Columbus native Pete Robinson rose to great political power but never forgot his hometown; dies at 66

Local News

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Pete Robinson walked the halls of power in Atlanta, first as a lawmaker, then as an influential lobbyist representing some of the nation’s most prestigious firms.

But those who knew him best say he never forgot his Columbus roots and worked behind the scenes to make his hometown a better place.

“His heart was always in Columbus,” said Federal Judge Clay Land, who replaced Robinson in the Georgia Senate in 1994. “Some people go to the big city and think that they have graduated beyond where they came from.”

Not Robinson.

“Pete always knew where he came from,” Land said. “I think he always respected where he came from. And he understood deep down where he had gotten to was based in large part due to where he came from. And I think that’s what grounded him.”

Robinson died early Thursday morning in a Houston, Texas hospital after a brief bout with cancer. He was 66. Funeral services will be held Thursday, July 8, at 2 p.m. at the Peterson Family Cemetery in Ailey, Ga., with the Reverend Jimmy Elder, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbus, officiating.

A memorial service will be held in Columbus on Friday, July 9, at 2 p.m. at St. Luke United Methodist Church, with the Reverend Thad Haygood, senior pastor at St. Luke, and Elder officiating. Visitation will follow the service in the St. Luke Ministry Center.

Kemp:”A great Georgian”

Pete Robinson with son Miller during a Georgia game at the Rose Bowl

Robinson’s death was acknowledged in the halls of power. Gov. Brian Kemp called Robinson “a great Georgian.”

“I first met Pete Robinson working in the private sector over thirty years ago,” Kemp said in a statement. “He was a great friend and a dedicated public servant to the Columbus area and our state. Pete’s decades of leadership in his local community, the General Assembly, and various roles since, played a significant role in making Georgia a better place for all who call it home.”

Robinson was a partner in the prestigious Atlanta-based law firm King & Spalding, focusing on government advocacy and public policy. He represented firms including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, the Southern Company and Columbus-based Aflac.

Robinson became ill in early June and sought treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.

“He’s a good man and he’ll be missed,” said Aflac President Dan Amos. “And it tells us all how short this life is on earth. I can’t believe how quickly this happened to him. … I am so sorry for everybody. His family and his friends and the community.”

Columbus to the core

Robinson was Columbus to the core, and even though he worked primarily out of Atlanta, he maintained his Columbus residence.

And maintained his love for the city. Though he rarely worked in the foreground, Robinson’s fingerprints are all over the city of Columbus from the RiverCenter for Performing Arts to the new Mercer Medical School campus under construction along the river just north of downtown Columbus.

Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, said Robinson was the most influential lobbyist in the state.

“He woke up every morning, saying what can I do today that might help Columbus?” Smith said.

And he was able to do just that, Land said.

“Pete was the essential connection between the private sector and the public sector when we were first exploring public-private partnerships in Columbus,” Land said.

And this was happening in the early 1990s when Columbus was using public-private partnerships for civic improvements. Robinson was in the Georgia Senate.

“He was an essential link between those people in the community who were willing to contribute financially to help Columbus progress,” Land said. “He was the link between them and the elected officials and the other folks in state government who were also necessary in that process to make things happen in Columbus. And particularly in the mid-90s, late-90s and early 2000s.”

It translated into big-ticket projects.

“All of those improvements you have seen downtown,” Land said. “From the SPLOST projects of the mid-90s to the RiverCenter to the new Civic Center to the new Public Safety Building to the redevelopment of downtown to the movement of CSU to downtown.”

Those in the private sector were making an investment in Columbus and Robinson uniquely understood that.

“He was just that key link to the private sector who were willing to use private dollars because they felt that government would also partner with them and would be a good return on their private investments; and they trusted Pete,” Land said. “And he treated that role to perfection. He had the right personality. He had the right contacts at the capital. And he had the trust of those people in the private sector.”

In his final term in the General Assembly Robinson supported Gov. Zell Miller’s failed effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia flag.

“Back then that was a difficult decision for any politician,” Land said. “He had constituents who were not in favor of changing the flag. But he knew it was the right thing to do. It was right time to do it.”

It later happened under Gov. Roy Barnes, but Robinson was out of the legislature at that point.

“It did not pass that first time when Pete supported it,” Land said. “But that laid the foundation for the flag to ultimately be changed several years later.”

All about relationships

In 1994 Robinson transitioned out of the General Assembly and became a lobbyist. Over nearly three decades his influence and power grew. It was all about relationships, said Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who served with Robinson in the General Assembly.

“Trust was currency,” Ralston said. “ If you abused trust with a friend, you are going to lose your effectiveness and you are going to lose your credibility.”

Robinson never abused that trust, Ralston said.

“Never,” the speaker said. “Pete could look at both sides of an issue and he knew on many issues it wasn’t a matter of somebody winning everything and somebody losing everything. But that both sides needed to take something away from the table. And he appreciated that fact.”

Robinson was masterful in the way he used the power he had accumulated, said First Baptist Church Pastor Jimmy Elder, who served with Robinson on the Mercer University Board of Trustees.

“He had a humble respect for power,” Elder said. “He treated it as a stewardship and not something to grasp and to own. And that’s what has made him such a great person. …Power never belonged to him. It was a stewardship he held in trust for everybody who he represented and whom he served.”

Part of that philosophy came from his high school days, said his friend Betsy Covington. A Hardaway High graduate, Robinson was in the St. Luke United Methodist Church Sunday School class taught by the late Bill Turner, the former chairman of the W.C. Bradley Company and major Columbus philanthropist.

“I think Pete has always carried a lot of the lessons from that Sunday School class into his life,” Covington said. “I saw it primarily in that he never looked for credit in stuff and he was interested in how he could bring people together to agree on something that was wonderful for other people, get something done, then not worry about who got the credit.”

In the early 2000s, Turner asked Robinson to lead the project that resulted in a new public library on Macon Road. That library was constructed and is maintained with a combination of public and private money.

“Pete was one of the smartest people I ever met,” Richard Smith said. “He also understood things. He knew how to put things together like public-private partnerships like we talked about with the library.”

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, is the dean of the General Assembly and he watched Robinson’s evolution from beginning to end.

“When you talk about the Columbus Public Library, Pete drove that item for many, many years and saw it to fruition,” Smyre said.

Robinson’s friend of four decades, Columbus attorney and developer Ken Henson, thinks he knows why Robinson was so effective.

“When he told you he was going to do something, he did it,” Henson said. “And he did it the right way. He didn’t take any shortcuts. … He wasn’t going to talk bad about anybody. He was just going to do his job and get it done.”

Elder puts it this way.

“It is from clout and respect that he has been able to do the things he’s done,” Elder said. “… It is one thing to hold a position. You have to hold on to that. It’s another thing to build a reputation and clout that everyone seeks your support and your opinion. And trusts what you do because they know it will be in the best interest of the state and the best interest of the community.”

An enduring legacy

Pete Robinson with family

Robinson was also a mentor to many people and place folks turned for advice at critical points in their careers and lives.

“He helped mentor countless young people to college, law school, medical school and helped them get jobs,” Henson said. “People had helped him all through his career, college and law school. And he thought it was important to help others just like he had been helped.”

Henson said that assistance came without wanting something in return.

“And he used to say when you help people you don’t want anything,” Henson said. “The joy was in helping people and that was enough.”

Robinson was predeceased by his father and is survived by his children — Carolyn (Atlanta), Miller (Washington, DC) and Grant Robinson (Atlanta) — and by their mother, Emily Sharp Robinson (Charlotte, NC). He is also survived by his mother, Jeanne Peterson Robinson (Columbus); sister, Jenna Robinson (Greenville, SC); and brother, Andy Robinson (Columbus).

In lieu of flowers, the family would welcome donations to the Mike Sabbath Student Support Fund at Mercer Law School via the Office of University Advancement, 1501 Mercer University Drive, Macon, GA 31207. Pete established the Fund to provide resources for law students who have a change of circumstances that causes financial distress and potentially affects their ability to remain enrolled. Pete named the Fund in honor of a favorite law professor, who helped Pete when his father passed away while he was in law school.

Alternately, donations would be welcomed to the Muscogee County Library Foundation Endowment Fund, c/o Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, during Covid at P.O. Box 1630, Fortson, GA 31808-1630 or via cfcv.com. An online guest book is available for the Robinson Family at Pete Robinson’s page at caringbridge.com.

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