News: CJ Exclusives

Newton, Stein offer sharp contrasts in AG debate

Republican Newton says AG should defend state against federal intrusions; Democrat Stein sees role as consumer protector

Moderator Kelly McCullen of UNC-TV shares a lighter moment with Republican Buck Newton (left) and Democrat Josh Stein (right) at Tuesday's Hometown Debate between attorney general candidates in Asheboro. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Moderator Kelly McCullen of UNC-TV shares a lighter moment with Republican Buck Newton (left) and Democrat Josh Stein (right) at Tuesday's Hometown Debate between attorney general candidates in Asheboro. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Republican Buck Newton and Democrat Josh Stein agreed on many topics during a debate by the attorney general candidates Tuesday night, but the dueling lawyers did it in sometimes disagreeable fashion on the details.

Newton said Stein was hiding “his troubling record as a far left liberal,” and his votes to raise taxes $1 billon when Democrats controlled the General Assembly.

Stein said more than 90 percent of Newton’s broadcast and cable advertisements is coming from a Washington, D.C.-based Super PAC attacking him with $4 million, “trying to buy this election for Sen. Newton.”

The two also expressed a sharp difference in interpreting the role of the attorney general in defending state laws against federal court challenges. Newton said legislation passed through a “constitutional process” represents the sentiments of the people and should be defended without hesitation, while Stein countered that the attorney general should caution legislators against enacting laws that may run afoul of the federal or state constitutions, and use discretion about defending any that get on the books.

The debate, co-sponsored by the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership, Asheboro/Randolph Chamber, and others, will be broadcast at 9 tonight on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel. The final event in the “Hometown Debates” will feature candidates for state treasurer next Tuesday in Statesville.

Newton, a state senator from Wilson, portrayed Stein as an acolyte of current Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who he said repeatedly has politicized an underperforming office at the expense of the best interests of North Carolinians. Stein, a former state senator from Wake County, said his eight years as an assistant attorney general under Cooper has prepared him to hit the ground running.

“By the way, my name is Josh Stein, not Roy Cooper,” Stein said during one exchange as Newton again criticized Cooper’s conduct. Newton said he knows he’s not running against Cooper, “but somebody who was very much mentored by him,” and proud of it.

Both candidates agreed the attorney general’s role is to defend state laws. But time and again Newton struck the theme that Cooper has made political decisions not to defend state laws in the courts. Stein said sometimes state laws are not defensible.

Newton said Cooper failed to defend House Bill 2, the state’s transgender bathroom law, and the voter ID requirement, which were “duly passed by the legislature.”

Those are the latest in a series of Cooper’s inaction dating back to 2011, when he refused to defend the state in a lawsuit against Obamacare, which has since cost the state millions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and possible loss of all insurance companies participating in the federal health exchanges, Newton said.

“It’s a very dangerous thing for the concept of rule of law” when an attorney general chooses which laws to defend based on political agendas, Newton said. He called it “inconceivable” that voter ID, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court and practiced in 28 other states, is “somehow now discriminatory in North Carolina.”

Stein countered that he would follow his oath of office to defend state laws that do not conflict with the U.S. or state constitutions. He said the voter ID ruling was issued by a panel of federal judges one level below the U.S. Supreme Court. They “determined that the legislature acted with discriminatory intent, in fact with surgical precision, to target African American voters.”

Cooper, he said, had defended the law through state and federal trials for three years, but  “when you’ve been told you are denying people their constitutional rights that’s the time to step back” as attorney general.

Newton and Stein both want the state crime lab to reduce testing backlogs to more quickly prosecute criminals.

Stein said he would “fight vociferously” for more funding and resources to allow the crime lab to do its work. He said he introduced a bill in the last legislative session to increase salaries to retain forensic scientists, hire more lab technicians to share the work load, and send evidence to private labs to reduce the backlog.

He said Newton was chairman of the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee from 2011-14, but the committee failed to approve crime lab requests for millions of dollars.

Newton said crime lab woes “have been longstanding through the entire reign of our current attorney general. The backlog there is horrendous,” and is not being reduced, as Stein claimed.  “In the last three years we’ve poured millions of dollars in new money into the crime lab” for salaries, and to outsource evidence for processing at the state and county district attorney levels.

His goal is “to have evidence turned around to the courtroom within 30 days,” and to create regional crime labs to test evidence more rapidly.

Both candidates said more training is needed to avoid unnecessary conflicts and to reduce tension between African-American communities and police, while ensuring law enforcement can do its job effectively.

“It’s very unfortunate that so many have decided for political gain to vilify our law enforcement officers” even as they’re being gunned down in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and across the country, Newton said. “The vast majority of time our law enforcement community does it right every time.”

“We all want safe communities,” Stein said. Law enforcement officers get paid to run into life-threatening danger, and society needs to recognize that, he said. But “like any profession there are bad actors” who must be dealt with. He said ensuring police departments reflect their community demographics and requiring the use of body cameras would help reduce tensions.

Both candidates support the death penalty. Newton said he helped to pass legislation updating protocols on how to obtain drugs for lethal injection and the process for carrying out executions. He said he also helped to repeal the state’s Racial Justice Act, which stymied justice by allowing use of highly questionable race statistics in death penalty appeals.

Stein said he supports the state Actual Innocence Commission, which has investigated cases that proved a handful of people in prison and on death row were wrongly convicted. Newton introduced legislation to abolish the commission, he said. The language was stripped out of the Regulatory Reform Act of 2014.

Both candidates said multistate cooperation among attorneys general is an important way to fight for citizens. Stein said that maximizes resources to go after large pharmaceutical companies gouging consumers, telecommunications companies padding bills, satellite companies engaged in illegal marketing, and other billion-dollar national firms committing illegal acts.

Newton said multistate litigation is vital to protect citizens from federal regulatory overreach, and the growth of unconstitutional presidential executive orders. He said a coalition of attorneys general led by Pat Morrisey of West Virginia “did Roy Cooper’s job” in defending the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ First Amendment right to hold a prayer before meetings. “Our current attorney general was nowhere to be found.”

Stein said it is “rich” that Newton rails against federal overreach while he “did not hesitate to tell local government here in North Carolina what it can and can’t do” on discriminatory issues such as House Bill 2, which Newton championed. It has created an economic backlash, and loss of high-profile NBA, NCAA, and Atlantic Coast Conference games, Stein said.

Neither candidate would back the return of the SBI to the Attorney General’s Office. Stein said it was a mistake to pull an effective agency out of the AG’s control and place it in the executive branch Department of Public Safety. Newton said he was instrumental in moving the beleaguered agency because “investigations were not being handled properly because of political purposes,” morale was low, and professionalism was lacking.

Both candidates said they would not use the attorney general seat as a stepping stone to run for governor. Stein said he wants the AG’s job to do things such as crack down on violent crime, attack an opioid epidemic, and protect taxpayers from Medicaid fraud.

Newton said he would complete an elected term as attorney general just as he is fulfilling his obligation to his constituents by finishing his term in the Senate, an apparent swipe at Stein, who resigned his Senate seat in March to run for attorney general. “The office of attorney general is the last place for an ambitious politician,” he said.