An outsider, Robinson gets into the fight for mayor
Mayoral candidate Carmen Robinson speaks at a town hall forum at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty on Tuesday.
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This is the first of three articles profiling the candidates for Pittsburgh mayor.
When Carmen Robinson told her husband that she had decided to run for mayor, he was watching television. His response was a pleasant but languid, "Sure."
"I had to turn off the TV and tell him again," she said. "I thought he didn't hear me."
He had. Now, she's trying to get the rest of the city to hear her.
Ms. Robinson, a novice to politics, is the clear underdog challenging Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and city Councilman Patrick Dowd in the May 19 Democratic primary. But she is trying to use that outsider status to wedge herself into the fight.
She considers herself a public servant, rather than a politician. An advocate as opposed t o a deal-maker.
Inspired by President Barack Obama's message in last year's election -- and the voting numbers he racked up among African-Americans and women in the city -- she believes she can garner support if voters give her a chance.
She is aware of what she's up against. She is petite and is relatively unknown. She has little money. The other challenger, Mr. Dowd, is trying to tap into the same anti-Ravenstahl sentiment that exists in some quarters. And Mr. Ravenstahl, who has the support of the city's party establishment, seems fairly popular.
"Older people like him," she said of the city's 29-year-old mayor. "And they're going to turn out to vote for him. But young people aren't drawn to him. He's young, but he's the youngest 'old boy' I ever saw in my life."
Ms. Robinson, 40, was born to working-class parents in Stanton Heights, where she lived for 37 years. Her father, Alfred Robinson, worked at J&L Steel and was a member of the Pittsburgh Fire Department for more than 30 years. Her mother, Linda, worked for H.J. Heinz Co.
A 1985 graduate of Peabody High School, Ms. Robinson earned a liberal arts degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1989, when she was 20. At the time, Pittsburgh was pushing for the recruitment of women and minority police officers, and Ms. Robinson applied.
Her career as an officer started off well enough, meeting her first husband at the academy and later walking the beat overnight in Zone 5.
Over time, she said, she got to know some of the people, and she talked to them about why they committed the crimes that they did. She was surprised at what she learned.
"I found out that they had goals and ideas," she said. "A lot of them were just doing this to get by. Now, if we could get them jobs with small businesses, it gives them something to look up to and makes the neighborhoods better. Everything changes."
But the 15 years she spent on the force were marred by controversy, culminating in a sexual harassment lawsuit she filed against three superiors in 1994. She accused her supervisor, Cmdr. James N. Dickerson, of repeated sexual advances and said Assistant Chief Craig B. Edwards and police Chief Earl Buford failed to intercede. She also claimed she was passed over for promotions after spurning the advances.
All three men denied the charges, and in 1995, a federal jury ruled against her. Ms. Robinson won an appeal for a new trial in 1997, and the city agreed to a settlement, after which the three men retired.
Throughout the legal process, Ms. Robinson said she came under "incredible stress," forcing her to take a lengthy leave of absence. She underwent therapy and was placed on medication.
"It was stressful. Did I have a mental breakdown? No."
Ms. Robinson said the medication amounted to taking a tranquilizer and that the therapy was for only a matter of weeks. Asked if voters should be wary of electing her mayor after such an experience, she replied with a forceful, "No."
"The mayor's office is not as stressful as the blue wall, where you have to work every single day with people who are harassing you," she said.
"You want to know that I can handle it. Therapy doesn't suggest that you can't handle it; therapy suggests that you're looking to do something productive so that you don't become depressed, so you can do what you're supposed to do, so you can talk about it. I'm better off for having had it."
In spite of her experience, Ms. Robinson returned to the force in 1998 after giving birth to her son, Chase Robinson Hawthorne.
"When I went back, it was very different," said Ms. Robinson, who was promoted to sergeant. "We had younger officers, and it was a more progressive department. I was older and wiser, and I didn't feel backed into a corner anymore."
During her next six years on the force, Ms. Robinson also attended law school at Duquesne University. A police disciplinary report in 2004 charged her with attending classes while on duty and recommended a five-day suspension, pending termination. Ms. Robinson denied the charges, saying that she took classes only during her off-hours, but the issue prompted her to resign from the force.
She earned her law degree in 2005 and began working as a court clerk for Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff. Now, as she seeks the office of mayor, she is a defense attorney.
"I've come full circle," she said. "I've seen the system. It's not broken. It's a good system. But our focus is in the wrong area. We spend too much money and time responding to crime instead of preventing it."
It was that issue that prompted her to run for mayor. A lifelong Democrat, she supported Mr. Ravenstahl when he ran two years ago. But she was frustrated, she said, by a lack of attention where she felt Pittsburgh needed it most: in the city's crime-torn communities.
"I'm talking about the city's most serious problem," she said. "Violence, homicides. I'm going to call it like it is. Young black males are the culprits, but we have some responsibility, too."
Her campaign team has been small and there has been turnover among those involved. The first person she approached to be her campaign manager was from Ohio, she said, and didn't understand Pittsburgh politics. Others with more experience wanted input, she said, but they didn't want the onus of being the manager.
She's decided to rely instead on a team of young advisers. She said they're willing to do the leg work required of a grass-roots campaign, and they have good ideas. Her second husband, attorney Paul K. Brown, whom she married in 2007, is at her side at some events.
She also has purchased advertising in City Paper, which, she said, is cheaper than the larger Pittsburgh newspapers and targets an audience more open to her outsider status. She also subscribed to a "robocall" service, which is charging her a penny a call to phone Pittsburghers with a short recorded message that "got my name out there," she said.
But her best opportunity to get her message out, she said, is the mayoral debates. The first one, held last week, put her in the middle between Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Dowd, who, she said, sometimes talked over her "like I wasn't there."
But she felt as though she held her ground and made her points. She has received the endorsement of Pennsylvania's chapter of the National Organization for Women, an organization of which she is a member, and is looking ahead to two more debates.
If she loses, she said, she believes there will be a victory in having had an impact on the race.
First Published April 27, 2009 12:00 am