ASHEBORO, N.C. — As current N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper runs for governor against Republican incumbent Pat McCrory, two state senators are in a tight race to take over Cooper’s post as the state’s top lawyer.
Sen. Buck Newton (R-Wilson) faced former senator Josh Stein (D-Wake) in a debate of the issues in Asheboro Tuesday, offering sharp contrasts between the two candidates.
Newton, an attorney from Wilson, N.C., was elected to the state Senate in 2010, chairing judiciary committees and focusing on criminal justice reforms as part of the Republican majority. He is a graduate of Appalachian State University and Campbell University School of Law.
Stein, of Raleigh, resigned from the General Assembly in March 2016 to focus on the attorney general race after four terms as a state senator. Serving as senior deputy to Cooper from 2001 to 2008, while in the Senate, Stein successfully pushed for the expansion of the state’s DNA database and focused on domestic abuse issues.
The North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership and the Asheboro/Randolph Chamber of Commerce teamed up to host the debate at the historic Sunset Theater in downtown Asheboro, offering the candidates a chance to appeal to voters.
Throughout the debate, Newton tied his opponent to the shortcomings of the current Attorney General.”Our state needs an attorney general who is not afraid to stand for the people of N.C.; someone who will stand for the rule of law without a political agenda because this is the foundation of our freedom,” said Newton in his opening statement.
The Republican candidate consistently lambasted the current attorney general for refusing to represent the state in controversial issues such as H.B. 2 and Voter ID, and argued his opponent would be an extension of his tenure. Meanwhile, Stein claimed his opponent lacks the experience for the job, touting his own tenure as a senior deputy attorney general for nearly eight years as qualification for the post.
“Before I was sworn into the state Senate, I was a variety of different things,” said Stein. “I was a high school economics teacher, an economic developer, legal counsel in the United States Senate, and for eight years I was senior deputy attorney general in the North Carolina Department of Justice. I already know the job.”
Of the many issues discussed, the state crime lab and ethical questions regarding the role of attorney general stand out in this race.
“I want the people to understand that as attorney general, your job is to defend the state as the chief law enforcement officer,” said Newton. “It’s a very dangerous thing to the concept of rule of law if you have an attorney general deciding which laws that he or she can just choose and pick whatever fits their agenda.”
Agreeing that the duty of attorney general is to represent the people of the state, Stein offered some nuanced qualifiers.”
The role of the attorney general is not to make policy, but it is to defend the state,” said Stein. “Of course it has to be consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”
Stein referenced voter ID, calling it the “anti-voter bill”, as well as H.B. 2, arguing that such laws violate the spirit of the Constitution and thus the attorney general is not obligated to their defense.
“When you’ve been told that you’re denying people their constitutional rights, that’s the appropriate time to step back,” said Stein. “That’s the discretion the attorney general has to respect the U.S. Constitution.”On the issue of backlogs at the state crime lab, both candidates gave assurances that its reform would be a focus of their administrations.”
The most important thing that I can do as attorney general overseeing the state crime lab is to fight vociferously to make sure it has the resources it needs to do the job,” said Stein. “I am pleased that we are turning a corner, the backlogs are falling, we’re being more responsive to law enforcement, and as attorney general, I will continue to bird-dog this issue.”
Stein said he would offer higher salaries to forensic scientists and hire more lab technicians to handle the administrative workload.
Newton responded that the recent progress in reducing the backlog may be a mirage.
“This is one of the main reasons I am running to be attorney general,” said Newton. “The backlog there is horrendous. There’s a lot of talk about the backlog being eliminated, but that’s simply not true.”
Newton said North Carolina sheriffs have complained that it takes as long as two years to get a toxicology report and that such a wait is unfair to both the victims and the accused.
“I believe the solution is going to be teamwork with local law enforcement, developing regional labs, as well as really boosting funds for privatizing and outsourcing,” said Newton. “My goal, when I’m attorney general we’re gonna meet this goal, is to have evidence turned around to the courtroom within 30 days.”
The most recent polls have the candidates for state attorney general in a dead heat with six weeks left before Election Day.