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With Lt. Gov. Robinson a heavy favorite in the primary, can Republican Dale Folwell compete for governor?

NC Treasurer Dale Folwell
State of North Carolina
NC Treasurer Dale Folwell.

Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is expected to announce he is running for governor on April 22. He would enter the race as the favorite, according to early polling. There is only one other Republican so far in the GOP primary: State Treasurer Dale Folwell.

A few weeks ago, the Hornet's Nest Republican Men’s Club held an event in Matthews.

Dan Barry, the former county chair of the Union County Republican Party, wondered: who was the guy helping set up, moving boxes and putting up table decorations?

"We just thought it was somebody who worked there, helping us unload our cars. And lo and behold we were setting up one of the refreshment tables, and I look up and it is Dale Folwell the treasurer of North Carolina with his sleeves rolled up and pouring ice in glasses," said Barry.

Folwell is indeed something of a political oddity.

There is his resume, before going into public service 30 years ago: custodian, trash collector, mechanic.

And then there is the current Dale Folwell: calling reporters back before dawn, deciding not to do a Zoom interview at work — even during a break — because he doesn’t want to use the state’s Wi-Fi.

"Because that’s not what the taxpayers want me doing," Folwell said.

In the General Assembly nearly 15 years ago, Folwell was named the most conservative House member by the group Civitas.

But to become governor, he must defeat Mark Robinson, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, whose rise out of poverty — and his willingness to blast liberals — has made him wildly popular with GOP voters.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is one of the most divisive figures in North Carolina politics.In this episode, we discuss his recently released book and his politics. Some of what he says in this conversation is sure to offend some listeners on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights, even the Civil Rights Act. We felt like it was an important conversation to have because of his position and his interest in running for another office.

A December poll by a Republican consultant, the Differentiators, found Robinson leading Folwell 60% to 6%, with the rest undecided.

"You can talk about the polls, and you can also talk about the campaign finance reports. Obviously, if you look at both of those documents, I am the underdog. But the fact is 1,000 days ago, no one had ever heard of our lieutenant governor," said Folwell. "And people can come to their conclusions about what he’s said in the last 1,000 days. In the last two years, all he has been doing is campaigning. And what I’ve been doing is being the keeper of the public purse."

That refers to Robinson’s comments about the LGBT community, like when he said two years ago that transgenderism and homosexuality are filth — and then doubled down, saying: "Yes, I called it filth. And if you don’t like it that I called it filth, come see me and I’ll explain it to you.”

Will Follwell tell voters that Robinson may be a liability in the general election, and that Folwell — while boring — is the safe bet against Democrat Josh Stein, the likely opponent?

"What I am going to talk about is how do we talk about problems without attacking people," said Folwell.

When asked about LGBT issues, Folwell said: "And this is true, yesterday, this is true today and it will be true tomorrow, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. That is what I believe.  Also I believe by the blood that runs through me is Quaker. And one of the spices of the Quaker religion is to be fair and just."

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He then pivoted to Robinson.

"I think there are ways to talk about these issues, and look at the problems that we are facing instead of attacking people. That’s why I let Mark Robinson be who he is, and I will be who I have always been," said Folwell.

Western Carolina political science professor Chris Cooper says Folwell is a better candidate to win the general election than the primary.

"He’s developed a bit of reputation as someone who can work across the aisle despite the fact that he used to be considered a very, very conservative state legislator," said Cooper.

Folwell may try to make the case he is more electable. But, Cooper added: "He has never been known as a prodigious fundraiser. I get the sense that Mark Robinson is not going to have that problem. He has a national profile. He reminds me of a lot more of a Madison Cawthorn profile, that will draw money from all over the country."

On issues:

  • Folwell says he is pro-Second Amendment.
  • On abortion, he says he is pro-life, though he supports exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. When asked if he would allow abortions at any period — like, say, six weeks — Folwell declined to answer.
  • Folwell, who is in charge of the state’s $125 billion pension fund, says he’s been able to retire much of its debt, and that it’s not among the best funded in the nation. He says he’s slashed hundreds of millions in annual Wall Street fees.
  • He’s attacked the state’s hospital systems for charging too much — and for receiving tax breaks that he considers too generous. The state health care association has said Folwell’s reports "have used misinformation and half-truths and that make inaccurate conclusions."

In the end, Folwell said he thinks voters will want a steady executive.
"I think the voters are going to look at who they want to be the CEO of the largest business in the state. And they will look at who has a body of work that’s been focused on saving lives, minds and money," he said.

The state’s primary is in 11 months.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.