NC Republicans talk Mark Robinson, electability, in first gubernatorial debate

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, State Treasurer Dale Folwell, and political newcomer Jesse Thomas criticized Republican gubernatorial rival Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson while making their own case for governor.

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Dale Folwell GOP debate
Paul Specht
, WRAL state government reporter

Republicans gathered in Cary to explain not only why they should be governor of North Carolina — but also why their GOP gubernatorial rival Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson shouldn’t be.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, State Treasurer Dale Folwell, and political newcomer Jesse Thomas squared-off in an hour-long debate hosted Tuesday by the Wake County GOP at MacGregor Downs Country Club. Robinson and former state legislator Andy Wells were also invited but didn’t attend.

Robinson is considered the favorite to secure the GOP nomination, but some Republicans have expressed doubts about his ability to defeat a Democrat next November.

Historically, Republicans have struggled to take the Governor’s Mansion in North Carolina. And Robinson has made statements about women and the LGBTQ community that political analysts say could limit his appeal in a general election.

Such concerns among GOP members emerged almost immediately in the debate as Thomas, a retired health care executive, delivered his opening statement.

“A vote for Mr. Robinson in the primary is like throwing your vote away because he is unelectable due to his outrageous and bigoted statements,” said Thomas, who later repeated his criticism in closing remarks.

Robinson’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Each candidate mentioned electability as a trait that Republicans need to keep in mind when voting in the gubernatorial primary.

Walker made reference to a line in Robinson’s autobiography as an example of how the lieutenant governor might undermine public education. In “We Are the Majority: The Life and Passions of a Patriot,” released last year, Robinson offers an idea for boosting elementary school scores in reading, writing and math, saying: “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.”

Robinson campaign spokesman Michael Lonergan has said Robinson wasn’t calling to remove science or social students from the elementary school curriculum, but merely saying the other subjects should receive priority.

Walker said grades one through five are “fundamental times when you learn the science and history” and vowed to keep them in the curriculum.

Folwell argued at different points during the debate that the GOP nominee needs to appeal to voters outside the party, pointing out that North Carolina is home to more registered Democrats than Republicans.

“We need to have leaders who can explain conservatism without offending people,” he said, adding later: “People want someone who talks to them like adults.”

Wednesday night, the Wake GOP released results of a straw poll conducted at Tuesday's debate: Folwell and Walker each received 35 votes, Robinson received five, and Thomas received two.

Stripping tenure from ‘woke’ professors

The candidates otherwise avoided criticizing each other directly, with a few exceptions.

Asked how to reduce the cost of higher education, Thomas said the state should encourage the use of college savings accounts and grants. He also suggested that enabling school choice at the grade school level could lead to smaller college costs for students, presumably through academic scholarships.

Folwell said college chancellors should be required to come up with plans for how students can “work through their university and come out without any debt at all.” He also blamed the hidden costs of college, apart from tuition.

“It’s not just the tuition. It’s the housing. It’s the parking fees. It’s the student activity fees, and all these other things,” Folwell said.

Walker then accused Folwell of not answering the question: “The fees you talk about, and the tuition, that doesn’t just automatically disappear. You didn’t really address how you would do that,” Walker said.

To make college more affordable, Walker said the state needs to “rip the tenureship from these left-wing, woke-ideology professors. If you want to get to the heart of it, end their tenureship today.”

“That will reduce costs and it will get some of that ideology out of our university system,” he said.

Addressing crime, the death penalty

Asked their ideas for reducing crime, Thomas suggested resuming executions for capital offenses.

“We have in this state a law that for capital crime there is the death penalty. When was the last time we imposed the death penalty in this state? If you do the crime, you need to do the time or pay the penalty,” Thomas said.

The death penalty was last enforced in 2006 and lawsuits have stalled its use ever since.

Walker said North Carolina’s law enforcement agencies might have an easier time filling law enforcement jobs if the state lifts restrictions on retired officers returning to work. Under state law, a retired officer’s state allowance is suspended if he decides to return to work as an officer in North Carolina.

“We need to change that law right now,” Walker said.

Folwell said he would focus on making the state’s crime lab more efficient. The lab has faced criticism for not processing evidence quickly enough. He also addressed Thomas’s comments about the death penalty.

“When I was a freshman member of the legislature, I actually went to central prison,” Folwell said. “I visited death row because I think it’s important that, when you talk about such an important topic like that, you actually see what you’re talking about.”

Pandemic prep, ‘battling evil’

Walker saw a discussion about the coronavirus as another chance to one-up Folwell. Candidates were asked what they’ll do if another pandemic breaks out.

Thomas said that, as governor, he’d seek advice from the state’s experts — not the federal government — on whether to reimpose masks or shut down schools. “I’m concerned that Raleigh is beginning to feel like Washington, D.C.”

Folwell said he’d do a better job than Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper did of explaining any pandemic-related decisions, and boost transparency of votes by the Council of State, the body consisting of the state’s top elected officers. He also boasted about keeping the treasurer’s office open during the pandemic.

“And we did it with a culture of conservatism, common sense and courtesy, and that’s what it’s going to take to govern this state,” Folwell said.

Walker said he agreed with Folwell, “but I would also add: Understand, this is spiritual warfare. We’re battling evil.”

Walker concluded: “We’ve got to stand up and fight as well. We’ve got to draw the line on some of this.”

Elections, voter ID

For the debate’s final question, candidates were asked how they would strengthen voting rights and election integrity.

Thomas said that while he supports voter ID requirements, he is also passionate about boosting election participation.

“I grew up in Mississippi Delta, the son of sharecroppers. I know first hand about economic disparity, racial intolerance, disenfranchisement,” Thomas said, citing literacy tests. “My parents didn’t vote because they were disenfranchised.”

“I want to protect the vote. And I want to ensure that the voters get out and vote in the primary like they do in the general,” he said.

Walker, who earlier in the debate alleged that some grade school instructors teach that “America is evil,” thanked Thomas for telling his family’s history of disenfranchisement. “Some things in history, we didn’t always get right. And I applaud you being willing to address those.”

Walker then turned his attention to the question about election integrity: “Obviously, it starts with voter ID. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t have voter ID already.” He said national and state leaders also need to work vigilantly to stop cyberattacks.

Folwell spoke after Walker and appeared to correct him: “We do have voter ID in North Carolina. It’s in our constitution. It’s just been ratified by our courts. So that’s not even a topic that needs to be discussed here.”

The North Carolina state Supreme Court earlier this year reversed a prior ruling, allowing the implementation of a voter ID law. Opponents are challenging the law in federal court.