Former U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson, who gained notoriety as an Arkansas sheriff, dies at 82

FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson speaks at a meeting, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006, in Little Rock, Ark. Robinson died Wednesday, July 10, 2024, after a brief illness. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson, who gained notoriety as an Arkansas sheriff for tactics that included chaining inmates outside a state prison to protest overcrowding, has died. He was 82.

Robinson died at a Forrest City hospital Wednesday night of natural causes after a brief illness, St. Francis County Coroner Miles Kimble said.

“Tommy’s career was colorful, but it was colorful in service of the people of Arkansas,” Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday. "He brought much-needed attention to issues like crime and prison overcrowding, and while his methods were sometimes unconventional, they won him admiration from voters to earn a seat in Congress. He was never afraid of a fight.”

Robinson was first elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House in 1984, representing the 2nd District, covering Little Rock and central Arkansas. He switched parties and became a Republican in 1989 before losing the GOP primary for governor the following year.

But it was Robinson's actions and comments during his years as Pulaski County sheriff that gained him national attention. Robinson was elected to the post in 1980 after serving as state director of public safety.

Robinson had complained about a backlog of state inmates being held in the county's jail and in 1981 had a group of them chained to a gate outside an Arkansas prison.

“The bottom line is, I’m not going to keep state prisoners,” Robinson said at the time. “It’s their problem, not mine.”

Robinson also clashed with prosecutors and judges during his time as sheriff. He was jailed by a federal judge for contempt for two days after kicking out a special master appointed to oversee conditions at the jail. Following a string of robberies, Robinson had deputies hide randomly at convenience stores armed with shotguns to deter would-be robbers.

Robinson's rhetoric and stunts earned him folk hero status among rural voters, said Arkansas Democrat-Gazette senior editor and columnist Rex Nelson.

“He was really a Trump-like character before anybody in Arkansas had heard of Donald Trump,” said Nelson, who covered Robinson as a reporter in Washington before working in his congressional office and on his gubernatorial campaign.

During his time in Congress, Robinson aligned with the “boll weevil” bloc of conservative southern Democrats who voted for many of President Ronald Reagan's policies. When he switched parties in 1989, Arkansas was a predominantly Democratic state, but Robinson complained that the party had become too liberal.

“If I am to meet the needs of my people, I simply cannot wait any longer for the liberal leadership of the Democratic Party to see the light,” Robinson said at a White House news conference with President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

Robinson ran for the GOP nomination for governor, hoping to unseat Gov. Bill Clinton. He was defeated by Sheffield Nelson in the Republican primary, and Nelson lost to Clinton that fall. Clinton was elected president in 1992.

Robinson remained in the news in the years after leaving Congress. In 1992, he was named as the worst offender in an overdraft scandal involving the House bank. The bank closed in 1991.

Over a 16-month period, he wrote 996 checks on insufficient funds, overdrafts that totaled more than $250,000. A Justice Department report later said no one would be prosecuted for the overdrafts because it was bank policy to routinely honor checks written on insufficient funds.

He was appointed to the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission and the Parole Board by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders' father.

Robinson ran as the Republican nominee in 2002 for the 1st Congressional District in eastern Arkansas and lost to incumbent Marion Berry, a Democrat, in the general election.