ALTAMAHAW, N.C. (AP) — Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson formally entered next year’s gubernatorial race at a rally Saturday, with the sharp-spoken social conservative saying North Carolina neads a leader like him who can relate to the challlenges and desires of working people.
Elected the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in 2020 in his first run for political office, Robinson would make similar history if he wins the governorship.
“I’m running for governor because we the people of North Carolina need someone who understands us,” Robinson told roughly 1,000 supporters at the event at a speedway in Alamance County, about a half-hour from where he grew up. “We don’t need another politician who’s spent their life climbing the political ladder.”
Robinson’s entry was anticipated for well over a year, with the Greensboro native heavily hinting at a run in speeches and fundraising appeals. The 54-year-old also released an autobiography that talked about a childhood of poverty, financial challenges as an adult, his religious beliefs and his late entry into politics.
Other competitors are also lining up to try to succeed Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is barred by the state consitution from seeking a third consecutive term.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein announced his bid in January. Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell also got in the race last month. And former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., is preparing to enter in the coming weeks, according to Tim Murtaugh, a spokesperson for a consulting firm advising Walker.
Robinson’s popularity among the Republican base and flush coffers put him squarely at the top of the list of candidates for a GOP primary. But others have questioned whether his aggressive, conservative style and blunt comments about LGBTQ+ rights, abortion and the role of women make him the party’s best choice to win a general election in a closely divided state.
Despite Republican success in controlling the state legislature, the GOP has won the governor’s office just once since 1992, back in 2012.
The office of lieutentant governor has been considered for several decades as a stepping stone to the state’s highest office. But since the late 1960s, only three of them — all Democrats — have made the leap to governor.
Robinson held the event at Ace Speedway, which defied Cooper’s executive order in 2020 limiting outdoor crowds to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The track’s owners are still fighting the Cooper administration in court over its temporary closure.
Robinson’s 35-minute speech Saturday included support for Republican tax-cutting policies, as well as for school safety and law enforcement. But the choice of venue reinforced his narrative as an anti-establishment candidate looking out for average folks.
“I was supposed to be crushed by racism as a Black man in the South,” he said under rain showers. “I have a chance to be a symbol to others in humble beginnings, and despite what anyone else may tell you, you can achieve anything.”
A former factory worker and day care operator, Robinson gained public attention from a viral video of his 2018 anti-gun control speech to the Greensboro City Council about attempts to cancel a local gun show.
“I think he’s honest. I think he’s straightforward. I think he’s worked hard for where he is today,” said Ruthann Harris, 78, of Elon, who attended the rally.
“I think he’ll listen to the people,” said Nim Harris, her husband.
Robinson’s critics have pointed to speeches he has made in conservative churches and on radio shows that touched on his antipathy toward LGBTQ+ activism and for his support for banning abortion.
In one address at a church in 2021, Robinson said, “There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth.”
Robinson hasn’t apologized for such remarks, saying that he wasn’t attacking the LGBTQ+ community but rather that it was a judgment on reading materials in public schools. He also has said he can separate his religious views from the responsibilities of office.
Robinson said Saturday he wants to make North Carolina a “destination state for life,” which he said includes his support for legislation preventing abortions once an ultrasound first detects fetal cardiac activity, typically about six weeks after fertilization. State law currently bans nearly all abortions after 20 weeks.
Gubernatorial rivals already have been pushing back at Robinson even before the formal announcement.
Stein’s campaign-opening video accused Robinson of wanting “to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant and who you should hate.” And Folwell said last month that Robinson has spent his time in the political spotlight “attacking people instead of attacking the important problems that our citizens are facing.”
As for Walker, it was his distribution of Robinson’s 2018 speech that helped vault him to fame. But Robinson endorsed Ted Budd for U.S. Senate last year and not Walker, who finished a distant third to Budd in the GOP primary. Budd endorsed Robinson in a video message aired at Saturday’s rally.
In a statement this weekend, Walker said he understands the desire of his supporters “to nominate a Republican who can hold up under the scrutiny a candidate for governor will undergo.”