Straight-no-chaser senator Robert Brown dead at 61

Robert Brown called his style of talking “straight-no-chaser.” It meant he was going to tell you exactly how he felt -- unvarnished – and that he would not waver from his convictions.

People admired that about the former Democratic state senator from Macon. So they often solicited his advice. They knew he would tell them what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.

Those same people were stunned to learn this week that Brown had taken his own life. He fatally shot himself in the head with a pistol at his home in Macon, the Bibb County coroner’s office determined through an autopsy Friday. Brown was 61.

Brown didn’t leave a note or any other clues about why he made that decision, his friends said. But a cousin said Brown was depressed as he struggled with an abdominal-related ailment in the weeks leading up to his death. His illness significantly weakened him and caused him to walk gingerly, said his cousin, Calvin Williams.

Brown also struggled from a serious blood condition a few years ago, said David Oedel, Brown’s friend and attorney. But he also suffered greatly from losing one of the things he loved most, his role in politics. He served in the state Senate for about 20 years, rising to the rank of Democratic leader before resigning his seat to run unsuccessfully for mayor of Macon this year.

“His political life was, in a sense, also his family life. He lived for politics,” said Oedel, a law professor at Mercer University. “His retirement from the Senate and then losing the mayoral race in Macon were steps in a process of disengagement from politics that were very difficult for him.”

A graduate of Mercer University, Brown got heavily involved in the civil rights movement in Macon and repeatedly marched for equal rights and jobs for African-Americans, said former state Rep. David Lucas, a longtime friend. Lucas said Brown ran unsuccessfully against him for his legislative seat three times. Lucas said he grew to respect Brown’s honesty.

“If he told you something,” Lucas said, “you could depend on his word. He wasn’t going to change. And if he did, he would come to let you know up front. He wouldn’t do like some folks and tell you one thing and then go behind your back and do something else.”

Brown ran a real estate business and served on the Bibb Board of Education. He won a special election for his state Senate seat in 1991, becoming the first black person to represent Bibb in the Senate since Reconstruction.

Brown’s former colleagues in the Senate described him as a gifted orator and political tactician who looked out for the poor and disadvantaged. He vigorously fought against utility rate increases and efforts to weaken Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. Fellow senators are planning a tribute for him for the upcoming legislative session, which is set to begin Jan. 9.

“It was not show, it was not gamesmanship for him,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who served with Brown in the Legislature for more than 14 years. “This was serious business about serving his constituents and especially those who were poor and people who did not have lobbyists down here at the Capitol… That is what drew me to him. I believe he sincerely cared about people.”

Brown also attracted controversy at times. During a televised interview on 13WMAZ last year, he criticized an unnamed Democratic lawmaker for switching to the Republican Party following the 2010 election. He talked about how that legislator’s wife was going to save his “white sheets” for a “midnight meeting.” Some Republicans perceived he was comparing them to the Ku Klux Klan, but Brown later said he was referring to GOP sex scandals, The (Macon) Telegraph reported.

Brown’s friends wondered about an inconsistency in his life. While Brown served on the public stage for decades, he was extremely private. He never married or had children, his friends said.

“Robert was married to his work in the community and in the political arena,” said Lonnie Miley, a Macon City Council member and longtime friend. “I have never met a person who was so public but yet so private.”

Those two worlds will collide Wednesday. A memorial service has been set for 1 p.m. that day at Greater Zion Hill Baptist Church at 2656 Napier Ave., in Macon. The public is invited to attend.