Power Players: A Passion For Government
Pete Robinson was as surprised as anyone when he was contacted by folks inside Gov. Nathan Deal’s inner circle about serving on Deal’s transition team. Chair-man of Troutman Sanders Strategies (TSS), a lobbying firm, Robinson said he’d never thought about having a role on the team, though he’d known and admired Deal when the two men served in the state senate.
“I told them they would have some liabilities with me since people would question what a lobbyist was doing here,” he recalls. “They asked if I’d be willing to take a leave and I told them I’d think about it. We talked about it (at the office), and they said okay. And that’s how I got there.”
That Robinson was willing to put his day-to-day activities at TSS on hold for four months speaks to the passion he has for government and an “epiphany moment” that he experienced in August 2009.
“There are a lot of uncertainties, and you never know what you’re going to wake up with,” he says. “I literally woke up with a seizure-type symptom and an hour later was told I had a brain tumor that needed to come out immediately.”
Robinson, a Columbus native and resident, opted to have the surgery done at the Columbus Medical Center. He was fortunate. The tumor was benign, the surgery successful. He took a two and a half month leave from work.
“My experience gave me a healthy respect for people who have it much worse than I do,” he says. “I had access to good healthcare, health insurance and bosses that supported me when I didn’t know what was going on. Three months later I was back driving.” But the experience was far from forgotten, by Robinson or his health insurance company.
“When you’re a pretty good lawyer and a pretty good lobbyist and you haven’t done anything for a couple months … I started reading my medical bills,” he recalls. “I was making calls asking ‘What’s this? What does this mean?’ They got tired of hearing from me. It makes you realize that as you pass people on the street they’re going through something and you don’t know what it is. And that’s why you want to be in a position to make things better for people.”
Making things better was instilled in Robinson by his father, a banker and civic booster, and his mother’s family, which had a long tradition of state legislative service. “I’ve always liked government,” he says. “I love seeing things work out for the people.” Armed with that interest, an undergraduate degree from Emory University and a law degree from Mercer University, Robinson ventured into public service as an ap-pointee to the Columbus school board in 1983.
“It taught me a lot about where policy hits a person,” he says. “A discipline issue doesn’t just affect a student; it affects a parent, a principal, a teacher, the system. It gave a good port of entry into government.” In 1984, Robinson ran for his dis-trict’s seat in the Georgia House of Representatives as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district. He won by about 15 votes and remained in the House for six years. In 1990 he ran for the local senate seat and won. He was floor leader for Gov. Zell Miller in 1991. The next year he was Sen-ate Majority Leader and in 1994 was President Pro-Tem.
“In 1994 I was 39 and decided not to run,” he says. “I had a young family and needed to make money. I had a law practice and went back to it.” He practiced law until 2001 when Troutman Sanders came calling, recruiting Robinson to manage TSS. It helped that he maintained cordial relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle.
He takes the same approach to his role as lobbyist that he took as a legislator. “My goal as a legislator was to find common ground,” he says.
“Sometimes there isn’t any, but more times than not there is. I liked working on policy. I want to see good policy made better. It will help if we’re right.”
And if what his client proposes isn’t right?
“It may be that it shouldn’t be done,” says Robinson. “It takes fleshing it out and exploring all the angles to see the downsides. And that’s okay, as long as you’re trying to preserve what’s good and make what’s out there better.”