David Robinson: Born to Run
Smart Jewish kid runs in, not from, corn country
Illinois Times July 17, 1977
David was at Springfield High School when I was—he was a year younger—but I never noticed him, which now strikes me as extraordinary. Not noticing David was like not noticing a burning house across the street. He couldn’t wait to get out of town long enough to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University before coming back to Springfield to change the world.
You gotta start somewhere.
He was the only born politician that I ever knew, one of those guys (as was said about him) who would stop at a traffic accident to shake hands. He had so much energy that he must have worn out his suits from the inside. He got himself elected to the state legislature by sheer application and later ran respectably in losing to a popular incumbent congressman.
Like me, he objected out of conscience to the criminal stupidity in Vietnam. Nonetheless, we were never pals—he was man for the crowd, I was born for the library; he was believer, me a skeptic. Still, our social circles overlapped in central Illinois in the 1960s and ‘70s. He assembled a Rube Goldberg-ish reform slate of Democratic Party committeemen—his plan at the time was to take over the world one county at a time—that included quite a few of my lance-wielding acquaintances, most of whom signed because they thought it might be a lark.
Then he disappeared. He never lost his zeal for reform, but needs must, and he had gone to Mexico to work at an investment bank, where he died from complications of a tropical disease of some kind at the age of 51. Re-reading this profile after so many years, I was reminded that David was a decent and well-intended man, but the virtues that would have made him useful in public service doomed him to never acquire and hold on to high office. More our loss than his.
David Robinson has been a politician more than half of his thirty years. It has been his constant preoccupation since 1960, when he was thirteen years old. He was a Kennedy man then, and he showed up one day at the Jefferson Street headquarters of the Sangamon County Democratic Party and said, "’I want to work.’ They told me, in effect, 'Come back when you grow up,'” Robinson recalls with a smile. "l was even too young for the Young Democrats."
Robinson's father, then as now, is a Republican. His son explains his apostasy this way: "My mother had a Democratic background. Around my house when I was growing up, Roosevelt, Truman and of course Stevenson were all well thought of. Robinson has "always" been a Democrat, though when asked how he came by the affiliation he admits that, in common with many of his generation, "Kennedy had something to do with it." Whatever the roots of the allegiance, Robinson was not discouraged by the county party's rejection of his offer to work. "I grabbed a pile of materials and campaigned at Franklin (Middle School) anyway. It wasn't easy, considering that there were only about six Democrats at the school. " It was to be only the first time that Robinson was identified with the unpopular side of a public question.
The summer of his sixteenth year Robinson spent the summer working as the social service aide in a community project on Manhattan's West Side as part of a national program sponsored by the Federation of Temple Youth. It was a typically untypical teenage summer for Robinson, and it would become a habit. It was on this first trip that Robinson approached a Democratic reform group that was working to get people registered to vote. A seed was planted with that first meeting, and Robinson would harvest its fruits later.
In the meantime, Robinson had to finish high school back in Springfield. The two-line entry opposite Robinson's name in the 1965 Capitoline, the Springfield High School yearbook, sums up a modest but revealing extracurricular career. He spent parts of his sophomore and junior years on the debating club, "I always wanted to be the one in class who picked apart the teacher's arguments, " he recalls. "I wasn't that good at debating. I didn't really enjoy it that much. I was uncomfortable with the formal structure. I just liked to argue." Words — this time printed rather than spoken — were also at the root of his three-year involvement with the school newspapers His senior year he ran for and won a seat on the student council. The office was meaningless but it was good practice; it was the only public office he held until his election to the House.
Robinson left what had become by then the confining halls of SHS in the spring of 1965. He spent that summer working again — this time as a teacher's aide in a Chicago Head Start center. After that it was back to New York and the start of college at Columbia University. Once there he quickly re-established contact with New York's sizeable band of Democratic reformers. He worked hard whenever he could spare time from his studies — canvassing, passing out leaflets, answering phones. He helped set up a reform Democratic club in Washington Heights. He supported Robert F. Kennedy's late-starting run for the presidency, helping to draft position papers at a dissident Democratic convention in Chicago. He canvassed New Hampshire for Eugene McCarthy. He traveled south to Texas to pitch in on behalf of Don Yarborough's anti-machine primary fight for the governor's chair.
* * *
By the time he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia in 1969, the escalating violence in Vietnam was matched by the escalating opposition to it at home. Robinson counted himself among the opponents. But his opposition was more than political; he applied for and got a 1-0 deferment as a conscientious objector. The law then required that COs spend two years working in a Selective Service-applied social service work “in the national interest." His assignment was deferred for a year after his graduation, though. He was working then for the administration of New York Mayor John Lindsay as a community organizer for the Upper West Side Youth Council.
In 1971 Robinson returned finally to Illinois. He had never quit thinking of Illinois, of Springfield, as his home. He was by then working in a draft-approved job as a health-care specialist for the Southern Illinois Medical School; his specialty, not surprisingly, was helping communities organize their health care systems.
As he'd done in New York and elsewhere, one of the first things Robinson did on his return was to contact local reform Democrats "to see what was going on, " he says. Or he tried to, anyway. Springfield is not New York, and there wasn't a reform movement worth the name in Sangamon County at the time. Robinson, characteristically, set about starting one. He was twenty-three years old. Robinson, attracted by Dan Walker's anti-machine stance, signed on "almost immediately" for the long-shot primary campaign. He'd taken the advice given him a decade earlier by the Sangamon County Democrats. He'd grown up, and he'd come back.
* * *
At once Robinson began inviting people to his father's Lincoln Avenue home (he was living in Carbondale and commuting to Springfield on evenings and weekends) to talk — about who was running things, who was in and who was out, who could be counted on to work to change things and who couldn't.
He signed on for the long-shot primary campaign of Dan Walker "almost immediately." ("Before the walk, " Robinson notes.) It was a time when Walker didn't have many friends. But Robinson was attracted by Walker's anti-machine stance, especially since the machine Walker was so vociferously against was that of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Memories of the bloody '68 Democratic convention were still fresh in Robinson's mind, and it was Walker, after all, who'd chaired the commission that branded the official reaction there as a "police riot.
At the same time Robinson was piecing together a long-shot primary challenge of his own. The Sangamon County Democratic Party in the early '70s was run by two men. One was Tom Owens, the chairman for twelve years, a courtll chairman of the old school, a man whose friends at the statehouse included Downstate Democratic doyen Paul Powell. The other was Allen Lucas, an ex-legislator and the behind-the-scenes power. A political columnist called the county apparatus "a tightly-knit, cohesive organization." Nobody who knew politics argued with that description. But Robinson soon began saying it was also unresponsive, unrepresentative, unconcerned.
Robinson, working with a few like-minded allies, decided to challenge the Owens-Lucas leadership. The means to this end was a new organization, known as the United Sangamon County Voters (USCV). It was officially, if somewhat unconvincingly, nonpartisan. It drew its support principally from disaffected liberals of several stripes — young college McGovernites, labor supporters from the Illinois Federation of Teachers and AFSCME, black community organizers, university professors.
Robinson was cochairman of USCV along with Joe Hammerslough, a classmate of Robinson's at Springfield High. They chose their issues shrewdly. Their first project was voter registration. Starting in the spring and summer of 1971, there was held a series of rallies, shopping center and state fair sign-ups and the like, all organized by the USCV or by local officials prodded by them. The result was that Sangamon County had one of the highest percentages of registered voters, including newly enfranchised young ones, in the country.
It was an auspicious start. By the fall of 1971, the USCV leadership, following Robinson's lead, announced that it was going to "move from the noncontroversial political arena . to involvement in political controversy." The group wanted to "open up the political party system to widespread participation." To do it, they would work through the Democratic Party, because it was "more receptive than the Republican party to the problems of the rank and file.” The plan was to run a slate of USCV candidates for some of the 209 Democratic precinct committeemen posts in the county — which Robinson called the local party's "board of directors."
Robinson put together a slate of fifty-four candidates. They were as unlikely a group of candidates as Sangamon County had ever seen. It included, according to Jerry Owens, the political columnist of the old Illinois State Register, "young whites from the middle class, a sprinkling of militant laborites, some blacks, a few left-leaning housewives, and others who hold liberal causes dear." The description is accurate, if somewhat unsympathetic. Many of the group were almost congenitally apolitical; they agreed to run only after falling reluctant victims to Robinson's very considerable powers of persuasion.
The campaign was an anti-establishment classic, and the rhetoric owed much to the Walker campaign. "Return the Democratic Party to the People," said "Eliminate the patronage system the brochures. which subsidizes the politicians and their waste and misuse of power." The USCV wanted committeemen to discuss national issues, hold public meetings, get involved in community issues. Their jobs, Robinson explained to the press, "should be more than just getting a turkey for someone on Thanksgiving.”
Walker, to just about everyone's surprise, won the Democratic gubernatorial primary race. The USCV, to no one's surprise, lost most of their precinct committeeman races. The USCV irregulars took only eight seats of the fifty-four contested. (One of the right winners was Robinson. who in addition to cochairing the USCV and helping the local Walker campaign had been out hustling for votes in his own neighborhood.) Numerically the win was insignificant. Politically it was not. The regulars realized, even if the public did not, that it was as a precedent that the USCV challenges were most dangerous.
A few weeks after the primary, the USCV came out of the closet politically and announced that it would reorganize as the United Sangamon County Voters' Democratic Club. The switch was made. according to the group’s press releases, because the members "believed it so crucial to work for the defeat of President Richard Nixon and Gov. Richard Ogilvie that they are rewriting their constitution to put themselves in the Democratic camp.'
* * *
Robinson finished his CO stint with SIU medical school in January of 1974. He was quickly hired as the Inter-Agency Coordinator to the director of the state's Capital Development Board. The CDB was under the control of the new governor, Dan Walker Robinson poses to advertise a fund-raiser he called "Donkey Day"—more than a coincidence, some people said— and Robinson's official duties included working as legislative liaison for Walker's ill-fated Accelerated Building program.
But Robinson was not cut out to be a bureaucrat, even one with a job that had as much politics as paper-shuffling to it. To the hundreds of people who'd come into contact with Robinson during the USCV/Walker campaigns, and who had seen at first hand his energy, his commitment to issues like ethics legislation, his political savvy, his love—the word is not too strong—for politics, the question was not whether Dave Robinson would ever run for public office on his own. The question was merely which office and when.
The answers to those two questions were: 20th District Representative to Congress, and 1974. It seemed at first to be a rash opening move. The 20th is a largely rural district. It stretches from Springfield on the east to Quincy on the west and from Jacksonville south to Alton. Its people are Protestant, small town, conservative in a way that transcends party—hardly the kind of voters to look kindly on the candidacy of a city-bred Jew with suspiciously leftish views who was only twenty-six years old and a conscientious objector to boot. Furthermore, even if Robinson won the Democratic primary, he would be going up against incumbent Paul Findley, whose hold on the job most observers felt was unshakable.
The choice was risky, but it was not stupid. There was little competition among area Democrats for the honor of losing to Findley. Robinson's only real competition was Peter Mack, the man whom Findley had ousted in 1960 and who was then working as a railroad lobbyist. Besides, there would be no dishonor in losing an election no one thought he could win.
Robinson applied the lessons of the Walker campaign to his own first race—start early, attack often, and work hard. He showed up at every barbeque, every bingo game, every union meeting that would let him in. If it was not true, as some jokingly claimed, that Robinson would stop to shake hands with a crowd gathered at a traffic accident, it is not far-fetched. That campaign established the Robinson style. "l set myself a goal—that every day I would personally hand a piece of literature to or shake the hands of 200 people. That's an average; some days I did much more than that."
He lost the primary to Mack, as Mack in turn would lose to Findley later that year. The loss was credited generally to the fact that Mack's name was better known. But even as a loser, Robinson had established himself as a formidable opponent. He drew 7,300 votes in a district where most sober observers wouldn't have given a chance for more than a hundred. It was a solid showing for his first time out. and there was no doubt that central Illinois voters would be seeing more of David Robinson.
Robinson's next chance came in the fall of 1976. To no one's surprise, he took it. In the winter of '75 he announced that he would seek election as one of three representatives to the Illinois General Assembly from the 50th District comprising Sangamon and Montgomery counties. This race, like his contest with Mack, was an uphill run. The district historically has sent two Republicans and only one Democrat to the statehouse, and the Democratic incumbent. first-termer Doug Kane, was popular and had the backing of the regular party organization.
The primary was less than friendly. There were eight men in the field, but the real contest was between Kane and Robinson. The regular Democratic organizations owed Robinson nothing, and that's just what they gave him. "The regulars were out to get me,” Robinson says bluntly. He recalls that even in the general election campaign, when Democrats Kane and Robinson were running against the Republican team of J. David Jones and Justin Taft, many Democratic precinct committeemen in both counties were circulating sample ballots marked with three votes for Kane.
Robinson survived the snub. He ran second to Kane in the primary, and in the four-man November race finished a strong third. He drew well in Montgomery County. running second there in November, especially in the towns scattered along the interstate. That fact is of more than casual interest. As Robinson points out, smiling, that part of the county lies also in the 20th Congressional District. He's working hard in Springfield; Robinson is psychologically ill-equipped to survive two years as a time-server. But it's apparent that he wants another crack at Paul Findley. and it's hard to find anybody in central Illinois willing to bet that he won't get it. ●
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