Kathy Robinson: the Richmond mayoral candidate you didn’t hear about

on December 18, 2018

Less than a week before Election Day, Kathy Robinson got into her car, ready to drive around Richmond and tell as many people as she could that she was running for mayor.

Her aging white Volvo was decked out for the occasion, plastered with homemade campaign flyers. In her trunk were stacks of these same flyers, printed on computer paper at a friend’s shop. She’d been distributing them to potential voters at schools, churches, and businesses around Richmond.

“It’s not too late,” said Robinson, who is 65 years old and works as an in-home tutor, as she buckled her seatbelt. “A lot of people haven’t voted yet. I need to get out there and find them.”

Two weeks earlier, Robinson had walked up to the podium at a Richmond City Council meeting and announced her candidacy. Her name would not appear on the ballot, so she asked people to write her name in.

“The people sitting in those seats have not done enough to save this city,” Robinson said during public forum, pointing up at the dais at Tom Butt and Melvin Willis, the two men locked in a contentious battle for the position she was also now seeking. “And they need to go.”

In the final election results, Robinson trailed the front runners, accumulating just 23 write-in votes. Butt was re-elected with over 16,000 votes, beating Willis who received just short of 13,000 votes.

Robinson’s last-minute candidacy was a long-shot from the start. Butt has been on the city council since 1995, and Willis, the vice mayor, had been elected onto the council in 2016 with the most votes of the contenders that year. But Robinson has been a vocal advocate of Richmond’s poor for decades, and this was not the first time she had stared down the impossible.

Robinson is a fixture at city council meetings where she speaks with conviction for affordable housing, resources for schools, programs for the disabled and a range of other community projects.  Most recently, she spearheaded the formation of the city’s new homelessness task force.

“People feel like they have no power,” she says. “So many people don’t get a chance to participate.”  

“Kathy is so aware of the depth of pain people experience,” said Marilyn Langlois, a long-time Richmond community organizer who serves alongside Robinson on the homeless task force. “She’s been a real driving force behind getting something going.”

Willis, who also serves on the task force, said his interactions with Robinson “can be tense at times.”

But “she’s extremely passionate and believes in what she believes in,” said Willis. “You definitely hear her.”

Robinson is also a fixture in court and has sued everyone from the Berkeley Unified School District, where she long worked as a substitute teacher, to a neighbor who cut down her hedges decades ago.

“I’ve always fussed, I’ve always complained, because they’ve been lying and stealing from us for years,” Robinson said, speaking of a range of power structures from corporations to local governments.

Robinson has lived in Richmond since she was three years old, when her family moved from Des Moines, Iowa.

When she started kindergarten in the 1950s, Robinson was placed in a special education program because she was left-handed and dyslexic.

“My teachers told me I was stupid,” she said.

“But my dad told me: God made you talented, gifted, and brilliant,” added Robinson. “He told me: ‘Be your own first cheerleader.’”

At 17, Robinson got married. Five years later, she was a divorced mother of two.

Robinson armed herself with grit, a clear mind and shrewd strategies to face the many barriers she encountered.

She spent her professional life working with youth both in the classroom and as an in-home tutor and organizer of after-school programs.

Early in life, she learned how to fix her car so she couldn’t be scammed by repair shops. She bought handicrafts from the flea market and took them apart to see how they were made so she could pick up techniques for crafts that she would make and sell.

She attended the traffic court hearings of white people to figure out how they appeased judges to let them off easy. She emailed the governments of four African nations to see if any of them would sponsor and pay for her to visit — the president of Liberia eagerly fulfilled her request. She’s traveled to 26 countries and 28 states.

“I’ve watched her pull off one minor miracle after another,” said Robinson’s daughter, Doria.

Doria Robinson is the founder and executive director of Urban Tilth, a sustainable agriculture nonprofit that runs community farm and gardens all over Richmond.

“Much, if not all of my drive comes from growing up with my mom,” she says.

Robinson approaches each day systematically. To exercise complete control over her mind, she doesn’t smoke, or drink alcohol or coffee.

“I’m in charge of this brain,” she said. “I’m the only one who can help myself.”

She trusts Vicks Vaporub over a flu shot; remedies from her grandmother over the advice of hospitals; the power of swimming therapy over surgery.

“I dance in the water to tone up,” said Robinson, who swims at local pools several times a week.  “People look at me like I’m crazy, but I don’t care.”

As Robinson drove through the city with me, she narrated its changing urban geography.

She drove through downtown — “I grew up here” — and pointed out the ghosts of once-bustling thoroughfares, the boarded-up and repurposed buildings that once housed banks, jewelry shops, department stores, and movie theaters.

She drove past vacant lots and abandoned buildings in North Richmond — “these could all be opened up again and refurbished” — and past a farm run by the nonprofit founded by her daughter.

She drove past large, glossy posters advertising other candidates — onto which she’d pasted her own flyers, small enough to coexist with their well-heeled hosts.

“See there? Look what I did,” Robinson said, her laugh revealing glimmers of a few gold teeth. “They haven’t taken them down, so I guess it’s okay,” she said.

When she drove past homeless people, her indignation was tinged with pain.

“This is so degrading to see people sit around doing nothing,” she says. “No human being was born to do nothing.”

Doria Robinson said her mother is all about direct action.

If a homeless person needs a tent or sleeping bag, her mother will track down a tent or sleeping bag.

“She feels deeply when people are hurting and struggling,” said Doria Robinson.

Her mother takes no shortcuts in conversation. In fact, she takes the long, scenic route, digressing into vivid stories within stories before returning to a topic.

Each morning and evening, Kathy Robinson sits down at the desktop computer she’s used for 20 years and composes dozens of messages she posts on Facebook.

Her posts capture the way she communicates offline. She expresses with certitude that corruption runs through every facet of public life.

She speaks with as much earnest indignance about consumerism as she does about city corruption and homelessness.  

A few weeks before the election, she participated in a small candidate forum at a Richmond church. There, she felt disrespected by the moderator, who she said kept interrupting her and told her repeatedly to “stay on point.”

“But I just have to be me,” said Robinson. “And I’m just as legitimate as everyone else.”

As we drove along her campaign route, Robinson stopped to introduce herself to people lounging in a senior center, elementary school parents dropping off their kids and new homeowners in the Hilltop neighborhood stepping out of their minivans.

She addressed these strangers like confidantes, telling them her name and that she’s running for mayor. As they nodded in mild confusion, she’d launch into an enumeration of the ways in which they’re being wronged by the city.

“You’ve got to write my name in,” she told everyone she met. “Kathy Robinson. If you haven’t voted yet, vote for me.”

Some said they’d already voted. Others took her flyers and promised to pass on the word.

Soon Robinson pulled into a small parking lot along a stretch of the Richmond marina where she goes for a walk every morning. She strolled up to a City of Richmond van and handed a few flyers to the two workers sitting inside with the windows open.

“We’ve got to get rid of Butt, and we got to get rid of Melvin,” she said to them.

“Melvin’s a dodo-head,” she added. “And Butt,” she said, her voice trailing off.

One worker joined in, saying, “Yeah, Butt’s something else.”

“He’s a liar and he’s a thief,” she supplied.

Asked about Robinson’s pointed remarks about him during the election, Willis said he preferred to focus on the issues and not personal conflicts. Butt declined to comment.

At one stop, Robinson noticed for the first time that one of her car’s passenger-seat windows was shattered, a gaping, brick-sized hole webbed by crystalline cracks.

For a moment, she froze. Then, she smiled with exasperation.

“Just another thing I have to deal with,” she said, shrugging it off.

But as she continued a story she had begun earlier when we were driving in the car, her voice trembled. She looked shaken.

Just a week earlier, Robinson said she came home to find her yard butchered. She said her well-loved collection of potted plants had been torn up and thrown about and a dead, headless rat left inside her gate.

She doesn’t know who has vandalized her yard, but she’s sure it has something to do with her challenge to the power structure in the city.  

“They attack me because they want me to go away,” she said. “They are not beyond killing somebody.”

Feeling beat, afraid and alone, she went to visit her mother.

“I brought flowers, and I have a chair in my car I pulled up at her gravesite, and I just sat there and talked to her about all the different things that were going on,” Robinson said.

Recalling this, her voice broke.

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, to step out like this,” and run for election, said Robinson, on the verge on tears.

“My mother was a brilliant woman that I didn’t know very well. Because we didn’t get along,” said Robinson.

She’s posted on Facebook about grieving her mother, who died two years ago.

Robinson said she came back from the gravesite healed and strengthened with a new resolve.

“As long as I’m alive, I’m going to try and change things. Because that’s who I am.”

Robinson said she did not plan on running for mayor again.

“This is it.”

Robinson’s Facebook posts are usually public and often deeply personal, reflecting on everything from her experiences of sexual assault to the trials of being black in the United States.

In recent weeks, she’s written about the emotional rollercoaster of her bid for mayor. She expressed, at turns, anger, loneliness, amusement, love, and constantly renewed faith.

“I like being around people, it’s just I don’t do it very often. Because most are disappointing,” she said.

“Human beings, we’re vicious, we’re angry,” said Robinson. “But God hopes we’ll change.”

The results of her mother’s bid for office made Doria Robinson more cynical about the way democracy works in this country.

“Elections are about money and power, and not really about people,” said Doria Robinson.

But despite her electoral loss, Kathy Robinson said she’ll keeping showing up to city council meetings and advocating for what she believes in.

“I will never just back up, because I believe in this city and believe in its people,” she said. “They’re gonna wish they put me as mayor.”

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