Two Years Ago, a Factory Worker. Today, a Republican Star - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Mark Robinson has turned humble roots and viral fame into Republican stardom.
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Mark Robinson has risen from humble beginnings to become a star within the Republican Party.

By Nick Fouriezos

  • Mark Robinson’s rise in politics has been rapid after his speech at a Greensboro City Council meeting went viral two years ago.
  • The lieutenant governor–elect must now govern for all North Carolinians, despite controversial comments made as an ordinary citizen.

There is the Mark Robinson in the blue polo, the married, working-class dad with two adult kids, feeling the spirit at a Greensboro City Council meeting where he jabs his finger in righteous anger and declares: “I am the majority!” And then there is the Robinson sitting for a Zoom call two years later, just days after winning his race to become the first Black lieutenant governor in North Carolina history, and one of only a handful nationwide. The Army Reservist’s dark suit and crisp button-down strain, like they can hardly contain his large frame. Or maybe it’s he who can hardly contain it, the suit that designates the office: the trappings, the responsibility, the opportunity. After all, the two Robinsons are only 30 months apart, practically nothing in a lifetime of 52 years. “It’s not going to feel like actual reality until that first day,” the first-time politician says.

It’s been a wild ride for Robinson since he went viral while opposing a gun show ban at that 2018 city council meeting. His impassioned speech thrust the furniture factory worker into the spotlight, putting him on Fox News and earning him a speaking platform with the National Rifle Association outreach board. In July, he beat several experienced politicians in a nine-person primary to become the Republican nominee — before winning by more than 3 percentage points against Democrat Yvonne Holley, a four-term state legislator. It was an impressive victory, given that President Donald Trump only barely won the state and North Carolina reelected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper by almost 5 points.

I wanted to show people that these offices … are not closed off to certain classes of people.

Mark Robinson

And yet, it’s also not so surprising. Robinson has overcome long odds before, growing up poor in Greensboro, the ninth of 10 kids raised by a custodian mother and a carpenter father, the latter of whom died when Robinson was young. Rising from foster care, and a childhood home with no heat, no air conditioning and no shower, Robinson will soon move into the historic Hawkins-Hartness House, two doors down from the governor’s mansion in Raleigh. “Everybody loves Mark’s story,” says Conrad Pogorzelski, a Republican consultant in North Carolina who worked with Robinson on a dual strategy of emphasizing his life story during live events while targeting voters online with the issues that mattered most to them.

In a Republican Party that has recently seen success elevating candidates of color nationwide, Robinson will be poised to run for U.S. Senate or governor one day. Today, though, he’s focused on what he hopes to achieve. Part of that is his example, not just as a Black man but one of humble means. “I wanted to show people that these offices … are not closed off to certain classes of people, that they are positions the Founding Fathers laid out for citizens to serve their fellow citizens,” he says.

Still, after making anti-gay and anti-Semitic remarks on social media in the past, Robinson has to prove that he can effectively represent all people. “I’m not ashamed of anything that I post,” Robinson said while campaigning in September. “This doesn’t need to be a thing where we slam the door on people because we disagree with their lifestyle or with their politics,” he says now. In a self-effacing, and seemingly contrite, moment, he admits that the perception bothers him. “I wish people knew my heart. People see me on television, in that city council speech, and it looks like I’m frowning. I’m not frowning — I’m just ugly,” he says, chuckling. “I’m not a mean person. I love people. And I didn’t take this role just to serve people who believe like I believe.”

Another challenge Robinson faces? “The real truth is that there is not much for a lieutenant governor to do,” says Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina and an expert on state politics, adding that Robinson will preside over the Senate (a mostly ceremonial role) and will have the chance to speak authoritatively on policy issues. “There is that kind of political opportunity in front of him. But he would have to seize it. And convince people that he is using the opportunity sensibly,” Guillory says.

Robinson’s biggest role will be as a voting member on the state Board of Education. He has campaigned against Cooper’s public school shutdown amid the pandemic — Cooper authorized elementary schools to reopen in October; middle and high schools can select a hybrid model — and his concerns are valid: Nationwide, and in North Carolina, public education officials worry that lower-income students of color risk falling behind as their private school peers continue to learn in person. “You look at the proverbial trailer park, housing project, and there is gold in these places,” Robinson says, “talented, smart children, a lot of them who will not be successful because of low-performing public schools.”

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Robinson’s position, on education and more, is complicated. He has decried “indoctrination” at public schools and supports “school choice” programs that direct funding toward private schools that are subject to less government scrutiny and transparency. He speaks eloquently about liberty and justice — while defending what many argue is decidedly unjust, such as a voter ID law that a federal judge declared was discriminatory because it targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.” “I don’t believe a people that have survived the middle passage, the slave plantations, survived Jim Crow, that those people cannot now get a free ID to secure their vote,” Robinson argues.

Still, he has moderated his tone as a candidate. While he believes Trump’s legal challenges “may show some of the system’s ineffectiveness,” he stops short of agreeing with the president’s claims of mass voter fraud, saying he will only accept them if “we can prove it in the court of law.” It’s perhaps reflective of the respect the former history student — Robinson dropped out of night classes with one semester left after his viral moment — holds toward American institutions. “It’s not necessarily toning anything down, but it’s understanding that he has a bigger responsibility,” Pogorzelski says.

Robinson has been a conservative since a friend loaned him a copy of Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be. Two decades later, he feels the Republican Party is changing, after a year in which Trump notably reached out to voters of color and Democrats saw their margins with them shrink. “It’s coming slow, but once the floodgates open, we’re going to see a whole lot of change,” he says. And if Robinson lives up to his promise to represent North Carolinians fairly, he will have played a key role in changing that narrative. “A lot of people will see me in this position, and see that this is something they can do too,” the history lover says, conscious of the chance he has seized to make history himself.

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