By Tracy Knight
When Christine Robinson was a teenager in North Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, she regularly attended city council meetings—just for fun. In retrospect, it was more than a way for a bright teen with lots of energy to pass the time. It was a sign of things to come.
"I guess it qualifies me for geek status,” jokes Robinson, who, at age 36, was appointed last December by former Florida Governor Charlie Christ to fill a seat on Sarasota County’s Board of County Commissioners. Robinson was named to the post when longtime commissioner Shannon Staub vacated her seat well before her elected term had ended. Robinson was selected from a large field of applicants, and has worked diligently since she was sworn in to make strides for her county, her district and her constituents.
She came to the board with strong qualifications, to be sure, but also with a strong desire to help Sarasota County’s economy get back on track as quickly as possible. She is not afraid to admit that she is pro small business—a core belief that was shaped largely by her family and her childhood experiences.
“My family owns a multi-generational masonry business,” she explains. “My grandfather, dad, uncle, brother and brother-in-law are all masons. I grew up working in our small family business, most of the time in the office but even as a laborer on the job sites in a pinch.
“Working there for eight years totally shaped my views and understanding of small businesses and their owners,” she continues. “My dad never shielded me from the difficulties of running a company, from debt to the harsh realities of a down economy. He would explain why sometimes we had to give up our own paychecks so we could pay our employees, and how regulations could make things difficult for us. At the same time, he impressed on me that we had a real responsibility to our employees and to the community.”
Robinson developed an interest in politics early on, she says, because she could see how directly it affected small businesses and people’s livelihoods. Although not a straight-A student, she did well in high school and was driven to learn and do more. She worked to put herself through college and earned a bachelor’s degree from Niagara University. Finally, she said, her father “fired her” when she expressed an interest in law school. “I applied to every law school in Florida and picked the University of Miami, because it was furthest south,” she says.
Just as she had worked her way through her undergraduate degree, she worked and took student loans to pay for her law degree. She is proud of the fact that she is the first person in her entire family to earn a college degree of any kind.
She put her education to good use as a prosecuting attorney in the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office, where she sometimes had 50 hearings a week. While working in Miami she was on a field trip as a volunteer chaperone for underprivileged teens, and met her husband, Eric Robinson, who was volunteering in the same capacity at a Miami Heat game.
It didn’t take long for marriage to follow, along with a move to Sarasota County in 2001. “We wanted to move to a place that had it all, so we got the ‘Florida Statistical Abstract’ and read it like the Bible. We wanted a place that had a great quality of life, was near the water, was warm and was good for raising kids.”
Robinson describes the moment when she knew Sarasota County was the right place for them. “We were here for a visit and I picked up a copy of the local newspaper, which had a front-page story about all the arguing that was taking place over the design of the new Ringling Bridge.
Remember, I was coming from Miami where the newspaper included a headline about some horrible crime almost every day. I said to myself, if that’s the biggest problem they have, I want to live here!”
Robinson took a job with the state attorney’s office once again, and within three years was the supervisor of the South County offices. When she and her husband started a family, she went into private practice and found herself immersed in the business of business. She worked with clients in Englewood, North Port and Venice who had problems ranging from foreclosure to regulation that seriously affected their bottom lines.
Now, as a commissioner, she has pledged to “concentrate on making sure that businesses don’t have to hire attorneys just to get through regulation and related issues.” She notes that she and the other commissioners have already made progress—from consolidating some county departments to making it easier to get permits—but they need to make things happen faster. They have also taken decisive action to attract job-generating companies to the area with special incentives. She is particularly proud of the fact that more than 40 percent of all jobs created as a result of their efforts will be in South County, and they are expecting that trend to continue.
Her biggest challenges as a commissioner? “Well the budget, of course, but that is something that everyone in government is dealing with. I’m also working to open the lines of communication with business owners, and earn their trust. I think some of them are afraid to discuss bad experiences they have had with the county in the past, but they need to know that as their representative I will listen to their needs and work to find solutions.”
She also recognizes that listening will be very important for the entire board as it looks toward the future.
“We have three very distinct areas within South Sarasota County and we can’t paint all of them with one broad brush,” she says. “North Port wants job-producing growth. Venice wants to see its existing businesses thrive, and Englewood wants to maintain its old Florida character. Ultimately, it is up to the residents of these areas to say where they want to go, and it’s up to the county to help them get there.”