JTA — The Facebook post in early August condemning antisemitic flyers left around Raleigh might not have been surprising, coming from North Carolina’s lieutenant governor.
But for Lieutenant Gov. Mark Robinson, the statement marked something of a change in tone. After the Republican was elected to the state’s second-highest office in 2020, revelations emerged that he was the prolific author of Facebook posts downplaying the threat of Nazism, invoking antisemitic stereotypes and targeting other minority groups.
At the time, Robinson’s track record earned him criticism from local Jewish leaders and national commentators; the Republican Jewish Coalition called his comments “clearly antisemitic.” In response, Robinson did not publicly apologize for the posts but he said he would no longer make them. He met with a group of local Jewish leaders in 2021 and says he privately apologized to them.
Now, as Robinson runs for governor — and increasingly appears on track to become the Republican nominee next year — North Carolinians must decide whether Robinson has earned their trust. For some local Jews, that means taking him more seriously.
“Most of us find it hard to believe that he will be the candidate,” said Randall Kaplan, a board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America who is also married to Rep. Kathy Manning, a Jewish Democrat who represents North Carolina in Congress. “I think most of us are in denial.”
Here’s what you need to know about Robinson, his contentious social media presence and his campaign to lead North Carolina.
He’s a political newcomer whose star is rising.
Robinson has risen rapidly in state politics in recent years after a life spent out of the spotlight. A native of Greensboro, his campaign website says he was the ninth of 10 children and that his alcoholic father abused his mother. He studied at the University of North Carolina Greensboro with hopes of becoming a history professor, has worked in furniture factories and also opened a daycare center with his wife. He filed for bankruptcy in 1998, 1999 and 2003.
Robinson’s improbable rise in the GOP began in early April 2018, when he spoke before the Greensboro City Council about preserving gun owners’ rights following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, two months earlier in which 17 students and teachers were killed.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen who’s never shot anybody,” he said in the four-minute speech. “Every time we have one of these shootings, nobody wants to put the blame where it goes, which is at the shooter’s feet. You want to put it at my feet.”
The appearance went viral. Robinson went on in 2020 to win the lieutenant governor’s job with 51.6% of the vote against his Democratic opponent. He is also a National Rifle Association board member and speaker at events calling for gun rights, including the NRA’s annual meeting this past April.
Now, Robinson is the Republican frontrunner in the high-profile contest for governor. At a June rally in Greensboro, former president Donald Trump pledged to endorse Robinson, calling him “one of the great stars of the party.”
Other candidates on the Republican side include State Treasurer Dale Folwell, former Rep. Mark Walker, former State Senator Andy Wells and former healthcare executive Jesse Thomas.
Whoever wins the March 2024 primary will likely face the state’s Jewish attorney general, Josh Stein, who is so far running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
Robinson would be North Carolina’s first Black governor, Stein its first Jewish one. Polls show them running a close race, though the election is more than a year away. Stein is winning the campaign funds battle to date: His campaign raised about $6 million this year through June, while Robinson’s campaign raised $2.2 million during the same period.
Stein has also seized upon some of Robinson’s comments. Robinson’s “brand of extremism is off the charts,” Stein told Charlotte radio station WFAE.
Robinson has a history of inflammatory comments referencing Jews and other groups.
Before his first political campaign in 2020, Robinson was an active and controversial Facebook user whose posts downplayed the need to discuss the Nazis’ evil.
“I am so sick of seeing and hearing people STILL talk about Nazis and Hitler and how evil and manipulative they were. NEWS FLASH PEOPLE, THE NAZIS (National Socialist) ARE GONE! We did away with them,” he declared in a 2017 post first uncovered by Jewish Insider, which has tracked Robinson’s comments since he took office.
“Marxist Socialist(s)” and communism pose the bigger threat and control the media, he maintained. “After all, who do you think has been pushing this Nazi boogeyman narrative all these years?”
Later that year, in another post, Robinson wrote, “Please STOP wasting my time, your time, and the time of your fellow conservatives talking about, and making mention of, the NAZIS who have been DEAD since 1945.”
He has also targeted other groups, including LGBTQ people, Muslims and others. “Note to liberals; I’ll accept ‘Gay Pride’ when you accept ‘White Pride,’” he wrote in 2014, according to screenshots posted by the liberal news site Talking Points Memo. Another post read, “I believe that homosexuality is a sin and that those people who are ‘proudly coming out of the closet’ are standing in open rebellion against God.”
In 2018, he railed on Facebook that the hit superhero movie “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by satanic marxist.” Invoking an antisemitic trope about Jewish pursuit of money and using a Yiddish slur for Black people, Robinson, who is Black, wrote that the film was “only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets.” The following year, the News and Observer in Raleigh reported that he responded affirmatively to a far-right religious leader who invoked an antisemitic conspiracy theory.
After national news organizations called attention to Robinson’s posts after his election, he said they would not continue.
“When I made those posts as a private citizen, I was speaking directly to issues that I’m passionate about,” he said upon taking office. “As a public servant, I have to put those opinions behind me and do what’s right for everyone in North Carolina.”
The CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, said at the time he was not satisfied with Robinson’s response. “His refusal to apologize is troubling and unacceptable to us,” Brooks said.
As lieutenant governor, Robinson has tried to play it straighter.
While Robinson has not issued a public apology, he met with Jewish leaders from Greensboro shortly after taking office to discuss their concerns about his posts. Marilyn Chandler, CEO of the Greensboro Jewish Federation, helped to organize and participated in the virtual meeting, which included Jewish participants as well as Robinson and members of his staff.
During the meeting, Chandler and other Jewish leaders expressed their deep concerns about antisemitic remarks Robinson had made on social media prior to becoming lieutenant governor. He shared a press statement addressing these issues, though it is unclear if the statement has been released publicly.
Mike Lonergan, communications director for Robinson’s campaign for governor, told JTA that Robinson “met with dozens of rabbis and Jewish leaders from across NC” after taking office, and that he “expressed remorse, and communicated a desire to learn more about the Jewish community in an effort to understand how he can better serve them as an elected official.”
After speaking with several rabbis across the state, JTA was unable to independently confirm additional meetings Robinson had with Jewish leaders beyond the one in Greensboro.
Robinson also addressed his contentious Facebook posts and said he apologized for them in his memoir. The book, titled “We Are The Majority: The Life and Passions of a Patriot,” was published in September 2022.
“It came off the wrong way,” he wrote, according to a photo of the book’s text shared by Lonergan. “When people called me and asked about it, that’s what I told them. And I apologized to them. It’s the only time I’ve ever apologized for anything I put on Facebook. It did come out wrong. I knew the truth of what I was trying to say, but I should have chosen different words.”
His social media presence of late has taken on a different character. Recently, on his official page as lieutenant governor, Robinson has appeared to make a point of condemning antisemitism publicly — including the flyers in Raleigh. Adopting a pro-Israel outlook that is de rigueur among Republicans, he has also called out recent criticism of Israel by Democrats.
“Democrat Congresswoman Jayapal labeling Israel a ‘racist state’ is unjust and plain wrong,” he wrote on Facebook in response to comments made in July by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, an influential Democrat from Washington who later walked the statement back. “These harmful antisemitic comments are not representative of our nation’s values. We stand firmly with Israel, our steadfast ally.”
But Robinson has not entirely avoided hot-button issues or the controversy that can accompany them. His tenure as second-in-command has included a campaign against what he sees as left-wing political indoctrination in schools. In March 2021, he formed the Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students, or FACTS, task force, and in an August press conference, he said he was combating teachers who put “undue pressure on young minds to accept their way of thinking.”
Earlier this summer, he went viral after speaking at a conference held by Moms for Liberty, the conservative group that is fueling book bans in school districts across the United States.
“Whether you’re talking about Adolf Hitler, whether you’re talking about Chairman Mao, whether you’re talking about Stalin, whether you’re talking about Pol Pot, whether you’re talking about [Fidel] Castro in Cuba, or whether you’re talking about a dozen other despots all around the globe, it is time for us to get back and start reading some of those quotes. It’s time for us to start teaching our children some of those quotes,” he said. “It’s time for us to start teaching our children about the dirty, despicable, awful things that those communist and socialist despots did in our history.” People who viewed a clip of the speech without the condemnatory final sentence blasted Robinson for endorsing the views of history’s worst dictators. Stein’s campaign said in a press release that Robinson “promotes reading of quotes from global dictators.” The full video of the speech, however, showed that Robinson was not endorsing the dictators’ views.
Jewish groups are voicing concern — though Robinson has Jewish supporters, too.
In July, the North Carolina Jewish Clergy Association, the Democratic Majority for Israel and six North Carolina Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to state Republican leaders asking them to strongly condemn Robinson’s remarks.
“His inflammatory statements invoke harmful stereotypes and conspiracy theories, downplay the Holocaust, and denigrate entire groups of human beings,” the letter said. “They are not just deeply troubling, but downright dangerous.”
To date, none of the people who received the letter have publicly responded to it. Manning, a signatory on the letter, said she remained concerned about Robinson.
“The fact that we have a gubernatorial candidate in the state of North Carolina who makes antisemitic comments, who veers on Holocaust denial, is very frightening,” Manning, co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, told JTA.
For Rabbi Barbara Thiede, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the danger of Robinson’s rise comes from his potential to inspire extremists to take action. She said she thought some of her fellow Jews may not be adequately concerned by the possibility that he could become governor.
“They may not appreciate the danger that Robinson and others like him pose to their safety,” Thiede said. “Speech is not unrelated to action, even if one person is doing the speaking and the next is taking up the weapon — whatever that may be.”
Not all North Carolina Jews oppose Robinson’s candidacy. Jeremy Stephenson, a Charlotte attorney who previously ran as a Republican for local school board and served for two years as general counsel of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, said he plans to vote for Robinson in the primary.
Stephenson dismisses the “hyperventilation from the left” about the candidate and told JTA that he isn’t worried about “isolated Facebook posts which are then blasted in paid social media from the Dems.”
“The Jewish Republicans I know are strongly in favor of Robinson, particularly in contrast with Stein,” Stephenson said. “I think Josh Stein has far more antisemitic friends on the left who he has been unwilling to distance himself from, and will accept donations from, in running for governor.”
Stephenson said he believes Robinson’s embrace of religion in the public sphere would have benefits for Jews in the state. “I think that Robinson in many ways will embolden more people to be more comfortable expressing their religious beliefs,” he said. “And that includes Jews.”
While it’s clear that Robinson’s past comments will draw more attention in the coming months, as the primary season heats up, it’s unclear how much North Carolina Jews will hear that chatter in their synagogues.
At Temple of Israel in Wilmington, the oldest Jewish congregation in the state, Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov said she’s keenly aware of the diverse viewpoints in her congregation, which she characterizes as “purple.”
Losben-Ostrov serves on the steering committee of the Jewish Clergy Association, which authorized the letter about Robinson. At the same time, she said she talks about Jewish values but not about any single politician or political party from the bimah.
“I want the synagogue to be a place for unity and for escaping some of the difficulties of the things that divide us,” she said, adding, “It’s a dual job I need to do. One is to stand up to hate and two is to also keep our community connected.”