RALEIGH, N.C.. (Tribune News Service) — By beating numerous GOP establishment candidates on Super Tuesday, Mark Robinson became likely only the second black politician the North Carolina Republican Party has nominated to run for statewide office in modern history.
Robinson, a gun rights activist from Greensboro, rode his fame from a 2018 viral video to victory. He defeated several well-known, well-funded GOP competitors –including a former congresswoman and the state superintendent of schools – in the race for lieutenant governor.
“As I looked at my name on the ballot I thought, ‘wow look how far we’ve come,” Robinson wrote in a Facebook post after he went to vote. “‘What a great nation and state we live in!'”
If Robinson goes on to win in November, he would be the first black Republican elected to any major office in North Carolina since the 1800s. He would be the state’s first-ever black lieutenant governor. He would also be just the second black person to serve in any of the 10 elected offices that make up the Council Of State, which runs much of state government.
Ralph Campbell, a Democrat who served as state auditor from 1993 to 2005, was the first and so far only black Council of State member.
The News & Observer was only able to find a record of one other black Republican nominee for a statewide office in the last 120 years – Henry McKoy, who ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer 20 years ago. A party spokesman confirmed that Robinson and McKoy are the only black nominees they’re aware of in recent history, too.
Polling consistently shows that a large majority of black voters identify with the Democratic Party, both in North Carolina and around the nation. Republican President Donald Trump won only 8% of the black vote in 2016, NPR reported, and that number doesn’t look likely to change much in 2020. A nationwide poll earlier this year found that 90% of black voters still oppose Trump, including 80% who say he has made racism worse, the Washington Post reported.
But Robinson said black people aren’t monolithic, and he hopes he can inspire those who share his conservative views on issues like guns and abortion to embrace the Republican Party.
“When it comes to race, I don’t like to talk about issues like that a whole lot,” the 51-year-old Robinson said. “But when I think back to my childhood I think back to the first times I saw a black man in a police uniform or an army uniform, and it inspired me.”
The last black Republican politician to win any major office in North Carolina was George Henry White, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1897 to 1901. White didn’t seek re-election in 1900 because in 1899 the state legislature restricted black peoples’ right to vote, kicking off generations of racial oppression under Jim Crow laws.
Black Democrats started being elected to offices like state legislature and judicial seats again in the 1960s, and in the 1990s now-Sen. Dan Blue became the state legislature’s first black speaker of the House.
Robinson said he hopes his candidacy can inspire black voters who feel like the modern Democratic Party has gone too far to the left.
“More than anything, it gives us a good opportunity to show other show conservatives out there, who I call closet conservatives, to say ‘Hey, I believe in those in those things too,'” he said.
Who is Mark Robinson?
Robinson’s Republican primary victory isn’t just notable for the color of his skin, though. He also showed the power of viral videos and social media in the modern political era.
He doesn’t have any previous political experience, and campaign finance records show he only raised a paltry $108,000. But he got more than twice the votes as second-place finisher Andy Wells, even though the state senator from Hickory spent more than six times as much money.
But what Robinson lacks in political experience and fundraising, he makes up for with a strong reputation among gun rights activists: a key demographic for any GOP hopeful. The lieutenant governor in North Carolina has very few actual responsibilities (and none related to law enforcement or guns) yet Robinson clearly resonated with voters.
Robinson’s viral fame came from a video of him speaking at a 2018 Greensboro City Council meeting. The speech has been viewed millions of times; one version with 1 million views calls it “the best four minutes you’ll ever watch about how important gun rights are.”
He lives in Greensboro – where after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in 2018, city leaders briefly discussed canceling a gun show on city-owned property. They ultimately decided not to, The News & Observer reported, but Robinson’s gun rights speech went viral.
“When are you all going to start standing up for the majority?” he asked. “And here’s who the majority is: I’m the majority. I’m a law-abiding citizen who’s never shot anybody, never committed a serious crime, never committed a felony.”
“I’m going to come down here to this city council and raise hell, just like these loonies from the left do, until you listen to the majority of the people in this city,” Robinson said.
A video of his speech was shared by Greensboro-area Republican Rep. Mark Walker and took off, racking up millions of views and attracting national news coverage. Robinson started getting invited to speak at gun rights rallies – including the NRA’s national convention in 2018, where President Donald Trump also spoke.
When he gave his now-famous speech about protecting law-abiding gun owners, Robinson didn’t actually own a gun but did have a criminal record. However, his record is relatively minor – nothing violent and no felonies – and mostly consists of traffic offenses.
He also filed for bankruptcy three times in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has been taken to court a few times over unpaid debts, and has been the subject of numerous IRS liens for failing to pay thousands of dollars in taxes, as recently as 2012.
Robinson, however, said he has since become a gun owner, and that he cleared up his financial problems several years ago.
“Any outstanding issues we might have had with the IRS has been taken care of,” he said.
In the two years since he went viral for that Greensboro gun rights speech, he has worked at cultivating a strong social-media following using political memes and short-but-inflammatory messages targeting Democrats. He has nearly 100,000 followers on Facebook, and it’s not uncommon for a few thousand of them to share his posts with their own friends.
He doesn’t post much about racial issues, but when he does, it’s in posts like this one from last week:
“That disgusting socialist Bernie Sanders is actually pitching legalizing dope which has destroyed black communities, and expanding welfare which has destroyed the black family, to BLACK VOTERS!” Robinson wrote. “#WOW.”
Potential for making history
It’s possible that even if Robinson loses the lieutenant governor’s race this November, the state will still have its first-ever black lieutenant governor.
It’s not clear yet who he will be running against, since the Democratic primary was too close on Tuesday to automatically avoid a runoff. Two state legislators, Rep. Yvonne Holley of Raleigh and Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Asheville, got the most votes.
Holley, who came in first with 26% of the vote, is black. Van Duyn, who got 20%, is white.
Holley would have needed to get 30% of the vote to win outright, but could still avoid a runoff if Van Duyn doesn’t request one. Holley has called on Van Duyn to concede, the News & Observer reported, but Van Duyn said she hadn’t yet made up her mind.
But regardless of what happens there, Democratic voters advanced several other history-making candidates on Tuesday.
Jenna Wadsworth, who won the party’s primary to take on Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, would be the first openly LGBT person to serve on the Council of State if she wins.
Democrats have in recent years elected a few openly gay and lesbian people to state legislative seats, including five who won primaries on Tuesday. John Arrowood, a Democratic judge on the 15-member N.C. Court of Appeals, is the first openly gay statewide official. But none have ever served on the Council of State.
“That North Carolina also moved forward Jenna Wadsworth, who could become the youngest LGBTQ person ever elected statewide anywhere in America, shows voters want to put an end to the legacy of HB2 and build a state that is welcoming for all,” gay rights group LGBTQ Victory Fund wrote in a press release. Wadsworth is 31.
Ronnie Chatterji, who won the Democratic primary to take on Republican Treasurer Dale Folwell, also made history as the first Asian American candidate the Democratic Party has nominated for a statewide role, according to a party spokesman.
He’s not the very first Asian statewide candidate, though. A fellow Indian-American, Republican Jay Rao, ran unsuccessfully in 2004 for secretary of state. But if Chatterji wins this November, he would be the first Asian-American candidate elected to a statewide office, the News & Observer reported.
Finally, Durham voters put their faith behind the first-ever Muslim woman to win office anywhere in North Carolina, according to her campaign, when they backed Nida Allam for a seat on the Durham County Board of Commissioners.
Since no Republicans are running for the seat, Allam’s victory in Tuesday’s primary essentially guarantees that she will also win in November.
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