First-term state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), 44, died from suspected COVID-19 complications Sunday morning. As his friends and colleagues mourn him, some say his passing underscores the need for legislative leaders to take more precautions to prevent the virus’ spread.
Robinson could possibly be the first state lawmaker in the country to die from the disease.
As of Monday, at least five members of Congress and 19 state lawmakers across the country have tested positive for the virus. There do not appear to have been any deaths, per an Advance review. The Pew Charitable Trusts said it is not tracking that issue and the National Conference of State Legislatures did not respond for comment.
Information on Robinson’s funeral arrangements has not been released at this time.
Robinson, a Northwestern Law School graduate first elected in 2018, was known among his colleagues in the state House for his passion and work on environmental justice and labor issues.
House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) told the Advance that she will remember Robinson as a champion for the people, and especially for Detroiters.
“Isaac was bigger than life, right? He had a big personality. When he spoke, he spoke with passion and conviction,” Greig said. “It was always about making life better for people that struggled.”
Greig described her former colleague as someone who was quick to call lawmakers and other leaders to action to address problems in the state, especially on matters of environmental and public health.
“When the ‘green ooze’ was discovered in Oakland County and in Detroit, he was there talking and demanding environmental justice for Detroit,” Greig said, adding that he was passionate about fighting for air and water quality.
“He also was a champion for working people. too. When it came to minimum-wage increases, when it came to earned paid sick time, he was always at the forefront talking about those issues,” Greig said.
During a CNN appearance Monday morning, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer brought up Robinson’s death when asked about the COVID-19 situation in Michigan.
“It’s starting to touch everyone here,” Whitmer said. “We lost a member of the Michigan Legislature yesterday, my dear friend Isaac Robinson, who was a phenomenal human being. And I think people are starting to understand the seriousness of this, but we are just imploring everyone to pitch in; do your part,;stay home.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also expressed his condolences, noting that Robinson “believed strongly in a fairer future for all.” Robinson endorsed Sanders for president in February and was named a campaign vice-chair in Michigan.
In a Facebook post, state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) called Robinson a “super sharp … super progressive justice for the people warrior.”
“He saw injustice in many places and was unafraid to take it on head first. He also saw so much good in people,” Brixie wrote.
Michigan Republican Party Chair Laura Cox also released a statement on Monday regarding Robinson’s passing.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Representative Isaac Robinson, who was a dedicated public servant and tireless advocate for the people of Detroit. My prayers are with his friends and family, especially Isaac’s mother, Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, who I had the honor of serving with during my time in the Legislature. My husband, Mike, and I would like to send her our deepest condolences, and she will be in our thoughts during the difficult days ahead,” Cox said.
Concerns about future state Legislature sessions
Robinson’s death has also renewed calls for the GOP-led state Legislature to implement better procedures to prevent more lawmakers and staff from contracting the disease. Due to separation of powers in state government, Whitmer’s executive order banning public bodies from meeting in person does not apply to the state Legislature.
Just three days before Robinson’s death, fellow Detroiter and state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. He was the first known Michigan lawmaker to contract the virus, although Carter said he has mostly recovered from it.
Carter had attended a 12-hour session in the state Legislature on March 17 — one week after the first two cases of the virus in Michigan were confirmed — in which lawmakers negotiated and passed a COVID-19 supplemental spending bill that Whitmer signed Monday. Robinson was excused from that House session, which was the last time either chamber has met in person.
It is still not clear, however, when or how state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) plan to bring legislators back to the floor and what preventative policies will be implemented then, if any. Whitmer has signed an order that bodies can meet remotely.
Greig told the Advance that she wants GOP leadership to look at the creative ways other states have tried to mitigate exposure in their Legislatures, and draw inspiration from that to implement in Michigan.
“I obviously voiced my concerns before that [12-hour] day of session … that we needed to take extra precautions,” Greig said. “… We needed to vote on a supplemental, but we did not need to be there for 12 hours.”
Greig acknowledged that it’s a balancing act between getting the state of the work done and protecting the health of lawmakers and constituents, but said, “We can do better.” She pointed to executive orders and directives as possible alternatives.
“If we can find alternatives … that should be our top priority so that we aren’t convening again,” she said.
State Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) is among lawmakers who previously expressed concerns in recent weeks about meeting in-person for sessions.
Mark Brewer, an attorney and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, has been vocal on social media in past weeks about the need for GOP leadership to step up and put safer policies in place.
“How many more legislators and staff have to become sick or die before Speaker Chatfield and Senate Minority Leader Shirkey do their jobs and have a plan to keep the Legislature functioning and protect its health?” Brewer tweeted Sunday night in response to the news of Robinson’s death.
In a call with the Advance on Monday, Brewer said GOP leaders have no excuse for not having a plan in place yet.
“I don’t think it’s difficult at all,” Brewer told the Advance. “There’s lots of models out there. People have done this.
“It’s just a great mystery to me and a disservice to the people of Michigan, that they have not told the people of Michigan: Here’s our plan, here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s why it meets all those constitutional requirements and so forth in terms of access and transparency that they normally operate under.”
Brewer said that the Legislature should have started planning weeks ago for a plan that would allow the government to still function while ensuring the health of lawmakers and staff.
“The clock is ticking in terms of getting this done, or else the Legislature is not going to be able to function,” Brewer said, adding that lawmakers still have a budget to deliver to the governor in just a few months and will need to decide how to do that safely.
He cited conference calls, streaming services and other online functions that could aid the Legislature in meeting virtually while still ensuring public access.
“I just don’t see them making any effort to put those procedures in place. … There’s been no public notice or discussion by them that they’re doing anything,” Brewer said.
Elsewhere around the country, elected officials have been implementing alternative strategies to meeting in person including Skype, Zoom, and other teleconferencing technologies.
Rules to allow legislators to vote virtually are being considered or passed in states like Utah, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Arizona, while Oregon and Wisconsin already had rules in place to do so in emergency situations.
In response to those who have criticized him for “politicizing” Robinson’s death, including state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), Brewer said: “I’ve been talking about this for weeks. My position on this is not new.
“And Rep. Robinson was a friend of mine. And this just really brought it home … that something has to be done to protect the legislators and their staff, as people, but also the Legislature as an institution.”