East Ridge Paper Route to Malibu Lawyer
Time Free Press
April 1st, 2017
by Millicent Smith
Thump. Thump. Thump.
That was the rhythmic sound that Robert Barnes remembers from the early dawn hours of his early childhood mornings.
That was the sound the bundled Chattanooga Times would make as they hit the sidewalks and driveways of the East Lake homes while four-year old Robert Barnes rode alongside his father, Walter, who threw the newspapers along the route.
It was the sound of Barnes' afternoons too.
The boy and his father would nap after the morning route and wake to deliver The Chattanooga News-Free Press.
The future attorney and political pundit learned a lot on those routes. The routes took Barnes through racially and socio-economically diverse communities where Barnes witnessed what class divides could do to a neighborhood.
He already knew what those divides could do to a family. One of six children, Barnes grew up in a small duplex in East Ridge.
"We grew up in a red brick duplex, a place OK on the outside but falling apart inside," Barnes says. "Our water heater was too small, [there were] holes in the floors of the bathroom you had to jump over to get to the bathtub. [The] heating never worked, nor did air-conditioning, so you learned [about] fans, kerosene heaters, and electric blankets. I once woke up on my bed on the floor — a bed with broken springs that used to cut me occasionally — to three rats staring in my face."
While many facing similar circumstances would be hard pressed to imagine a life beyond this level of poverty, Barnes used his circumstances as inspiration for a career in law and populist politics, politics that focuses on the rights of the common man.
Barnes, 42, became a minor national celebrity late last year when he won a "six-figure" amount of money betting Donald Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
In fact, it was that belief and connection to the needs of the working man that caused Barnes to see what many didn't see in the cards for the 2016 election.
During primary season, Barnes, who often bets on elections, began to check out then-candidate Donald Trump's rallies. In the beginning, Barnes saw Trump primarily as a means to a winning bet. But by the night of the election, Barnes saw Trump as a fellow crusader for the populist politics.
From his modest root here, Barnes was exposed to Eastern elites at Yale University and chose to tailor his life's work to helping people in need.
"I chose the underdog side as a lawyer because I grew up on that side of life," Barnes says. "Growing up broke, I was driven to make an impact, a drive that never left me. Just like those East Lake courts residents who eagerly awaited their morning newspapers, I refused to let life circumstances limit how I lived or who I sought to be."
That drive took Robert from a small private school in Chattanooga, to McCallie School which he attended on scholarship, on to Yale and eventually law school. His legal practice included pro bono work for domestic abuse victims, working at a law firm in Chattanooga, and winning tax defenses for high profile clients like Wesley Snipes out of his oceanfront office in Malibu, California.
Though Barnes' legal acumen and drive took him far from his humble roots, he never forgot his grounding belief in the rights of the working-class man.
Barnes has loved populism since attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It was at UTC under the instruction of American History Professor Dr. Larry Ingle, that Barnes studied populism and the populist politics of controversial Chattanooga political icon, Bookie Turner, a former county sheriff and funeral home owner.
"Bookie was born where I was: Penny's Row then, East Ridge today. They called it Penny's Row back then as a lot of people who lived there didn't have a "penny to their name," Barnes recalls. "But he didn't let his life circumstances deter him. He loved getting his hands on books, from which he earned the nickname "Bookie" and it stuck. He used his life work and life skills to give a voice to the city's underdogs, the working-class people of the city, black and white, church folks and those who spent a little more time celebrating on Saturday nights. I admired, respected and wanted to emulate Bookie in my own way: use my life circumstances to give underdogs a fighting chance."
Barnes identified with more than Turner's East Ridge beginnings, he identified with a missing father too.
Missing a father
Thump. Thump. Thump.
In front of a radio in their living room — the Barnes family could not afford a television — 11-year old Barnes and his father listened to the 1986 March Madness basketball of Louisville versus Duke.
Knowing his son was rooting for Duke, his father left for work and warned the boy, "I know you want them to win, but, sorry I think it will be Louisville."
At half-time, the thumping of the college basketball game was interrupted by the ringing of the old green rotary phone that hung in the Barnes' kitchen.
"All I remember to what was said on that phone was my Mom's reaction," Barnes says. "She screamed, then completely collapsed to the floor. I turned off the game."
Barnes' father had died of a massive heart attack.
The young boy who had grown up on "Penny's Row" of East Ridge, who had also fed his curiosity with an obsession with books, now had another thing in common with fellow populist Bookie Turner: a missing father figure.
While Barnes' family had struggled financially before the death of his father, in his absence, Barnes' circumstances grew even more dire. The 12-year old boy was sent to work in a family diner in New England to help earn money for the family and for the rest of his school days, his summers would be spent rising at dawn and working until the evening dinner shift, far away from the comfort of Penny's Row.
Though Barnes was lacking a father, his older siblings saw genius in the boy and wanted to find a way to create a different life for Barnes. They sought to find a way for Barnes to attend McCallie School.
"Bob was really smart but seemed like the school where he was was not best place for him and we wanted better for him," Barnes sister, Martha, says. "My mom and dad were educated but living in poverty and so we had a heart for people who were judged by things on the outside."
Because of the Brock scholarship and the Coca Cola Scholars program, Barnes attended and graduated from McCallie.
"I remember making a makeshift desk in his closet with a big board and like crates or something on the sides for him to study on when he went to McCallie," Martha recalls.
Classes on elitism
After graduation, Barnes went on to Yale with high hopes. He'd had enriching experiences at McCallie and in the Governor's School program, and he expected the same at Yale. Instead, he was confronted by his first taste of what he viewed as out-of-touch elitism.
"I realized it was just a bunch of elite, people from small pockets of the world who are just there to reestablish their own belief structure," Barnes says.
While at Yale, Barnes took a class on populism with Sean Trende who would go on to become a political analyst at RealClear Politics.
"What I remember most is when (Barnes) left Yale, he wrote one of the greatest op-eds in the Yale Daily News," Trende recalls. "It was like 'Trumpism' 25 years ago, telling the Democrat progressive 'Yalies' that 'the whole world doesn't see everything the way you do.'"
In January of 2016, Trende wrote about the alienation he observed as a Yale undergrad in "Why Trump, Why Now?" for the RealClearPolitics website. In the piece, Trende described the growing divide between what he calls cosmopolitanists and traditionalists and recalled his own experience of the rift.
"I can think of numerous events from my Yale undergraduate days, which today we might have labeled 'micro aggressions,' that encapsulate the differences (in the U.S.)," Trende wrote of questions he received from other students. "Some were small and innocent (Do you have electricity and/or ride horses in Oklahoma?). And some were grotesque (the teaching assistant who found out my father served in Vietnam and immediately asked if he had nightmares from the horrible things he must have done)."
"I'm from Oklahoma and we kind of bonded in that sense," Trende said of Barnes. "I think (Barnes) had some good (election) insight that a lot of people missed because he has this passion for populism."
Back to his populist roots
And with that op-ed, Barnes left to attend UTC and his life brought him back into contact with his hometown newspapers where he combed the archives for his senior thesis on Bookie Turner.
And through that research Barnes began a deeper study of populism.
"The rest of the South in the 1960s was falling apart over racial conflict," Barnes recalls. "Chattanooga did not because Bookie put together a coalition of working-class voters across the coalition across the political and religious spectrum."
Turner was the antidote to Barnes' frustration with elitism.
"I think Bookie Turner tapped into discontent with the elite," Dr. Ingle said.
Certainly the study of Turner tapped into Barnes discontent.
"The first time I really dug into populism," Barnes says. "I was frustrated realizing the deep degree of disconnect between me and these people [at Yale and at his college internship in Washington D.C].
While his professor, Ingle, encouraged Barnes to pursue history, Barnes saw more power for the people in a pursuit of law.
"Larry always wanted me to go into history rather than law," Barnes says. "And I always told him why write history when you can make history?"
Barnes graduated and went on to law school at the University of Wisconsin where he continued his social activism by clerking for the Hoocgra Native American nation.
Barnes' path after law school took him back to Chattanooga where he worked at a street law practice and represented women who had been victims of abuse. He also began to manage campaigns and advise local candidates such as attorney Whitney Durand on their policy and campaigns.
"I met him through Democratic party politics while he worked in a campaign I was running at that time for Congress" Durand recalls. "He is quite a political operator, quite effective in what he did mostly in developing ideas and policy positions and even strategies and techniques for a campaign."
Durand recalls Barnes' distaste for the Clinton's administration policy on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an issue that would remain a passion point for Barnes in years to come.
"The policy would jeopardize the employment of people like his family," Durand said.
As others in Barnes life did, Durand saw the star that was on the rise for the young political and legal activist.
"Almost everyone around him recognized that he would be successful at political or legal paths." Durand recalls.
In the legal spotlight
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The judge in Arizona's ninth circuit court of appeals gaveled court into session. On the state's side and on the side of the Democratic party, attorneys continued to fill the table. The large wooden doors of the courtroom swung open as 12 attorneys filed past Barnes and his client, independent political candidate and consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader.
Barnes reached out to Nader when Nader admitted in a national interview that the state's pursuit of Nader's candidacy (by way of challenging his supporters' right to petition) had left him with no resources for legal representation. He plainly stated that he needed an attorney to work for free.
Barnes was that attorney. He called Nader and offered his services. And, more than free legal services, Barnes brought Nader and the democratic process, a certain victory. The victory for Nader was not the only legal success that found Barnes in the spotlight.
With his representation of Wesley Snipes, national media outlets such as The New York Times hailed Barnes legal mind and courtroom presence.
Cashing in on Trump
Barnes has long been a political bettor, traveling to Europe to bet on elections where it is legal to do so. He has a track record of winning bets, but few political bets paid off for Barnes like the 2016 election.
Not only did the election net him a high six figure win, it also re-engaged Barnes in the political arena, and, because of his profitable prescience, earned him a seat at the table of national political pundits. Barnes has recently been featured on a number of high profile news shows, writes regularly for Lawnewz on the intersection of constitutional law and politics, and is so inspired by the populist resurgence launched by Trump that he sees his future not in a courtroom but in Washington D.C.