ALTAMAHAW, N.C. (AP) — Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson formally entered next year’s gubernatorial race at a rally Saturday, with the tough-talking social conservative saying North Carolina needs a leader like him who can face the challenges and aspirations of working people.
Elected as 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 North Carolinians need someone who understands us,” Robinson told roughly 1,000 supporters at an event at the Alamance County Speedway, about half an hour from where he grew up. “We don’t need another politician who has spent his life climbing the political ladder.”
Robinson’s entrance has been anticipated for more than a year, with the Greensboro native heavily hinting at a series of speeches and fundraising appeals. The 54-year-old has also released an autobiography that talks about his childhood in poverty, financial challenges as an adult, his religious beliefs and his late entry into politics.
Other contenders are also lining up to try to succeed Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is barred by the state constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein announced his candidacy in January. Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell also entered the race last month. And former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, RN.C., is set to step in in the coming weeks, according to Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the consulting firm advising Walker.
Robinson’s popularity among the Republican base and big box office have put him at the top of the list of GOP primary candidates. But others have questioned whether his aggressive, conservative style and blunt comments on 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 only won the governorship once since 1992, back in 2012.
For several decades, the position of lieutenant governor has been considered a stepping stone to the highest office in the state. But since the late 1960s, only three of them — all Democrats — have made the jump to governor.
Robinson held the event at Ace Speedway, which defied Cooper’s 2020 executive order limiting outdoor crowds to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The track’s owners are still fighting Cooper’s administration in court over its temporary closure.
Robinson’s 35-minute speech on Saturday included addressing fiscal issues such as inflation, school safety and police support. But the seat choice reinforced his narrative as an anti-establishment candidate looking for average people.
“I should have been crushed by racism as a Negro in the South,” he said under the pouring rain. “I have the opportunity 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 with a viral video of his 2018 anti-gun control speech to the Greensboro City Council about efforts to cancel a local gun show.
“I think he is honest. I think he’s direct. I think he worked hard to get where he is today,” said Ruthann Harris, 78, of Elon, who attended the rally.
“I think she’s going to listen to people,” said Nim Harris, her husband.
Critics of Robinson have pointed to speeches he has given in conservative churches and on radio shows that have touched on his antipathy toward LGBTQ+ activism and support for abortion bans.
In a 2021 address at a church, Robinson said, “There’s no reason for anyone anywhere in America to talk to any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth.”
Robinson did not apologize for such remarks, saying that he was not attacking the LGBTQ+ community, but that it was a judgment on public school reading. He also said he could separate his religious views from the duties of his ministry.
Robinson said Saturday that he wants to make North Carolina a “destination state for life,” which he said includes his support for banning abortions when an ultrasound first detects fetal heart activity, usually about six weeks after conception. State law currently prohibits almost all abortions after 20 weeks.
Gubernatorial rivals were already hitting back at Robinson even before the formal announcement.
Stein’s campaign launch video accused Robinson of wanting “to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant, and who you should hate.” Folwell said last month that Robinson spent his time in the spotlight “attacking people instead of attacking important issues facing our citizens.”
As for Walker, his distribution of Robinson’s 2018 speech helped catapult him to stardom. But Robinson endorsed Ted Budd for the U.S. Senate last year, not Walker, who finished third behind Budd in the GOP primary. Budd endorsed Robinson in a video message broadcast at Saturday’s rally.
In a statement this weekend, Walker said he understood his supporters’ desire “to nominate a Republican who can hold up under the scrutiny of a gubernatorial candidate.”