Joe Robinson, running again for Hillsborough School Board, still has a flair for fiery speech

Joe Jordan-Robinson, candidate for Hillsborough County School Board
Joe Jordan-Robinson, candidate for Hillsborough County School Board
Published July 11, 2016

TAMPA — Campaigning for a seat on the Hillsborough County School Board, Joe Jordon-Robinson likes to say he's mellowed. "I'm the new Joe Robinson," he told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Thursday.

But a recording that surfaced this year, circulated as Robinson seeks to replace Doretha Edgecomb in Tampa's District 5, shows he hasn't lost his flair for dramatic and sometimes incendiary speech.

In it, Robinson — a longtime activist and arguably the highest-profile candidate in the race — calls himself "the enforcer." He alludes to a violent youth, laughs off five bankruptcies and swears things happen after he files a public records request.

"I don't play. I file lawsuits. I file complaints. I file the FBI," Robinson said during over two hours of remarks in a September meeting that included board member Susan Valdes, chief of staff Alberto Vazquez and a half-dozen high-ranking black administrators.

"I will get with the governor's office. I just got off the phone with the Pope up there in D.C. to get a special blessing for this damned meeting. I've put people in jail, I've had stuff investigated and I'm the man. If I say do it, investigate it, it will get done." He warned, "if you mess with me, you're going to have somebody knocking on your door."

All true, said Robinson, 62, asking that his remarks be placed in the correct context. He's the one who recorded them, he said. He's not running away from them. The occasion was a session called "Race matters" that Robinson conducted as vice president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP.

"I said it and I recorded it, it was in the context of civil rights," he said.

Robinson, an engineer who uses the hyphenated name "Jordon-Robinson" on the ballot, said at the time that, while Superintendent Jeff Eakins named Lewis Brinson as Chief of Diversity and Owen Young as Chief of Priority Schools, they worked downtown and not in the community. There were concerns that they did not have the resources they would need to succeed. Both are black.

In recent months Brinson retired rather than re-apply for his job, Young was re-assigned an area superintendent's job, and chief of schools Larry Sykes — a third black administrator at the meeting — was transferred out of his position.

At the meeting, which predated those moves, Robinson urged the three to assert themselves.

"What kind of role models are y'all?" he asked. "Y'all scared to raise your damn hand to white folks. Y'all scared to advocate for your own damned people. We done got you six figures. We done got you all the damn money you want. You got power and you're not using it."

Robinson addressed Brinson by a nickname, "Biscuit." He poked fun at Brinson's neckwear, calling him "Dr. Bowtie."

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While he discussed student achievement, Robinson also spent much of the time advocating for black-owned businesses, including his engineering firm. His involvement in that issue goes back many years, he said, recounting a court victory after a complaint his firm filed in 2002. Problems remain, and Robinson contends a lack of procedures and imprecise tracking make it impossible to verify if minorities are getting their fair share.

"These fools, these clowns, these cover-uppers," he said at the September meeting, use a misleading reporting system "because they know damn well on construction related, Joe Robinson and black folks getting screwed."

He took issue with architects who are put in charge of projects. "Will any architect in Tampa, Florida, put Joe Robinson on their team?" he asked. "Hell, no. To the no no. They're going to put their regular old crony a---- on there. Now you're messing with my pocketbook."

He said he never worked on a brand-new school "because of the racism. Because race matters. Not that I can't do it, my engineering is next to none. Cause crackers, white folks, and I'm on tape. They won't put me, they don't want to put this black advocate, this black engineer, on the team because Joe Robinson, he's a troublemaker."

He said his work has been compromised by others. "Some fool over here wants to save money with their cronies, and I believe that most of the projects I have done out here have been sabotaged," he said. "They will sabotage your projects out here," adding that he knows enough to "find that sabotage."

This isn't the first time Robinson has run for School Board. The last time, in 2012, he was bested by incumbent Carol Kurdell in a countywide race. He won under 10 percent of the primary vote, but 25 percent in District 5 precincts.

LISTEN IN: Hear more of school board candidate Joe Robinson's remarks to Hillsborough school administrators

A graduate of the Catholic school system and the University of Iowa, Robinson also has served on the county's Charter Review Board and a Southwest Florida Water Management District board. He's been known for years as a community leader in West Tampa.

He's also known for blowing the whistle on the issue of government contracts, and he alluded to that situation in his September remarks.

"Everyone in this room should be scared of this Roman numeral," he said, apparently drawing a VI, referring to federal law that prohibits discrimination in government spending.

"Get ready for me to file that if you don't listen to me today. You will have a Title VI discrimination against me and my firm. Get ready. The airport got one, been going on for two years."

He mentioned his five bankruptcy filings from the early 1990's. Donald Trump has them too, he said. He said his mother, a teacher, did not send him to Hillsborough County public schools because they were racist.

His home life toughened him, he said. "I shot my step-daddy at 18 I ain't went to no jail. I come up with alcoholic daddies and step-daddies and all that, I got a hell of a good education. People in the street respect me."

After college, where he walked onto the track team, he settled in West Tampa — which is more diverse than East Tampa, he said.

"My best friends in this town were not the black folks," he said. "They were the Italians and the Hispanics in West Tampa. The Casianos. The Trafficantes. The Diecidues. The mafia. That's how I was raised, and I'm on tape." His family bought a house from Scagilones in 1962, he said. "I've got nothing to hide. Feds done heard all this."

Hearing the quotes read back to him, Robinson said he spoke the way he did because he was trying to make a point — that race matters. That's consistent with the NAACP's mission "to agitate and advocate," he said, adding that "that's not the way I'll be governing on the School Board." The remarks do show he is passionate, he said. And "anybody who wanted to get up and leave could have left."

The recording suggests that Robinson takes credit for major decisions in the school district, although Robinson clarified some and said he was stating facts, not taking credit.

Blake High School is a performing arts magnet "because Mary Beth Shields and Joe Robinson cut a damn deal in the damn lunchroom of Stewart (Middle School), with her smoking all them cigarettes," he said in the recording. Actually, he later said, it was a group of people.

As for the civil rights complaint activist Marilyn Williams filed in 2014, he said he directed the NAACP's education chair to "push the button," but she was reluctant because she works for the district. "'Well, then tell Ms. Williams to do it,'" he recalls saying. "That's how that happened. I told her to do it. She did it. I called the feds and said, 'Did it get done?' They said, 'Yes.'"

Williams denied that account, and Robinson said that, while he made the motion, the decision to move forward came from the NAACP.

Robinson was not a candidate when the September meeting took place. Edgecomb was still on the board, in line to be chairwoman in November. But the board gave the largely ceremonial post to April Griffin instead. Robinson filed in April. Edgecomb announced her departure in May.

Robinson faces teacher Tarance LeNoir, school social worker Lynette Judge, community worker Jacqueline Leeks and businesswoman Tamara Shamburger in the Aug. 30 primary. Some of his opponents have issues that could hurt them too, he said.

Shamburger, the youngest of the group, acknowledged Thursday that she bounced a $16.99 check when she was a young, single mother. She pleaded no contest and was given six months probation.

Robinson has received the most campaign contributions by far. They total more than $15,000, and include checks from construction and engineering firms.

He also has donations from Brinson and Sykes.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol