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GOP candidate for NC governor on the state of the party and frontrunner Mark Robinson

State Treasurer Dale Folwell has a steep uphill battle in the Republican primary for North Carolina governor. He is outpaced by his main competition: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who leads in fundraising and polling.

The other Republican primary candidate, Bill Graham, is a trial attorney who loaned himself millions of dollars, some of which has been spent on attack ads against Robinson. Folwell, too, is not shy about saying what he thinks about Robinson, who has remained the frontrunner throughout the campaign season.

A February poll from East Carolina University’s Center for Survey Research shows Robinson leading with 53% of likely primary voters, followed by 27% undecided, Graham with 13% and Folwell trailing with 7% of voters.

In an interview with The News & Observer, Folwell made his case for his own candidacy and why he should win against Robinson and Graham.

“I’ve always said that I will not have as much money as the other candidates did. I’m not the most hateful. I’m not the tallest and I’m not the richest person in this race. But I’m one who has a track record of actually explaining conservatism in a way that doesn’t offend people,” Folwell said.

He said that he won’t “sell access” to the governor’s office, “and I’m going to do what I’ve always done as a public servant, advocate for the invisible, and that’s reflected in the money raising numbers.”

Folwell and Robinson serve together on the Council of State, along with Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Josh Stein. Folwell said he hasn’t spoken to Robinson in several months.

While Folwell is behind his opponents in polling and money, he has won two recent endorsements: from former Gov. Jim Martin and SEANC, the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis has endorsed Folwell’s other opponent, Graham, while the top legislative Republicans, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, have both endorsed Robinson.

On the state of the Republican Party

Folwell has served in the state House and as state treasurer for several years, spending his career in public office as a Republican, though he has become disillusioned with the party’s current status.

He said his party is “a mess.”

“And it is not the Republican Party that I joined nearly 50 years ago. That Republican Party was based on conservatism, which means to conserve, common sense — not so common — courtesy, which means answering your telephones if you’re a public servant, humility, which means when things go wrong, you disclose them, and you try to figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But owning your mistakes. That’s what humility is. And ethics, ethics is not only what you do when no one’s watching but it’s also what you do when the powerful forces want you to look the other way,” Folwell said.

He noted that Republicans rank third in registered voters in the state, following unaffiliated voters and then Democrats. Folwell said that is because of “counterfeit conservatives, who say one thing, when they’re applying for these offices, they point the mirror out toward the voter, and then the night they get elected, they point the mirror back toward themselves, and they keep it there.”

Folwell said Republican voters are choosing between “hate versus hope,” and that he will lead Republicans back to the conservative party he joined 50 years ago.

Robinson and HB2

As state treasurer, an office that oversees the State Health Plan — which insures more than 750,000 public employees and retired employees — Folwell has long opposed coverage of gender-affirming care.

Health care for transgender people became a major issue in last year’s legislative session. The Republican-supermajority General Assembly overturned three of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes on bills to ban transgender athletes’ participation in girls’ and women’s sports, restrict gender-affirming surgery and other treatment for transgender minors, and limit instruction on gender identity in elementary schools.

The executive director of Equality NC, which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, said when the bills passed that they “would tarnish North Carolina’s reputation as an inclusive and welcoming place to live, work, and visit.”

Kendra Johnson said in a statement that they would “cause immense damage to transgender and queer youth, who already experience significant disparities.”

Fowell said he was in favor of all three bills.

He shares similar policy positions with the Republican supermajority that passed the bills, while not sharing Robinson’s history of public insults.

In a recent campaign speech, Robinson brought up transgender people’s bathroom use, which was the subject of the controversial 2016 legislation known as House Bill 2 or the “bathroom bill,” which required people to use the bathroom assigned to the sex listed on their birth certificate.

WUNC reported that Robinson said in a campaign speech, “We’re going to defend women in this state.”

“That means if you’re a man on Friday night, and all of a sudden, on Saturday, you feel like a woman, and you want to go in the women’s bathroom in the mall, you will be arrested — or whatever we got to do to you,” Robinson said in a video of the event.

HB2 caused millions of dollars in economic damage to the state, with major sporting and entertainment events canceled because of the law, which was later mostly repealed or allowed to expire.

Asked about Robinson’s remarks on bathroom use, Folwell said that if Robinson “has an issue about the bathroom situation, then he should have showed up for his job as the president of the Senate and got his endorser, President Pro Tem (Phil) Berger, to run legislation to fix this. Now, my belief is simply this and it’s true yesterday and it’s true today, it’s going to be true tomorrow. Men should not be in women’s bathrooms, women’s locker rooms or women’s sports. Period. I don’t know what else needs to be said,” Folwell said.

Folwell has been a frequent critic of Robinson’s attendance, or lack thereof, as part of lieutenant governor duties like presiding over the Senate. Robinson occasionally presides, but Berger does so during most Senate sessions.

Abortion

The next governor may be sent another abortion restrictions bill. State law changed in 2023 after Republicans overturned Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 20, which bans abortion after the first trimester, with exceptions for rape, incest, fetal anomalies and life of the mother.

Folwell describes himself as “pro-life with the three exceptions of rape, incest and danger to the mother.” He said if he was governor, he would have signed SB 20.

Folwell declined to say at how many weeks’ gestation he would want the exceptions in any future bills that might ban abortion earlier.

“I don’t address hypothetical bills. I just have been clear about how I feel personally. I don’t envision the General Assembly’s ever going to revisit this topic. And that’s my stance,” he said.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell is running in the Republican primary for North Carolina governor.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell is running in the Republican primary for North Carolina governor.

On GOP voters and Trump

Folwell said on the campaign trail he has found other people his age — 65 — “don’t really recognize the Republican Party.”

“What I’m finding is that people are exhausted. People are frustrated. People my age don’t really recognize the Republican Party and people your age don’t even know what the Republican Party stands for anymore,” he said.

While Robinson has received the support of former President Donald Trump, who is running again, Folwell said he has never sought Trump’s endorsement.

The N&O asked Folwell what he thinks of Trump, who faces several criminal charges for his attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

“I didn’t ask Donald Trump to be my Valentine. I’m not sure his wife did either,” Folwell said during the interview, held on Feb. 15. “What I asked him to do was protect my border, protect my economy and protect my neighborhood. And I thought he did a great job at that.”

Folwell has sent out campaign fliers in the mail saying that as governor he will stop illegal drug trafficking at the state’s borders. He said the way to do that is by having a fully-funded law enforcement staff.

“I think people who push and distribute fentanyl should be charged with murder. Because that’s what it is. And the stories that I hear, the wristbands that I occasionally wear, from people who have lost their children to fentanyl overdoses are just heartbreaking,” he said.

On life after the primary

If he loses, Folwell still has his full-time job as state treasurer until the end of the year. Candidates from both major parties are competing to replace him.

“There’s still a lot to fix. And I expect to be the nominee and I expect to be the next governor. ... I’m so comforted during this process, because I know who I love, and I know who I am, and who I belong to. That’s enough for me,” he said.