's the education community at the time. It was the civic community at the time. It was the church community at the time. It was the political community at the time. It was very community-centric.

Do you consider yourself a product of all those communities?

Absolutely. The good part of me is the product of the best of Columbus. I'm Columbus. I grew up in Columbus. I was trained in Columbus. I was educated in Columbus. I worked professionally in Columbus. I brought my wife back to Columbus and we raised our family in Columbus. Columbus has been very, very, very good to us. We are a product of the best of Columbus.

Your father, Zeke Robinson, was a banker?

He was. If there were two things that define me in my life ... someone once asked me how did you stay out of jail because you weren't always the nicest guy. And there were two constants. One would be Columbus community, but more specifically our church. And the difference in my life was what my parents trained me to do and the expectations and the standards. And they weren't harsh standards, they were just examples -- the youth program in our church, the outreach they had, and they were kind of parallel.

What is your church?

St. Luke Methodist.

You said you've had mentors all your life. Who were some of your Columbus mentors?

Tom Buck was one. Tom was a really good one. My father was one. Some of my Sunday School teachers. Some of the people affiliated with the church. We had an associate pastor that doubled as youth minister. His name is Billy Greer. Billy was special for me; he took an interest in me and tried to make me do better.

Where is he now?

He is president of Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk. He left Columbus as associate pastor at St. Luke and went to Cuthbert First United Methodist Church, where I served as the summer youth director when I was in college. He went from there to Macon, went back to Cuthbert as president of Andrew College, and from there he went to Brevard College in Brevard, N.C., as president. He is now at Virginia Wesleyan, he and his wife, Fann. They're great people.

Why did you get involved in the project to build a new library in Columbus?

Some of the benefactors asked me to get involved. I was a patron of the library, the old Bradley Library. I started working at the old Bradley Library when I was in eighth grade and I worked there through high school. I knew a lot about the library because I had worked there 20 years, 30 years ago, whatever. They knew I was interested in the library and asked me to become involved. Guy Sims, the school superintendent at the time, and the benefactors asked me if I would consider working on the project.

When you ride by that site now and you see the library, the Muscogee County School District headquarters, the Citizen's Service Building, the new Rigdon Road Elementary School, some of the green space developed around there, what do you think?

Relief! Glad it's finally building out -- building out as people had hoped.

Is this what you envisioned?

This is what we envisioned. What is developing there now is more of a fulfillment of what was envisioned.

I think it is a great use. First of all, you have to look at the functionality of the facilities. Aesthetics and style don't go as far as they used to, but I think you look at are they functional, are they serving a function in the community? I don't know much about the Service Center. I'm a customer at the City Service Center and I think it is serving a great function. I don't use the pool, but I've seen it and I think it's a great facility for the community. I do go to the library and I think it's functioning well and it has dramatically improved access to library services in the Columbus area.

Are you in Columbus every week?

Most, yeah. I come home Thursday or Friday. I'm going on Thursday this week and I come back usually on Monday or Sunday night.

You were talking about your wife, Emily, a minute ago. Emily has recently gone back to school, hasn't she?

She has. She's in nursing school. She is at Columbus Tech in a program she is able to do in a year. I think it is three semesters, but they're back-to-back semesters, so it's a calendar year.

I'm not going to say she always wanted to be a nurse, but she has been fascinated by nursing ever since the birth of our third child, Grant, who is now 15. He had a difficult delivery and contracted, I believe, a Strep B infection and became seriously hypertensive and spent the first 10 or 15 days in neonatal intensive care at what was once Columbus Regional -- it's now something else.

He was born in 1998 and he would not have survived without the existence of the neonatal intensive care unit -- he would not have survived at all according to the physicians. Emily and I and all of us got a great respect for what they provide to the community and what they do.

She's volunteered around there since then, and after the children got out she decided to be a nurse, and she hopes to be able to work in the NICU setting. And she's really excited about it; I'm really proud of her.

Talk a little about Columbus. You talk about what a great community it is. What are the challenges you see in Columbus? Every community has challenges. ...

I'd rather start on the assets and what makes it special and then how do you protect that, how you enhance that? The assets are the job base, the military base, the businesses that have grown up there. We've got a good combination of homegrown and recruited businesses. The challenge is to keep those businesses prospering, to keep the community able to facilitate those businesses continuing to prosper and to develop new ones.

We're lucky enough to have what Synovus has done, what Aflac has done, what TSYS has done, what Blue Cross has done, what Pratt & Whitney has done, what the base has done. I have left out some -- I've left out a lot, that's not intentional -- but we've been able to make the conversion from the older Southern textile-based community, textile and military base, to a broader employment base.

You represent large companies like Coca-Cola, and some of the others. How rare is it to have a company the size of Aflac in a community the size of Columbus?

It's unique. ... It's a world-class company, it's a worldwide company, it is just an incredible asset. It would be an asset to any community of any size. It has a disproportionate impact on a community the size of Columbus. And others do too. It is not alone.

What are some of the other assets of Columbus?

The amenities: the RiverCenter, the museum, the library, the sports complexes. I was talking to a woman today who just left Texas A&M where she was a dean to go to a Georgia university.

And when I mentioned I was from Columbus, she said, "Well my daughter is playing in the NAIA national softball tournament in Columbus right now." You know, those types of amenities that 30 years ago we didn't have. We had the community will for those and we had a collective business group and community group that was able to envision things like that. But who would have thought that the small college national softball tournament would be in Columbus, Ga.?

It wouldn't have 30 years ago, right? We became an Olympic city, and all of the benchmarks that we achieved along the way were a result of the collaboration between our business community, our political community and our civic community. That collaboration I mentioned that manifested itself in a good legislative delegation manifests itself in a good business community, and it manifests itself in a good civic community, and it manifests itself in a good quality of life. We've got good recreation facilities ...

Would you put white water in there?

I think white water is a work of genius. I think it is just spectacular. Again, I'll use the term, it's unique.

Do you hear people up here talk about it?

I do. In a very positive way. Time will tell if it is financially successful. I don't know and I don't understand that part of it, but I know this: it's special. It is a unique destination facility and utilization of our resources.

Is that the kind of thing that brings people to Columbus and then they all of a sudden see the rest of it?

No. 1, it's the kind of thing that's an outward manifestation of the core of Columbus, what makes Columbus a little different. It's being able to execute on really forward visionary things.

You talk about these assets and they're broad and touch a lot of different areas. Using your words, how do you protect those assets?

Some of our structural platforms, our property tax system is putting the community at risk.

Are you talking about the property tax freeze?

Yes.

How is that putting the community at risk?

It has evolved into a deterrent to build new residential properties. It has evolved into a deterrent to move to a new home, because once you have locked in assessment, you're no longer sharing the tax base equally. Property tax was originally designed as a shared allocation for the services of those homes.

It has been put before the voters, and overwhelmingly rejected, to lift it. They have tried the court system, the court system has upheld it -- all the way to the Supreme Court it has been upheld.

With my firm representing the freeze.

This firm represented ...

The city of Columbus, which defended the freeze.

There's a little irony in that.

It is. But it's legal. And it has been reviewed fully by the courts. But as a matter of policy, it's a long-term problem for the city.

You understand policy, you understand government in ways I certainly don't. How do you lift it?

I don't know.

Will it ever be lifted?

I don't know.

What happens if it isn't?

Well, long term, it skews the tax base and it operates as a deterrent to purchase a residence within the city limits.

Do you think that has driven some of the expansion into Harris County, some of the expansion into the Smiths-Lee County area, even some of the expansion into Fort Mitchell?

Absolutely. No question about it.

Is that bad for Columbus or good for Columbus?

Yes. Because many of those people are shopping in Columbus, eating in Columbus restaurants, attending events in Columbus. But are absolutely attending Columbus schools.

That's a problem? The public schools, right?

I'm not sure that it's a problem as much as it's a situation, because the schools are primarily depending on property taxes for their funding, just as the city is heavily dependent on property taxes for operational funding. If you're not taxing the users, where does the tax come from?

How is Columbus viewed by the rest of the state?

It's not well known. Columbus is not as well known as some other cities, and the irony of that is that Columbus has such a great success story that when it's known and when it is seen, people marvel at it. But it's not widely well known.

Columbus doesn't have a port like Savannah. Columbus doesn't have the most famous golf tournament in the world like Augusta. Other Georgia cities are more high profile, right?

Absolutely. Columbus is a destination. Columbus is not a pass-through. Some of those others are pass-throughs. They have a wider knowledge base of people knowing about them.

But what Columbus has that they don't have is four publicly traded corporations with a large job base. I don't know the numbers, but I'll bet you in the other second-market cities in Georgia -- those that are not Atlanta -- there aren't four publicly traded companies in those other cities with large job bases like Aflac, TSYS, Synovus, and even Carmike.

What do you know about Georgia's political system now that you didn't know 30 years ago when you came to the General Assembly?

Everything. When I came to the general assembly I'd never stepped foot in the state capital until the day I was sworn in.

One of your mentors was Mr. Bill Turner. What has he meant to Columbus?

Mr. Turner means more to Columbus than anybody can possibly describe. I don't have the vocabulary sufficient to describe the love he has, superficially and under the surface. I'll never forget his series of Sunday School lessons he taught on unconditional love, and it was powerful.

Was this when you were in high school?

I think it was when I was in high school. It's one of the bases of our community embracing the Servant Leadership concept. Setting aside what they have done for the development of the Columbus community, what he and those other Sunday School teachers did for me taught me about unconditional love.

That is love that comes from the heart not from the head. And love doesn't have conditions, whether it's love for the community, love of your family or love of your friends or love of God.

That may define Columbus -- the message he taught. He didn't teach it to everybody in Columbus, but in the 62 years he taught Sunday school, a lot of young people heard it. He certainly lived it and lives it now. A lot of other people are trying to live it. Some of us just have to try harder than others.

Name: Pete Robinson

Age: 59

Jobs: Atlanta Managing Partner, Troutman Sanders LLP; Chairman, Troutman Sanders Strategies LLC; Trustee, Mercer University; Trustee, University System of Georgia Foundation; Co-chairman, Governor's Judicial Nominating Commission.

Education: Hardaway High School, 1973; Emory University, degree in religion and political science, 1977; Mercer University, Juris Doctorate, 1980.

Family: Wife, Emily, student in the nursing program at Columbus Tech; children, Carolyn, 22, graduate student at University of Georgia, pursuing dual master's degrees in colleges of public health and social work; Miller, 20, rising junior at UGA; Grant, 16, rising junior at Christ School, Arden, N.C.

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