This story was first published by INDY Week on Feb. 23. Story by Leigh Tauss and Geoff West.
Last summer, Lt. Governor Mark Robinson stood on a wooden podium behind a red, white, and blue flower garland on the stage at the Asbury Baptist Church in Seagrove. There, he proclaimed that educating children on topics like transgenderism and homosexuality is abuse.
Robinson delivered the remarks like a preacher, his booming voice rising to the growing applause in the audience as his hands gesticulated sharply, cutting through the air.
“There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth,” Robinson said. “And yes, I called it filth. And if you don’t like that I called it filth, come see me, and I’ll explain it to you.”
While the comments were recorded in June, the outrage didn’t come until October, when advocacy group Right Wing Watch tweeted the video. It went viral and the story went national, spurring countless articles and think pieces condemning Robinson’s comments and casting yet another humiliating spotlight on North Carolina politics.
But as the clicks came in, so did donations to Robinson’s campaign committee, Friends of Mark Robinson; Robinson is widely expected to run for governor of North Carolina in 2024.
An INDY Week analysis reveals that on October 8, the day after national outlets picked up the story, Robinson received the largest number of contributions up to that point. Up until then, he averaged 76 donations per day; that day, the number of donations increased six-fold. Fox News aired the story on October 10, and Robinson pulled in 561 donations on October 13. He set a fundraising record to the tune of $48,256 the next day.
One-sixth of all the donations Robinson received during the last six months of 2021 came during those seven days.
“Bigotry sells,” says Blair Reeves, executive director of Carolina Forward, a progressive advocacy group. “Mark Robinson is a bigot, full stop—everyone knows that; it’s not something anyone’s mistaken about—and he is proud about it.”Expand
Baiting liberals into outrage has become too common a formula for catapulting right-wing figureheads into the national spotlight. According to Robinson’s campaign finance reports, his donors include Raleigh developer John Kane and the CEO of Coca-Cola Bottling Co., J. Frank Harrison III. Both gave Robinson the maximum allowed contribution—$5,600. Meanwhile, Larry Barbour, president and CEO of North State Bank, donated $2,500 to Robinson.
None of the three responded to the INDY’s request for comment on the matter. Robinson’s team didn’t respond to our phone call, either.
Perhaps not everyone who donated to Robinson that week, the best fundraising week of the entire campaign year, gave money precisely because they heard his “filth” comment and supported it. But not very many people asked for the money back; that week, Robinson’s campaign issued reimbursements to just three individuals, totaling $270.
Since July, just 28 people have received refunds. It’s unclear whether any requested their money back or donated more than the maximum contribution limit ($5,600), making Robinson’s campaign legally obligated to refund them.
Controversy spurring an influx in donations is nothing new, says Democratic campaign strategist Maggie Barlow, who worked on statewide campaigns including Cheri Beasley’s unsuccessful run for chief justice on the state Supreme Court.
“Anything that riles people up to no matter what always helps with grassroots small-dollar donations, and candidates always like to have that kind of support,” Barlow says. “It gets more people interested in the campaign.” But it’s a strategy that’s ultimately bad for business. Barlow recalled the backlash from the business community following the passage of North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill House Bill 2.
“Lt. Governor Mark Robinson is attacking North Carolinians who are customers, clients, tourists,” Barlow says.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, an advocacy group fighting for fair elections and campaign finance reform, says Robinson’s team isn’t blind to the fact the lieutenant governor’s penchant for inflammatory comments is a moneymaker.
“I think what we are seeing speaks to just the toxic world we are in,” Phillips told the INDY.
“It’s a game, and for people who respond, the donors, whether they responded right afterward—they know him, they know his views and to invest, that’s something that’s fair to question.”
“There are some folks who will invest in both sides, and they really don’t care about what kinds of positions people have and what kind of visions they are espousing,” Phillips continued. “It’s a stain on our democracy. Big-money politics stinks.”
Common Cause is one of the plaintiffs in the state’s ongoing legal battle over gerrymandering. Phillips says his organization would never advocate for a law that would prevent people from donating to the person of their choosing or punish politicians that engage in hateful rhetoric like Robinson does routinely. Still, the fact that hate speech was an effective financial boon for Robinson, who is notorious for saying asinine things, is a discouraging, albeit unsurprising, reality.
“The people who fan those flames, and the people who respond, they are complicit,” Phillips said. “And until we can actually push reforms though, this [rhetoric] is becoming increasingly par for the course.”
UPDATE: The story has been updated to clarify Cheri Beasley’s most recent state supreme court election.
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