Tommy Robinson – politician, patrolman, provocateur – dies at 82

Former Arkansas Congressman and Sheriff Tommy Robinson died yesterday in Forrest City at age 82. The politician, who made many arrests (and many enemies) as Pulaski County sheriff in the early 1980s, graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and served in the Navy before his long career in law enforcement.

From Eugene Richards’ “Tommy Robinson: He Speaks Softly (But Not Too Softly) and Carries a Big Stick.” Arkansas TimesJuly 1981

In addition to his controversial role in 1983 trial and 1995 execution of death row inmate Barry Lee Fairchild, Robinson was embroiled in headline-making overtures — chaining inmates to a fence outside a Pine Bluff prison in the summer of 1981 to draw attention to the problem of prison overcrowding, for example, then threatening a showdown with the state police if officers showed up and tried to return the inmates. As sheriff, he “started ‘Robinson roulette'” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes, “where deputies with shotguns would rotate undercover at participating retailers. He explained that the program was a success in rural Pulaski County, but a clerk was shot and killed at a participating store in Little Rock.” Heck, he threatened to commandeer this very publication once, in an interview for a 1982 story called “Galiano v. Robinson: Who Is Taling the Truth?”:

“Galiano v. Robinson: Who’s Telling the Truth?” Arkansas TimesNovember 1982
From “Galiano v. Robinson: Who Is Telling the Truth?” Arkansas TimesNovember 1982

On his subsequent political career, from Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

He was elected to Congress in 1984 as a Democrat represents the state’s second congressional district. He was appointed to the House Armed Services Committee and to the Education and Labor Committee. During his three terms, Robinson sponsored six bills in Congress, none of which were ever referred to committees to which they were assigned. He often voted with President Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration. During his third term, he switched to the Republican Party—a significant enough event at the time that President George HW Bush marked it with a White House press conference.

From there, with the apparent encouragement of National Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater, he campaigned for the Republican nomination for governor. (Atwater reportedly saw Gov. Bill Clinton as a potentially troublesome rival for Bush and saw Robinson as a candidate who could mount a rough enough campaign to disable Clinton politically, if not defeat him.) In a tight contest, Robinson lost the nomination to Sheffield Nelson, a businessman and another convert to the GOP. The total showed that voter turnout in the state’s Republican primary was unusually high, particularly in Pulaski County, where twice as many people voted in the Republican gubernatorial primary as had voted in the 1988 GOP presidential primary. (Robinson lost in Pulaski County by 8,321 votes and statewide by 8,127 votes.) As part of a stop-Robinson movement, Democrats had reportedly moved to vote in the Republican primary in sufficient numbers to provide the margin of Robinson’s defeat.

Robinson left Congress in 1991, but not without more controversy. In a scandal involving members of Congress who overdrafted their accounts at a bank operated for the US House of Representatives, Robinson was reported in 1992 as the main perpetrator. He had 996 account credits, totaling more than $250,000.

Robinson, who had a farm in Brinkley (Monroe County), managed his crops and business interests until the 2002 race for Congress. 1999, Governor Mike Huckabee placed Robinson on the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission, and the next year placed him on the State Parole Board. In 2002, he ran in the First Congressional District, which includes Brinkley. He lost to the incumbent, Marion Berry, a conservative Democrat. Huckabee put Robinson on the Arkansas Rural Development Commission in 2005.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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