The enigma of Mark Robinson: How NC's outspoken lieutenant governor is climbing the GOP ladder
In multiple interviews with WRAL News, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a possible contender for governor in 2024, expressed a desire for an outright ban on abortion and for making same-sex marriage illegal.Posted — Updated
Standing in front of the vacant lot of what was once a dilapidated four-room house on Logan Street, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson reflects on these and other painful memories.
More than anything, Robinson remembers the fear. The fear of homeless people. The fear of not making any friends at school. The fear of how his father would behave at the dinner table.
He insists there’s only one thing he could have told his younger self who had witnessed domestic violence: “Don’t be afraid,” he says, fighting off tears and pausing, halting to collect himself.
“I saw my dad as this big massive guy fighting my mom and I thought it’s not right,” Robinson said. “He shouldn’t be doing that. I always saw it as unfair that he was doing that. While it was terrible that I witnessed it, I thank God that it affected me in a way that makes me a champion of people who are victims of that now.”
Decades later, the once-frightened child from Greensboro is a heartbeat away from running the state. He has become one of the most animating and divisive figures in North Carolina politics, with a view of fairness that makes others fearful of how he’d act as governor if elevated to the office or if he’s elected in 2024.
“He is a naturally aligned figure with the tenets and components of the North Carolina Republican Party,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. “He is a good example of what a North Carolina Republican who pretty much dominates is.”
While the next election for governor is more than two years away, there’s increasing scrutiny on Robinson, and for the pivotal role he could play in North Carolina if state Republicans fare well in November.
If Republicans can maintain control of the General Assembly in 2024, it could put Robinson in position to preside over major changes in state laws – tighter abortion restrictions, looser gun control and stricter immigration measures.
Since 2017, the state’s Democratic governor has been a roadblock to the GOP’s most ambitious legislative goals, particularly on abortion and immigration.
“It would be a very different state right now if the governor didn’t have veto power or if we had a Republican governor,” said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist.
Robinson isn’t the stiff conservative of the 1980s and 1990s hyper-focused on budgets and tax policy. Rather, he forcefully speaks out on social issues. Abortion, gay rights and limiting discussions about racism and sexuality in schools are central to his messaging. A Robinson candidacy would be a litmus test for how far to the right voters are willing to go.
“Whether North Carolina will be willing to veer towards some of those policies or stay more moderately in the middle, that’s something to digest over the next two years,” Bitzer said.
Hours of interviews with Robinson over the course of several months revealed to WRAL News a paradoxical lieutenant governor whose beliefs are informed in unexpected ways by his lived experiences.
He draws his views from a range of personal ups and downs that many voters find relatable. He’s open about religion and how it shapes his views on abortion, and he discusses the times he spent crying in the shower years after he paid for the procedure. He says his biblical attitudes shape his thoughts on same-sex marriage and that his experiences with school desegregation initiatives inform his views on race.
“People are no longer looking for a politician to come out and give a speech out of a can and try to act like something that they’re not,” Robinson said. “I can assure you that’s something I’ve never done. I’ve never tried to be somebody I’m not.
“I’ve never told anybody that I’m the smartest guy in the room. I’ve never inflated what I’ve done in my life. I’ve never tried to seem like something that I’m not. Even in my Christian walk, I tell people, ‘You want to see the biggest sinner in the room, come see me.’”
An uncertain future
North Carolinians have seen rising costs just about everywhere in their personal lives over the past year, and economic uncertainty is likely to linger for many in the near future. Despite a labor shortage, some industries are more in-demand than others. Global trade policies since the 1990s have greatly impacted Robinson and deflated the state’s once flourishing manufacturing industry. Robinson’s personal connection to the issue could prove central to his 2024 messaging.
As factory production wound down, Robinson pulled out an employee suggestion card to collect his thoughts. He wrote to himself: “At 12:02 on 7/15/15, I sat at my desk at Steelcase and wondered what I would be doing in 5 years.”
Politics, to say nothing of being lieutenant governor of the nation’s ninth most populous state, wasn’t expected.
Standing outside a childhood playground, Robinson tucks the note back into his wallet, where he stores it as a reminder of how far he’s come. More attention is likely to come if he seeks to become the state’s leader.
If elected as North Carolina’s next governor, he says he’d get behind measures that outlaw abortion in all cases, ban same-sex marriage and reshape how public schoolchildren are taught. He’d also push for loosened restrictions on gun owners and a ban on transgender athletes competing in high school sports outside the gender assigned at their birth.
Asked if he’d support a law defining marriage as between one man and one woman, Robinson replied, “Personally, do I believe that? Yes. Do I think that a strong and healthy debate should go into that to make it the law? Absolutely.”
“People should take him for what he’s saying and understand that he would take that bully pulpit into the Governor’s Office and turn it into policies and procedures that would dangerously impact the lives of North Carolinians and harm our economic base,” said Bobbie Richardson, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
She added: “Why would we want someone who would take us back to a period we have fought to come out of?”
Companies canceled expansions in the state due to HB2, and there were other losses beyond missed economic opportunities. The bill was widely seen as a key reason Republicans lost the Governor’s Mansion in 2016. Gov. Pat McCrory lost to his Democratic opponent, Roy Cooper, the current governor.
Can Robinson win?
He attributes his political awakening to reading a book by Rush Limbaugh, after which he says he “found out that I was conservative and always had been.”
Robinson has further endeared himself to former President Donald Trump, who praised him at an April 9 rally in Johnston County. “He is going places,” Trump told a spirited crowd. “They love this guy.”
The occasion reflected a meteoric rise for the man who questioned his professional future on an employee suggestion card just a few years earlier.
“I am living proof that the American Dream isn’t dead,” Robinson said after Trump directed him back on stage. “It’s alive and well. It’s not even on life support. With President Trump’s help in 2024, we’re going to make that more clear than ever.”
Robinson’s ascent, however, has frustrated some in his own party. Several Republicans privately hope that his inflammatory rhetoric and hardline views will catch up to him. Publicly, however, few conservatives have been willing to cross him.
“I’m receiving a lot of calls from people who know my track record, know my results and the way that I approach attacking problems and not attacking people,” Folwell said. “At the end of the day, if you’re going to be the CEO of the largest business in the state—which is the state—it’s results that’s going to matter, not rage.”
Walker, who brought attention to the 2018 Greensboro City Council speech and coordinated Robinson’s Fox News television debut, said the two now have a different relationship.
“Anytime you have somebody who’s promoting you as the best candidate for the U.S. Senate and does a 180-degree [turn], it does impact the relationship,” Walker said. “I don’t hold grudges. We were talking on a weekly basis. That doesn’t exist anymore.”
Nonetheless, political onlookers see Robinson as the favorite to win in a GOP primary.
But what exactly a Robinson administration could achieve remains to be seen.
A life of inconsistency, evolving stances
Robinson’s stances, while contradictory to his past, have in many cases been informed by his lived experience. Interviews with Robinson and those close to him reveal a complex and paradoxical man.
He discourages premarital sex, a view shaped by his regret for having had such intimate experiences as a teenager.
He actively seeks controversy with his divisive rhetoric but is described by loved ones as a compassionate individual who enjoys his quiet time building a model train display.
At Mike’s Trains in Thomasville, Robinson reflected on locomotives with sound he previously bought for about $320 each. He then rushed out the door with glee as a full-sized train passed by across the street from the shop.
“My views on homosexuality or LGBTQ things, those things are personal,” Robinson said. “My religious perspective on those things are guaranteed to me under the First Amendment. I would say to anybody, ‘When my personal religious opinions cross over into my office and cross over into legislation or law that violates someone’s constitutional right, that is when we should have an issue.’”
While the lieutenant governor’s day-to-day duties effectively start and end with using the megaphone of the office, his political foes urge voters to take Robinson’s views seriously.
“You can’t just say, ‘I have an extreme view, but it doesn’t affect my job,’” said Josh Stein, North Carolina’s Democratic attorney general who is seen as the likely opponent to Robinson in a possible 2024 governor’s race. “I mean, what we do as public officials is execute on those positions and we advocate for them. He’s drawing this distinction that is not real.”
Kyle Luebke, president of the North Carolina chapter of Log Cabin Republicans, a group of LGBTQ conservatives, said Robinson is “just behind the times.” He cited a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to pass legislation that legalizes same-sex marriage and said Robinson’s views are out step with GOP efforts to be more inclusive.
“Any candidate who is going to focus on issues that are divisive, such as trying to relitigate marriage equality, either rhetorically or advocate for a law that does so, is not going to win,” Luebke said.
Robinson’s opinions on gay marriage are far from the only view that’s out of touch with his own party.
Robinson embraces blanket abortion ban
They called it the “infamous night of Ben-Hur.”
The household of seven gathered around a black-and-white television to watch the classic four-hour film only to be interrupted by a relentless string of rat traps.
They snapped one after another after another after another after another for the duration of the movie. Relentless. But they didn’t care about the distractions. The household was peaceful, joyful in that moment.
“We hear a rat, another one, we’d run in there and get it, another one, we’d run in there and get it,” Robinson said. “We had a rat infestation, but those are the things you deal with when you live in substandard housing of that nature. My parents did the absolute best we could.”
As the second-youngest of 10 children and an infant who spent months in the foster care system, Robinson finds a rags-to-political-riches story like his nearly impossible. But he also views it as a tale of limitless potential that may never have happened if his mother didn’t go through with a pregnancy.
Robinson’s father, Dayson, was about 71 years old when he was born. His mother, Eva Mae, was 40. Neither had a job. They relied almost entirely on government assistance to try to make ends meet. The lieutenant governor believes if it were up to Democrats, he never would’ve been born in the first place.
Robinson thinks the 20-week ban doesn’t go far enough. He said he wants to make North Carolina the “most pro-life state in the Union” and impose “dire consequences” on doctors who unlawfully perform the medical procedure. “I don’t think abortion should ever happen,” he said.
While Robinson personally opposes abortion in all cases, he said he likely wouldn’t get in the way of a bill that allowed for abortion in cases where a woman’s life is at stake or she is a victim of rape or incest.
His views stem from an abortion he paid for in 1989 for Yolanda Hill, his girlfriend at the time who he’s been married to for more than 32 years. Over the years, he has come to regret the abortion decision.
“There was no deep thought in it at that point,” Robinson said of the couple’s thought process at the time. "It was just this is what you do when this happens. It was an option. We did it, and then after we did, the longer the time passed, the worse it was."
After he and Hill had their two children in 1990 and 1992, his regret over the abortion brought him to a low.
“I won’t say depressed, but it was something that just weighed on me heavy all the time,” Robinson said.
It took him more than 20 years to discuss the subject with his wife.
“It affected both of us the same way, and I don’t think either one of us knew how to bring it up for fear of just not wanting to open up the wounds,” said Yolanda Hill, Robinson’s wife. “It was just something that we were dealing with through prayer and talking to God about it when you feel like you can’t talk to anybody else.”
Robinson publicly discussed the experience in a 2012 Facebook comment that resurfaced in March. But he said he hadn’t talked about the 1989 abortion up to that point out of respect for his wife’s privacy.
‘He’s actually an introvert’
As bombastic as Robinson comes across publicly, he can be guarded even with the closest people in his life.
“He does like talking, but he’s actually an introvert, which probably most people don’t believe,” Hill said. “You would never believe, but he really is. In a room full of people, he’d rather be in the corner somewhere.”
Wayne Campbell, a close friend of Robinson who has known him since the fourth grade, said he hadn’t known about Hill’s abortion, nor the domestic violence Robinson witnessed. “You just don’t put family business out in the street,” Campbell said.
In his interactions with staff, Robinson can sometimes be moody and stand-offish. At other moments, particularly when he’s out of the office and speaking with voters, he’s lively and self-deprecating. He can even be spotted on occasion singing Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" without missing a word.
Robinson has scaled back some of his most mundane duties. He has members of his staff fill him in on State Board of Education meetings, rather than attending the forums himself. If it were up to him, he says he’d get rid of the board altogether.
“While I can raise my concern and I can raise my voice, and, quite frankly, I can raise hell all I want to, that board is stacked in a direction that’s against us,” Robinson said. “And we have decided quite deliberately to take a step back.”
During a July interview, Robinson was frustrated that his scheduler, Patrick Riley, didn’t allot time in his day that was supposed to be reserved for exercise he tries to do multiple times a week as part of an ongoing effort by the 5-foot-11, 300-plus pound lieutenant governor to get closer to his high school weight of 210.
Rather than give a tour of the lieutenant governor’s office himself, Robinson had Riley do it. On the tour, Riley pointed out an incomplete model train track Robinson was developing.
After the office tour concluded and Robinson wrapped up a meeting with staff, the lieutenant governor had his communications director, John Waugh, go out to track down a Jersey Mike’s sandwich.
By the end of the interview, Robinson’s frustrations subsided. He offered this reporter the other half of his sandwich, which was politely declined.
“This is an independent desire to stick around,” Robinson said, speaking about his exercise. “It’s not about being thin or buff. It’s about being able to be effective in peoples’ eyes and being able to gain people’s confidence and being able to gain my own confidence.”
Robinson, who spent time in the U.S. Army Reserve, looked on as mechanics worked on a beat-up plane in Goldsboro. He told the tour guide about his time completing advanced training as a medical specialist, describing his tenure as “short and uneventful.”
But while he was very much excited to see the base, he appeared distant, visibly tense in anticipation of questions about the abortion.
By lunchtime, Robinson had eased up. He talked about his love of model trains, Johnny Cash, the classic science-fiction TV series “The Twilight Zone” and “Gunsmoke,” the popular Western series. He revealed a disdain for Brunswick stew, a staple often served with North Carolina BBQ.
After the four-hour tour concluded, Robinson stood in a parking lot and said he’d put out a statement. “It’s something that I’ve wanted to talk about for years,” he said.
He and his wife later released a video in which Robinson expressed regret over the decision as Hill sat silently next to him.
Since then, Robinson says he’s received support from people who have shared similar personal experiences.
What abortion restrictions might look like
Robinson has distanced himself from more radical ideas about abortion floated by some of the most right-wing members of his party, including an unsuccessful bill that five Republican state lawmakers proposed last year that would have made it punishable by death or life imprisonment for North Carolina women to obtain abortions.
“We’re not going to go that far,” Robinson said of the capital punishment proposal. “Definitely not going to go that far.”
Robinson said he supports a narrower enforcement of abortion restrictions that focuses on medical providers. “There should certainly be dire consequences for somebody who performs an illegal abortion just like it should be for anyone who performs an illegal medical procedure,” he said.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have said they’d mull additional abortion restrictions after the 2022 election, when they hope to gain veto-proof majorities in each chamber.
“There’s been no determination about what’s going to happen on any kind of legislation dealing with abortion,” Moore said. “We’re going to work through it in a very comprehensive way. We’re going to do so in a way that takes into account the health of women.”
Tara Romano, executive director of Pro-Choice North Carolina, said her group’s immediate priority is preventing Republicans from gaining supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, which would allow the GOP to pass abortion restrictions over the objections of the state’s Democratic governor. She also urged people to take Robinson’s views seriously in the meantime.
“At the state level, we have been able to block abortion restrictions since 2016,” Romano said. “And that's because of who we've been able to get in office. We have a governor who will veto anti-abortion bills, and we've been able to uphold those vetoes.”
Robinson’s religious views first took shape on a Saturday night in Greensboro around 1986.
At the urging of his childhood friend, Wayne Campbell, Robinson attended a faith-based event at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
Robinson couldn’t remember much about the speaker or the events that unfolded that night, but he said he left the event feeling as though he had been saved. He felt he was put on a path toward becoming a better, more intentional person.
“It was not this instantaneous thing,” Robinson said. “My spiritual journey has been long, and sometimes, it’s kind of difficult. The most difficult parts of it have been looking at myself in the mirror and realizing that I have not lived up to what God has expected me to do.”
‘Never punched down on gay people’
Robinson says his faith is the reason he’s held firm on anti-LGBTQ views. Throughout his personal and political life, Robinson has made a number of inflammatory comments directed at the gay community.
He defended such comments during a WRAL interview.
“When it comes to the religion that I practice and the God that I believe in, I believe that he created everything unto a purpose,” Robinson said. “And I don’t believe that that’s one of the things that he created into any of his purposes. I just don’t believe it.”
Robinson appears open to banning same-sex marriage. He said couples ought to be able to “maintain a household,” but he said he doesn’t consider same-sex relationships true marriages.
“Marriage is between one man and one woman,” Robinson said. “That was what I was raised on and that is what my Bible tells me.”
He insists he can separate his personal views from the responsibilities of his office, saying he even has some LGBTQ supporters.
Luebke, the head of North Carolina’s Log Cabin Republicans, said he’s getting married to a fellow LGBTQ member in April. He worries Robinson’s views would translate to policies that take the state backwards and distract from the economic-focused message he believes Republicans ought to stick to.
“I don’t think that it is wise for the party to move in a direction that is alienating to the vast majority of North Carolinians,” Luebke said.
Cooper declined to be interviewed for this article. But a spokesperson for the governor, Sam Chan, issued an email statement condemning what the governor sees from Robinson as “extreme views [that] do not represent the people of our state.”
Robinson says he doesn’t see himself as unfair to others.
“I’ve never punched down on gay people, I don’t believe,” Robinson said. “I’ve never said that gay people should not be allowed to be who they are, express who they are. What I push back on are marriages that I believe encroach onto other people’s rights.”
If he were governor, Robinson would also work to prohibit transgender people from competing on a high school sports team other than the one that aligns with the gender assigned at their birth.
“It is an issue of right and wrong and fairness,” Robinson said. “And if people want to get mad at me about that, then so be it. But my position on it is clear: If you want to compete in sports, your DNA should dictate which side you’re on.”
Standing outside the Hawkins-Hartness House in October, the lieutenant governor’s office in downtown Raleigh, a defiant Robinson held a news conference to address concerns over the comment he had made at a church linking transgenderism to “filth.” He doubled down on the remarks, saying he wasn’t demonizing transgender people. Instead, he said he was referring to reading materials inside classrooms he considered inappropriate.
Robinson delivered a PowerPoint-like presentation, displaying sexually explicit reading materials available in some K-12 school libraries. He insisted it didn’t matter to him whether such reading had gay or heterosexual content. He called the images, including one from the “Gender Queer” comic strip-style book about one person’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality "borderline child pornography."
“The indoctrination is happening in our schools,” Robinson told WRAL. “I hate to say this, but it’s like carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s colorless. It’s odorless. Nobody sees it.”
Since coming into office, Robinson has made education a central issue, seeking to present himself as the protector of impressionable children vulnerable to questionable classroom teachings.
Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality North Carolina, an LGBTQ rights group, said Robinson should more carefully choose his words to avoid creating further harm to an already vulnerable group.
"Hateful comments from elected officials towards marginalized communities absolutely escalate attacks,” Johnson said in a statement. “We've seen it in the epidemic of violence towards the trans community, we've seen it take lives in Buffalo and we saw it last year in the anti-Asian attacks in Atlanta, which were fueled by hate spread by our former president. We need to stop elevating the bigotries of elected officials and work towards greater social justice."
‘Black doesn’t identify me’
It’s hard to separate Robinson’s views on education from his attitudes on race. He blames school busing programs for racial divisions, noting he constantly had to move to different elementary schools, which made it difficult for him to sustain friendships.
“While I identify as being Black, Black doesn’t identify me because I certainly don’t fit in anybody’s mold,” Robinson said.
Robinson said he was looked down on for his fashion choices and how he carried himself.
“My contemporaries would look at me and say, ‘You know, you talk like a white person. You act like a white person,’” Robinson said during a tour of his high school. “I wore cowboy boots about every day here after I could afford [them], and that was considered somewhat taboo for a Black man to wear cowboy boots. But it wasn’t because I was trying to be white. I was trying to be Mark Robinson.”
In his autobiography, Robinson describes how he refused to participate in a college classroom exercise where students were directed to take one step forward for every question a professor asked about opportunities they were afforded or experiences they had. Robinson says he chose not to move because he disagreed with the notion of white privilege and systemic racism.
He believes his difficult upbringing makes him more resilient than his peers and better equipped to tackle life challenges.
“Human beings are endowed with free will and a God-given conscience,” he writes in his book. “You determine where you end up.”
He believes too many public school teachers today are trying to actively remedy longstanding societal ills rather than give students the tools they need to be independent thinkers.
“I’m a firm believer that Grades 1-5 should be reserved strictly for three topics: reading, writing and math and that’s it,” Robinson said in an interview.
In the autobiography, Robinson further spelled out his views: “In those grades, we don’t need to be teaching social studies. We don’t need to be teaching science. We surely don’t need to be talking about equity and social justice."
He has since walked back the comments, insisting history is fine to teach with reading as the focus and that he’s not calling for the outright removal of the subject from school curricula.
“We don’t want to restrict discussion,” Robinson said in an interview. “We want to restrict directed discussion.”
Reckoning with history
The bill was widely seen as a response to ideas Republicans associated with “critical race theory,” a conceptual framework scholars developed in the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they saw as a lack of racial progress after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The theory centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
Robinson said conservatives often make the mistake of claiming CRT itself is being taught in K-12 schools. Instead, he said, voters should be worried about elements of CRT being ingrained into the coursework and discussion.
Robinson sought to get a college degree to become a history teacher, but dropped out of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro three classes short of a degree and left his job at Davis Furniture after his 2018 speech on gun rights created many speaking engagement opportunities. He hopes to someday get a college degree and teach history.
“That’s not a regret,” Robinson said. “That is still a desire, and at some point in my life, I still want to do that. Sure do.”
The man who has all but announced a run for governor hopes to soon forward his own history.
“I’m more than that speech at the City Council and I’m more than just an elected official,” Robinson said. “I’m a North Carolinian. I’ve shared the experiences of so many people in this state. I’ve seen the ups, I’ve seen the downs.
“I was that guy who was the dishwasher and I was that guy who had to sign the paychecks at the bottom. I was the guy who was working at the good job who got locked out the door because the plant was shutting down and moving overseas. I’ve had all those experiences, and because I have, I think that makes me a perfect candidate to be a representative for the people.”
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