Not long after Robert Brawley joined North Carolina’s Army National Guard in the late 1960s, he tried to sign up for combat duty in Vietnam. He was rejected.
“They said, ‘You can’t go because you’re in the Guard,’” recalls Brawley, who would leave the Guard 24 years later as a lieutenant colonel.
Brawley went on to find his combat experience in the N.C. General Assembly – with scars from fellow Republicans to show for it.
Now Brawley, 71, is challenging Gov. Pat McCrory in the March 15 GOP primary. Charles Moss of Randolph County is also running.
Brawley is a decided underdog. At the end of the year, McCrory had a nearly 10-1 fundraising advantage as well as support from key Republicans.
Brawley says that when he began, he just hoped to get some issues on the table. Now, as he told the Statesville Record & Landmark, “I believe I could win by putting my name on the ballot as ‘the other guy.’”
“People are so upset about the honesty and transparency coming out of Raleigh, I don’t even have to talk about that,” he says. “People don’t feel like Raleigh’s listening to them.”
Brawley says he’s running to improve education, increase government transparency and assure local governments they can control their own business. He’s also an outspoken opponent of the state’s contract to toll Interstate 77. The project, now under construction, is widely unpopular in southern Iredell and north Mecklenburg counties.
Brawley claims it’s just the beginning. He says former Transportation Secretary Tony Tata told him the state plans to toll all the state’s interstate corridors. (Tata says that’s not true. “I never said we’re going to toll all the roads in North Carolina,” he says.)
This isn’t the first time Brawley has upset Republicans.
In 1997, he threatened to back Democrat Jim Black for House speaker, a move that would have returned Democrats to power. Brawley says now that he was trying to send a message to House GOP leaders. But one party lawmaker called him “the Dr. Kevorkian of the Republican Party” after the physician notorious for assisted suicides.
In the end, Brawley cast his vote for incumbent Republican Speaker Harold Brubaker of Randolph County. Black became speaker two years later, not long after Brawley had decided not to run for re-election.
“It shows that he has no principle,” GOP activist Linda Shaw said at the time. “The Democrats won’t be able to trust him. I don’t think anybody from either party can trust him.”
Brawley returned to the House in 2013. Then-Speaker Thom Tillis named him co-chair of the influential Finance Committee, which oversees state tax policy. But their relationship soured.
That May, Brawley turned in his chairman’s gavel and wrote Tillis a letter. He cited a litany of concerns, including what he described as the speaker’s shoddy treatment of him and accusing Tillis of putting his U.S. Senate campaign ahead of the legislature.
After that, one GOP lawmaker called Brawley “radioactive.”
That same month he narrowly lost a primary to fellow Republican John Fraley. Two weeks later he was was kicked out of the House Republican caucus.
“One could take that as an act of defiance or (say) that he has his principles,” says Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat. “Though it might be easy for his Republican colleagues … not to like some of his tactics, in his own way he stands up for his principles and says what he thinks.”
Despite the party skirmishes, the burly Brawley is upbeat, much like he was as a cheerleader at N.C. State University, where he was also a prize-winning wrestler. He invokes both experiences on the campaign trail.
“We need to take names, kick butt and cheer about it,” he says.
Family: Wife, Mary; five children; 12 grand-children.
Occupation: Insurance agent
Education: N.C. State University, degree in engineering operations, 1968
Political experience: N.C. House, 1981-1999, 2013-2015. Ran unsuccessfully for state insurance commissioner in 2004.
Worth knowing: ACC wrestling champion in his division in 1964 and 1966. Flew helicopters in the N.C. National Guard.