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Mark Robinson blasted by GOP opponents in 2024 governor's race over past legal, financial troubles

North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson announces his campaign for governor at a rally outside Ace Speedway in Elon, N.C. Saturday, April 22, 2023.
Lynn Hey
North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson announces his campaign for governor at a rally outside Ace Speedway in Elon, N.C. Saturday, April 22, 2023.

The Republican primary campaign for governor is already getting negative.

Three of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s GOP opponents in the 2024 race have recently gone on the attack, pointing out Robinson’s past financial and legal troubles.

Robinson is widely considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and he frequently makes headlines for comments blasting LGBTQ people and other groups. In 2021, he drew widespread criticism for a speech in which he said children shouldn't be taught about "transgenderism, homosexuality — any of that filth. And yes, I called it filth."

Democrats, including Attorney General Josh Stein’s campaign for governor, are quick to condemn that rhetoric. But Robinson’s Republican opponents are taking a different approach.

They’re highlighting the lieutenant governor’s personal financial and legal troubles instead. Before entering politics in 2020, Robinson worked in a factory and has a long record of financial missteps.

Robinson was convicted in the 1990s for writing bad checks. He’s gone through bankruptcy several times. He recently paid off more than $1,000 of long overdue vehicle taxes — Robinson admitted the mistakes and says he’s "bad at math" — and a recent WRAL report found that he still owes about $2,000 in rent to a landlord he rented from a decade ago.

Former Congressman Mark Walker — one of five Republicans who have declared their candidacy for governor — says voters should think twice about backing Robinson.

"How would you say you're not very good at math, but then at the same time, ask permission to oversee a $30 billion budget?" Walker said. "I just think people need to get beyond … look, I think some of the speeches are motivating, they're powerful. But if you're not offering any solutions, and it's all about rhetoric, I think that's a pause."

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

Another GOP candidate for governor, State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who touts his work overseeing the state’s pension investments, has a similar critique.

"When you have a candidate who has said, publicly, ‘if you're depending on me to know how to do math, just put me away now,' — I mean, those are just things that this person has said," Folwell said. "And that doesn't just offend me as a candidate. It offends me as a CPA."

A third candidate, former state Sen. Andy Wells, has also brought up Robinson’s finances in social media posts.

Mike Lonergan is a a spokesman for Robinson's campaign. In an email to WUNC, he said the financial and legal issues are "decades-old news peddled by washed-up career politicians desperate to gain traction for their doomed campaigns."

Lonergan added that Robinson is focused on finding solutions to North Carolina's problems, and notes that the lieutenant governor is leading the Republican field in polls and fundraising.

"North Carolinians are ready for a governor who will be focused on solutions to their problems — not another professional politician climbing the ladder from office to office," Lonergan said.

Robinson's campaign is not disputing most records of his 1990s worthless check convictions released by the Walker campaign, but one dismissed charge on the list appears to be referencing a "Mark A. Robinson" instead of the lieutenant governor, whose middle name is Keith.

Political scientist Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University says the other candidates' strategy makes sense. Robinson’s well-publicized rhetoric so far hasn’t hurt him in polls of GOP primary voters.

"The folks that are trying to unseat Robinson as the frontrunner are — look, they've got to focus on things that Republicans are going to agree are wrong," Cooper said. "And so, if they highlight his rhetoric, they run the potential of not only not gaining votes for themselves, but perhaps gaining some votes for Mark Robinson."

But Cooper says the focus on finances could also be risky if voters identify with Robinson’s past challenges.

"If you're Mark Robinson, you are like the average person, right?" Cooper says. "I mean, he did grow up not wealthy. He did have financial struggles. And so yes, he is trying to use those as a feature, not a bug, of his campaign."

Walker says he worries that if he doesn’t bring up Robinson’s record in the primary, Democrats will use the opposition research to help elect Stein in the general election.

"They have this and much more ready to go," Walker said. "Not just the 25- to 30-year track record of mismanagement of your finances, not just the all the videos and the things attacking different communities; there's even more and more financial stuff."

The North Carolina primary is set for March 5.

And the general election is still 14 months away.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.