There’s no incumbent in this year’s attorney general race, but a debate Tuesday night between the two candidates for the office largely centered on Roy Cooper’s record.
Cooper, a Democrat, is running for governor after nearly 16 years as attorney general. Republican Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson and former Democratic Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh are vying to replace him.
Newton repeatedly criticized Cooper during the debate, which was held in Asheboro and is the only forum featuring the attorney general race.
Newton said Cooper has refused to defend laws such as voter ID that he disagrees with. In some cases, Cooper defended the laws but declined to pursue appeals sought by Republican lawmakers. He declined from the outset to defend House Bill 2, the LGBT law passed in March.
“As an attorney general, your job is to defend the laws of this state,” Newton said. “It’s a very dangerous thing for the concept of rule of law if you have an attorney general deciding which law fits their agenda.”
Stein defended Cooper’s approach, noting that the incumbent defended the election law that includes voter ID law in court for three years, but he declined to appeal further after a federal court ruled it discriminated against black voters.
“When you’ve been told that you’re denying people their constitutional rights, it’s an appropriate time to step back,” Stein said. “The role of the attorney general is not to make policy but to defend the state. When the state is sued, the attorney general will defend that, but it has to be consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”
Stein criticized Newton for focusing on Cooper. “By the way, my name is Josh Stein, not Roy Cooper,” he said. “You are running against me, not him.”
Newton responded by pointing to Stein’s eight years working under Cooper as a deputy attorney general.
“Perhaps I’m running against someone who was very happy to work for him, who was very happy to be mentored by him,” Newton said.
Stein, however, touted his experience. “I will not need on-the-job training as attorney general because I already know the job,” he said. “My opponent has not worked a day as an assistant attorney general or a day as a criminal prosecutor.”
Newton has been an attorney in private practice for 16 years. He has chaired judiciary and public safety committees in the Senate.
While both Stein and Newton said they support the death penalty, they disagreed about the Racial Justice Act, which allowed criminals facing the death penalty to get a sentence of life in prison by proving that race played a role in their jury selection. The law was passed by Democrats, including Stein, in 2009 and repealed in 2013 after Republicans took control of the legislature.
Stein says the law was needed to “ensure no one is put to death based on the color of their skin.” But Newton said the law didn’t work.
“This law allowed convicted white murderers of law enforcement officers to appeal their death sentence, simply because they said there weren’t enough white people or black people on the jury,” he said.
While both candidates have made HB2 a frequent topic in their campaigns – Newton helped sponsor it and Stein is a vocal critic – debate moderators failed to ask about the controversial law.
The debate was broadcast live only by radio, but it will be televised Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel and again at 3 a.m. and noon Thursday.