State Rep. Rose Mary Robinson’s political philosophy is common sense in theory, radical in practice: She believes too many laws are passed too quickly. She is on the lookout for bills that “demonize” the poor because she has lived in poverty. And she carefully reads bills before voting.
The first-term Detroit Democrat’s adherence to her own precepts incidentally set a 2013 legislative record. Her solo “no” vote on 41 bills in the House outdistanced all of her colleagues, as MIRS, the Lansing-based political news service, reported Monday.
Her no votes may not stop legislation, but they have made a quiet statement in her first year representing an east-side Detroit district that includes her neighborhood near Motor City Casino.
“She doesn’t push the ‘no’ button because that’s (what her) caucus is doing,” says state Rep. Joe Graves, a self-described conservative Republican from Linden who co-chairs the criminal justice committee. Although he and Robinson are on opposite ends of the political spectrum (she scored 100 percent liberal on at least one organization’s rating), she has gained his respect. “She’s thoughtful,” Graves said. “She’s analytical.”
In politics, the conventional approach is to form alliances, holding your nose occasionally so others will hold theirs when your bill needs to pass. That’s not the way the 74-year-old Robinson sees her role.
“I want to represent the people of my district and their interests,” she told me on Monday from the Detroit home she’s lived in since 1967 — a home she bought after living for a while in public housing.
Robinson’s name isn’t familiar to most Detroiters, but she was one of the first women to be elected to the Wayne County Commission, in 1970, a “first” that put her in the state Women’s Historical Center Hall of Fame in 2011. But Robinson took a 30-year hiatus from politics while she worked as a criminal defense lawyer, mostly working on behalf of indigent clients, either pro bono or as a court-appointed attorney.
A combination of life experience and legal experience representing criminal defendants has formed her perspective — and her willingness to stand at a marked distance from the crowd.
She was the lone vote against a package of bills limiting Bridge card use in race tracks or liquor stores — bills she thought were intended to humiliate the poor.
“At one point, I was on public assistance,” she says.
“That’s why I have such empathy for people who are living in poverty. There is little respect for people who are going through a rough patch.”
Her experience as a lawyer has also informed her view of the criminal justice system and the Legislature itself.
“We have these crackpot statutes against particular crimes because every legislator wants to go on the record against crime,” she says. “As a result, we have a criminal penal code that makes no sense: You can spend less time in prison for manslaughter than for stealing a car three times.”
Robinson votes against bills that are deals for special-interest groups and tries to give lobbyists wide berth. She also expects legislators to stand up for their bills and answer her questions. “If they can’t do that, the hell with it,” she says.
Graves is one lawmaker who answered her questions and, at least once, won her vote. He calls her “the Professor” because of what he says is a scholarly demeanor. “She adds a lot to Lansing,” he says.
Laura Berman’s column runs Tuesday and Thursday.