Dale Folwell’s only meeting with Donald Trump was brief. The state treasurer, on the tarmac at Pitt-Greenville airport in July 2019, approached Trump to discuss how his work on the state employees’ health plan dovetailed with the administration’s recent executive order regarding health care costs and transparency.

Trump, never known for a love of policy details, was baffled. 

“It was about a 50-second conversation,” Folwell recalled. “I hit him cold.”

The encounter says a lot about Folwell’s dogged devotion to substance over style. The 64-year-old Republican, a former school board member, legislator, and now a twice-elected statewide official, says he has dedicated his life to “saving lives, minds, and money.” Most recently, he has fought fiercely with hospital and health care leaders to reduce costs for the state employee health plan. 

Now he wants to be governor. That would require him first to win a GOP primary next March that will almost certainly be influenced by Trump and his followers. That wing of the party seems enamored of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has spent far less time working on policy and politics but is seen as a gifted communicator already blessed by state GOP powers.

Folwell announced his candidacy March 25 in his home county of Forsyth. He noted in an interview with The Assembly that in his two races for treasurer, he got more votes than Trump, who won the state both times. 

“I think those totals reflect that people just want to be spoken to like adults and (that) what they hear makes common sense,” Folwell said. “And that’s what I’m going to offer.”

The immediate response from some longtime observers in both parties has been harsh.

“Dale Folwell threw his hat in the ring and his head in Mark Robinson’s buzzsaw,” longtime Democratic operative Gary Pearce wrote in his blog.

Lt. Governor Mark Robinson speaks to the crowd at Rep. Ted Budd’s election night watch party in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Pearce noted that a December poll of likely Republican voters showed Robinson with 60 percent support compared to Folwell’s 6. And he wasn’t buying Folwell’s line about adults in the Republican Party: “The only thing adult about it is the adult-film star Trump paid off.”

Jim Blaine’s firm conducted that poll. Blaine, a leading GOP consultant, says he is not working for any candidate in the governor’s race; he admires Folwell and his work as treasurer. But he is skeptical of Folwell’s chances.

“I don’t think he can win, and I wish he had stayed as treasurer,” Blaine said in an interview. “Mark Robinson is a force of nature. Robinson has won the primary. This is Don Quixote at the windmill.”

‘Never Been a Gamble’

So with his probable lock on the treasurer’s job and Robinson’s perceived popularity, why is Folwell stepping out on a more tenuous platform? He lost his first statewide run—for lieutenant governor in 2012—to political novice Dan Forest. Why seek higher office again?

You can almost hear Folwell’s teeth grind over the phone when asked about taking on Robinson. It’s as if he has been doing the work, pushing the rock up the hill for a quarter century, and he’s weary of others who seem less burdened by the weight of difficult policy fights cruising ahead. 

“Nobody [had] heard of this guy 1,000 days ago,” Folwell said. “I’m going to let him be who he’s been over the last 1,000 days, and I’m going to be who I’ve been over the last 25 years as a public servant.”

Folwell said that unlike Robinson, he has a long record of accomplishment. Voters know what kind of governor he would be, he said. 

“I’ve never been a gamble,” he said. “I’ve never been a gamble on the ballot when I was applying to be a member of the school board, I’ve never been a gamble when I was serving in the House of Representatives for eight years and was elected…as speaker pro tem. And I’m not a gamble as the keeper of the public purse. I’ve been the best treasurer money can’t buy, and I’m going to be the best governor money can’t buy.”

Axios recently reported that Robinson plans to announce his candidacy at Alamance County’s Ace Speedway on April 22. During the early days of the pandemic, the speedway and its fans made national headlines for disregarding Gov. Roy Cooper’s directive for masks and social distancing. 

Cooper is prohibited from seeking a third term. Robinson’s political organization didn’t respond to a request to discuss the GOP primary.

Before becoming treasurer, Folwell worked in the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory as head of the Division of Employment Security. 

McCrory, now an analyst for NBC News, praised Folwell’s management acumen, noting that he inherited a $2.7 billion deficit in the state’s unemployment fund and turned it into a $4 billion surplus. That took a combination of surcharges to business and cuts in benefits for workers. 

Folwell “is a doer, not a talker,” McCrory said in an interview. “He’s running against a talker. Robinson tells people what they want to hear, and I’d say Folwell tells people what they need to hear, which is not always the smart thing to do politically.”

State Treasurer Dale Folwell speaks at a Local Government Commission meeting. (Jade Wilson for The Assembly)

Folwell is firm in his conviction that a campaign ought to be about good government, and for him, good government is measured by competence, transparency, and fiscal responsibility. 

He takes pride in reporting that under his watch, the state has reduced its voter-approved debt by 60 percent. In some cases, that meant legislators paid off debt with budget surpluses rather than refinancing it. It’s like a homeowner paying off a mortgage early rather than using the money to buy new furniture or to remodel the kitchen. 

Folwell was among state officials who in 2021 appealed a judge’s order that state executive branch officials spend an additional $1.7 billion over two years on K–12 education. Folwell said he intervened “to prevent the judge from ordering me to do something the General Assembly did not authorize.”

He’s not a party now as the case sits, again, before the state Supreme Court. 

As a legislator, Folwell had uncommon success with bipartisan legislation. In four terms in the state House, he sponsored 29 bills that became law, 21 of them under Democratic leadership.

He won votes to require children to be 5 by Aug. 31 to enter kindergarten, advancing the cutoff date by six weeks. He sponsored an organ donation bill, and one that makes drivers licenses for North Carolinians under 21 oriented vertically, not horizontally, to allow bar bouncers and convenience store clerks to spot them more easily. His bill to combine drivers’ payments for vehicle taxes and tags has resulted in at least $200 million a year in additional collections, state figures show.

As treasurer, Folwell has fought for more pricing transparency in the state health plan. It’s a battle he would take with him to the governor’s office, he says, along with other work to keep residents better informed of what their government is or isn’t doing. 

He is more cagey, however, on another health care topic: the General Assembly’s recent decision to expand Medicaid, the government-run program for some low-income residents. Legislators acted more than a decade after federal officials first offered significant financial inducements to do so. 

“There wasn’t enough done in that particular bill…to contain the cartel-like pricing of health care in North Carolina, the runaway costs,” Folwell said. “Secondly, I haven’t been able to determine yet if this could result in a transfer of costs onto the state employees.”

He declined to say whether, as governor, he would have signed the expansion bill in its final form.

Fire and Brimstone

Since being elected lieutenant governor in 2020, Robinson has been known for headline-grabbing statements on social issues. He recently said that the push for rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender people was turning America into a “hellhole,” WRAL reported. 

Speaking at a church outside Charlotte, he also took on churches that have welcomed the LGBTQ community. 

“Makes me sick every time I see it—a church that flies that rainbow flag, which is a direct spit in the face of God almighty,” he said.

In March, Republican leaders picked Robinson to give the GOP response to Gov. Cooper’s State of the State address. He took a far more conciliatory tone than usual, giving credit to the state’s teachers and urging higher pay. 

“It was an anointment and a test, in my mind,” Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said in an interview. “Can Mark Robinson be tamed? Before Mark Robinson’s response, I wasn’t sure that he could…I learned that he could give a more moderate message.”

In his two campaigns for treasurer, Folwell has gained strength from state employees; the State Employees Association of North Carolina has endorsed him twice. 

Folwell running for governor has produced mixed feelings for SEANC members, said Ardis Watkins, the organization’s executive director, who credits Folwell for increased transparency in managing the state’s pension fund in addition to his work on health care.

“This is by far the best treasurer we’ve ever had in this state,” Watkins said in an interview. “He’s going to leave a big void. He is as honest as any public official I’ve ever met. He is as capable as any public official I’ve ever met. “

She said it’s too early to say if SEANC will continue to support Folwell in his race for governor.

Folwell will start the campaign with a significant financial disadvantage. State campaign finance reports show his political committee with only about $47,000 in cash on hand, while Robinson’s campaign counts $2.2 million. Both would still need to raise vast additional sums to run a high-profile race. 

Chris Cooper, the political science professor, said Folwell’s best chance is to make his case to voters unaffiliated with either major political party and get them to vote in the GOP primary; unaffiliated voters make up nearly 36 percent of registered NC voters—more than Democrats (33 percent) or Republicans (30 percent). 

Cooper says the contrast between Robinson and Folwell sets up a classic battle. 

“Mark Robinson is an engaging speaker, he’s a genius at drawing attention to himself, and his message is resonating with a large part of the Republican Party,” Cooper said. “Dale Folwell is quiet. Dale Folwell is not a practiced speaker” but Folwell is a “guy with an impressive history.”

“But if that’s what got you elected, we’d be talking about Donald Trump the former TV star, not Donald Trump the former president,” he said.

As with all conversations about the modern Republican Party, this one begins and ends with the polarizing Trump. 

The former president endorsed Ted Budd in North Carolina’s GOP primary for the U.S. Senate last year, elevating Budd from little-known congressman to frontrunner. Budd swamped McCrory, 59 percent to 25 percent, and went on to win the seat in the fall.

Folwell said he liked parts of Trump’s performance in office, but pointed out that he has never campaigned with the 45th president. He would not answer whether he voted for Trump in the past or if he would support Trump in 2024 if he were the Republican presidential nominee.

“I did not ask Donald Trump to be my valentine,” Folwell said. “What I asked him to do is protect my streets, protect my economy, protect my borders. I thought he did a good job at that.

“I do not expect to be the Trump-endorsed candidate in this race.”

Steve Riley worked at The News & Observer for 31 years, the last 14 leading the investigations team. In 2017, he joined The Houston Chronicle as senior editor for investigations and in 2019 became executive editor. He retired in 2021 and lives in the North Carolina mountains.