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Gary Pearce: Lieutenant governors can be governors’ nightmares

By Gary Pearce

As a Black conservative Republican, Mark Robinson isn’t North Carolina’s traditional lieutenant governor. But he’s squarely in the tradition of lieutenant governors bedeviling governors.

One reason Gov. Roy Cooper won’t run for U.S. Senate next year, even though he believes he’d win, he said in an interview, is that “we have a Republican lieutenant governor and if you look at who he is and what he stands for, I’m not sure that North Carolina needs two years of that.”

“Two years of that” would be different from two years of Cooper.

Take public schools. Cooper has proposed an ambitious education budget, including 10% pay raises, funds to address inequities and a school-construction bond issue.

Robinson, meanwhile, set up a task force to look into “indoctrination” in public schools. He argued against new state social studies standards that he said are “political in nature” and unfairly portray America as “systemically racist.”

Robinson has a history of eye-catching rhetoric.

He said the movie “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew.” He said Muslims “are not ‘immigrants,’ they are INVADERS.” He called former President Obama “a worthless, anti-American atheist who wanted to bring this nation to its knees.”

He shot to fame with a passionate gun-rights speech to the Greensboro City Council in 2018. That led to a speech at the NRA’s national convention. With NRA support and 100,000 Facebook followers, he won the Republican primary for lieutenant governor with 32.5% of the vote; Senator Andy Wells was second with 14.5%.

In November, Robinson defeated Democratic Yvonne Lewis Holley, who is also Black, by 51.6-48.4%.

“You might not like my politics,” Robinson says, “but I made history in this state.”

History shows that governors and lieutenant governors in North Carolina often don’t like each other. We’re one of 17 states where the two are elected separately. They can be from different parties; they can have different philosophies, conflicting personalities and competing ambitions.

I saw that working for Gov. Jim Hunt in his first two terms, 1977-1985. Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green was a Democrat like Hunt, but he was more conservative. He didn’t like Hunt and he wanted to be governor instead of Hunt. They fought frequently.

Three different times since 1972, governors and lieutenant governors were from different parties: Hunt and Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser (1973-1977), Republican Gov. Jim Martin and Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan (1985-1989), and Cooper and Republican Dan Forest (2017-2021).

Even when the two are from the same party, are friendly and have compatible philosophies, there can be tensions. Lieutenant governors inevitably want more power and responsibility; governors invariably resist. Staffers on both sides inevitably rub each other wrong.

All lieutenant governors want to run for governor. But that’s not a proven path in North Carolina.

Since 1972, only two lieutenant governors have gone on to be elected governor: Hunt (1976, 1980, 1992 and 1996) and Bev Perdue (2008). Six lost races for governor: Green (1984), Jordan (1988), Jim Gardner (1992), Dennis Wicker (2000), Walter Dalton (2012) and Forest (2020).

You have better odds as attorney general. Of the six between 1972 and 2016, two got elected governor: Cooper and Mike Easley (2000 and 2004). One, Robert Morgan, got elected U.S. senator (1974). Two lost races for governor, Rufus Edmisten (1984) and Lacy Thornburg (1992). One had been appointed attorney general and lost reelection: Jim Carson (1974).

The current attorney general, Democrat Josh Stein, is a likely candidate for governor in 2024. So is Mark Robinson.

That contest would offer a stark contrast in party, philosophy and personality.

 Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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