NC attorney general race in spotlight as crime, protests grab public attention

Stein spent much of term battling Trump admin

Josh Stein is pictured at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via NC Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — The attorney general’s race between Democrat incumbent Josh Stein and Republican challenger Jim O’Neill hasn’t seen much press, but that may change as civil unrest and law and order are increasingly on the minds of voters.

The N.C. Department of Justice, Stein and Gov. Roy Cooper have remained relatively quiet on the riots in major cities across the state. O’Neill says this, and what he calls Stein’s support for “sanctuary city” policies regarding illegal immigration, are putting communities in the state at a greater risk for violent crime.

O’Neill thinks his experience as a prosecutor and district attorney are what the state needs in an attorney general, and that this is experience his opponent doesn’t have. O’Neill is currently in his third-elected term as Forsyth County’s district attorney after first being appointed in 2009. He spent a number of years as a prosecutor and was Forsyth County’s first dedicated domestic violence prosecutor.

This is not O’Neill’s first bid at the attorney general role. O’Neill also ran in 2016, losing in the primary to then-state Sen. Buck Newton. Newton ended up losing to Stein only by around 24,000 votes out of over 4.5 million cast that year.

Republican North Carolina attorney general candidate Jim O’Neill appears a campaign rally ahead of the arrival of President Donald Trump Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

As district attorney, O’Neill’s work has focused on a prosecution program targeting sex offenders and the prosecution of violent criminal offenders. That focus has resulted in the lowest dismissal rate for violent crime offenders among urban counties in the state. O’Neill himself has the highest conviction rate in the state for crimes dealing with sexual assault.

“Our current attorney general has never prosecuted a criminal case,” O’Neill told North State Journal in an interview earlier this year. “It’s never happened. Without that experience that I’ve had for the last 23 years, you don’t understand what it’s like to hold the hands of a victim’s family that has lost a loved one, or their child has been molested, or they’ve been a victim of rape.”

O’Neill attended Duke University for his undergraduate degree while on a lacrosse scholarship. He later obtained his law degree from New York Law School. He and his wife, Dr. Oona O’Neill, have three young children.

The opioid addiction crisis has also gotten attention from O’Neill, who started a successful program assisting inmates to kick the addition and stay clean. This program caught the attention of other counties and has since been duplicated statewide.

O’Neill also mentioned the rape kit backlog that garnered attention in 2018, telling Stein that the backlog was “an indication that you don’t understand the importance of protecting people and standing up for victims.”

The rape kit backlog became an issue for Stein despite past claims by then-Attorney General Roy Cooper when he was running for governor in 2016 that there “is no backlog.” There was a flurry of activity in late 2018 and early 2019 on the backlog, including passage of the Standing Up for Rape Victims Act by the legislature. After that, the updates on the rape kit backlog went quiet. The last update on the N.C. Department of Justice website in September of 2019 says that “Since January 2018, we have tested 904 sexual assault kits.” A graphic linked to the press release says “over 1,000” kits have been tested.

An accurate count of the untested rape kits statewide is hard to gauge as only 92% of law enforcement agencies responded to Stein’s inventory request and 46 agencies did not respond at all. According to, despite the claimed reductions from that 15,160 total, North Carolina still ranks No. 1 in the country for backlogged rape kits.

Born in Washington, D.C., Josh Stein has worked for well-known Democrats throughout his career. He served as campaign manager and deputy chief of staff for U.S. Sen. John Edwards (1997- 2000) and later as senior deputy attorney general under Roy Cooper (2001-2008).

Before becoming North Carolina’s 50th attorney general in 2016, he served in the General Assembly as the senator for District 16. Stein’s stint in the legislature was around eight years, starting in 2008 and ending on March 21, 2016, when he resigned to spend more time on his run for attorney general.

Stein went to Dartmouth College for undergraduate studies, and in 1995 he received a J.D. and M.P.P. in law and public policy from Harvard University. He and his wife, Anna, live in Durham and have three children.

At the moment, Stein is currently embroiled in the controversy over a consent order that the N.C. State Board of Elections has entered into that, in part, seeks to remove absentee ballot safeguards such as a witness requirement. Those safeguards were put into place after the ballot harvesting incident in the state’s Ninth Congressional District which resulted in a separate special election being held.

Stein produced a “fact sheet” about the consent order, which N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) quickly refuted. Moore, along with Senate Leader Phil Berger and several other plaintiffs have filed a federal countersuit to stop the consent order from moving forward. The suit accuses North Carolina Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, appointed by Cooper, of violating the rights of N.C. voters, specifically, Section 1983 of the U.S. Code.

Over the course of his four-year tenure as Attorney General of North Carolina, Stein has consistently gone after price-gougers, aggressive telemarketers and robo-callers, Medicaid fraud and various other types of consumer scams. He’s also built a history of suing the Trump administration while failing to defend the state from activist and Democratic-law firm tied lawsuits.  A search of the press releases on the N.C. Attorney General’s website using just the word “Trump” yielded 95 results.

As Attorney General, one of Stein’s first actions was to request the dismissal of the General Assembly’s petition pending at the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the state’s 2013 voting law. Republicans accused Stein of neglecting his duties in defending the state on the matter, which forced them to then seek outside counsel. Additionally, a brief alleging misconduct and ethical violations by Stein was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court. Outlined in the brief was that Stein had not consulted with his clients, the General Assembly, before filing the dismissal. Perhaps the most severe claim in the brief against Stein was that he had been a fact witness for the plaintiffs in the case he was now moving to dismiss when he was a sitting state senator. Of note, Stein’s father, Adam, was one of the lawyers who filed some of the first cases attacking the state’s election integrity laws.

Stein would later refuse to defend and appeal a ruling blocking the voter-passed Voter ID amendment to the state constitution. In a press release, Stein said his office wouldn’t appeal the law in time for the March 3 primary because it would “cause confusion.” That refusal forced House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger to file a motion with the state court of appeals for an en banc hearing that would convene the entire state Court of Appeals.

Over his four years, Stein lobbed half a dozen environmental-related suits at the Trump administration from offshore drilling to endangered-species rules and several attempts to curb actions by Trump’s appointees to the EPA. In his lengthy list of litigation is a suit over the administration’s replacement in 2018 of President Obama’s “Clean Power Plan.” That wasn’t the first suit filed over “Clean Power” either. In February of 2017, Stein withdrew the state from the lawsuit against the Obama administration’s “Clean Power Act,” entered into by former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican. In 2020, Stein would also sue the EPA over a rule changing methane emissions standards.

Stein has also sued the Trump administration over Obamacare subsidies, which were taxpayer-funded “cost-sharing reductions” (CSR), that cost $7 billion in 2017 and upwards of $10 billion for 2018. He also petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision of the First Circuit, which ruled that the Obamacare mandate was unconstitutional.

In March of 2019, Stein again brought North Carolina into a suit against the Trump administration, this time it was over the “Protect Life Rule,” which Democrats in Congress and Stein falsely labeled as a “gag rule” on abortion doctors. The rule stopped direct referrals to abortion providers by making counseling materials “non-directive.” It also required Title X recipients to follow state laws for reporting suspected child sexual abuse and rape.

This past June, Stein sued the U.S. Department of Education (USED) over Secretary DeVos’s repeal of the Gainful Employment Rule, one of several leftover Obama-era practices that critics said penalized “for-profit schools” based on their tax status and which churned out too many graduates with high student debt. A month later, in July, Stein sued USED over changes in higher-education lending programs. He also sued USED and DeVos in 2017 over the department pausing a number of rules tied to student loan forgiveness.

Election day is on the horizon, and while O’Neill has a wealth of experience to bring to the job, Stein brings massive fundraising with $5,758,509 cash on hand according to his second quarter report. He’s also raised $6,459,036 overall so far. As of second quarter, O’Neill had cash on hand of $116,396 and has raised $634,409 total this election.

About A.P. Dillon 1213 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_