Contrasting views of race dominate NC lieutenant governor candidate debate

By Julie Havlak

Raleigh, NC – “I don’t consider myself to be a black leader. I consider myself to be a leader in N.C. who just happens to be black.” 

Candidates for lieutenant governor — Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, left, and Republican Mark Robinson, right. (screen shot from Spectrum News).

That’s how Republican candidate for lieutenant governor Mark Robinson introduced himself at a debate hosted by the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership and Spectrum News. 

The two candidates running to become North Carolina’s first African-American lieutenant governor have dramatically different views on race, law enforcement, education, economic policy, and the role of government. 

The election pits Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, D-Wake, a liberal, against conservative gun-rights activist Robinson. Both stand to make history. Both are unapologetic about their views. Both highlight contrasting visions of race in America and what it means to be an American. 

If Robinson wins in November, he will become the first black Republican elected to any major statewide office since the 1800s. He describes himself as a successful businessman who grew up as the ninth of 10 children in a poor family. 

Robinson says he doesn’t believe in systemic racism. For him, many problems afflicting black communities result from lawlessness, and police are part of the solution. Defunding the police, he said, is “a ridiculous idea.” 

“Systemic racism is not the problem,” Robinson said. “We have far too many communities that are ruled by lawlessness. We need to take a good long look at that, stop putting the police under the microscope, and start putting the criminals under the microscope.”

Holley disagreed. 

“We need to start protecting people, as opposed to policing them,” Holley said. “We have other ways we can do things that are less restrictive and less bullying than going in all the time with a gun and the only resource is to arrest and physically restrain and harm people.”

But the two clashed at a more fundamental level. Holley sees a world riddled with “rampant” systemic racism. Robinson doesn’t. He eschews “so-called race relations.” Where Holley decries differences, he promotes similarities. 

“Every day, someone reminds me that I’m black,” Holley said. “We’ve come a long way. But what is happening now is systemic racism that has kept us from economic development, kept black and brown people from safety on the streets. We’re in fear of our lives from just getting a traffic stop.”

But Robinson harks back to the idea of America as a melting pot — ditching the more modern metaphor of the American salad bowl, where distinct cultural and racial identities co-exist. When identified as a black leader, he bristled. 

“The best thing we can do for racial relations in this nation is stop calling ourselves by different races,” Robinson said. “We’re all one race, the human race, and one nation, America. We start calling ourselves human, American, and I think we’ll see a lot of those issues go away.”

Robinson flipped the normal dynamic of these debates. 

While conservatives often find themselves defending the past, Robinson stood for the future. He aggressively reframed questions into optimistic quips. Fear became courage, the minimum wage became “maximum talent” — always with a heavy emphasis on progress. 

“North Carolinians aren’t afraid. They’re courageous, and they’re ready to move on in this state under some real progress,” Robinson said. “They’re ready to get past these issues, ready to work through this [corona]virus, and ready to see violence in the street ended.”

Holley found herself holding up the burden of history. She was a child of the civil rights era, one of the first African-American students to desegregate Raleigh’s Enloe High School. She argues that she has the experience of the past and the will to create a better future. 

That vision of a better future differs dramatically from Robinson’s. 

Holley supports stricter gun-control laws, including red-flag laws tagging people thought to be possible threats, higher taxes on corporations, more taxpayer subsidies to the poor, and Medicaid expansion. She opposes the Opportunity Scholarship Program, though she praised charter schools as an alternative for parents. And she rejects any voter ID requirements. 

“This is our rainy day. This is the time when we need to put our money behind the people of North Carolina and help them out,” Holley said. 

Robinson blames Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for the economic devastation caused by COVID-19. He thinks Democrats have no solutions for small-business owners. 

“Quite frankly, small business[es] are suffering right now because Gov. Roy Cooper shut them down and took the control out of their hands,” Robinson said.

The Holley-Robinson debate was the first of this election’s NCIOPL Hometown Debate Series. It took place Sept. 20 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The series continues Thursday, Sept. 27, in Raleigh with state superintendent candidates Jennifer Mangrum, a Democrat, and Catherine Truitt, a Republican. On Oct. 4, a labor commissioner debate will feature Democrat Jessica Holmes and Republican state Rep. Josh Dobson. The final debate is scheduled Oct. 11, with incumbent state Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, facing his Democratic opponent Ronnie Chatterji.

None will have studio audiences, because of COVID-19 concerns.

Portions of all the debates are being aired the Sunday after they take place on the Spectrum News program “In Focus With Loretta Boniti.” The series sponsors are AARP-North Carolina, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, Humana, the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, and the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.