by Jordan Green
Two Republican candidates for attorney general emphasize willingness to challenge the federal government, while the two Democrats in the race talk about their records of using the courts to advocate for the downtrodden.
North Carolina will have a new attorney general in 2017 no matter who wins this year’s election. Roy Cooper, the Democrat who has held the job for the past 16 years, is vacating the office to run for governor.
Two candidates are vying for each of their respective parties’ nominations. On the Republican side, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill is going up against Buck Newton, a state senator from Wilson and chair of the Senate Judiciary I Committee. The Democratic primary features Josh Stein, a state senator who previously served under Cooper as senior deputy attorney general, and Marcus Williams, a Lumberton lawyer who has made previous unsuccessful bids for US Senate.
Both Republican candidates are running against the Obama administration, with O’Neill emphasizing public safety while Newton takes a broader states’ rights stance.
The O’Neill campaign is running a television ad featuring a narrator saying, “Who’s going to stand up to Obama and keep us safe?” as images of Islamic militants flash across the screen. The narrator continues, “Jim O’Neill, tough prosecutor. Proven record of putting criminals behind bars. Jim O’Neill will fight the Washington politicians who are weakening America.”
O’Neill explained the intent behind the ad during a phone interview from a loud school bus en route to Atkins High School in Winston-Salem, where he was traveling as coach of boys’ lacrosse at Reynolds High School on a recent Friday afternoon.
“I’m a supporter of the voter ID law,” he said. “I believe that is something that we’re required to show a photo for almost everything else we want to do. I just don’t understand why that would be something the [US] Justice Department would oppose us on.”
The current Democratic attorney general has defended the law in court although he has said that he personally opposes it.
O’Neill’s quarrel with President Obama sheds some light on his view of race relations and law enforcement.
“I believe when you look at an incident like we had in Ferguson, Missouri, I feel like the White House abandoned law enforcement,” O’Neill said. “They had a knee-jerk reaction. It brought all law enforcement into disrepute. As we all know, the law enforcement officer [who killed Mike Brown] was vindicated.”
As for the images of jihadists in the ad, O’Neill said they underscore his singular experience as a prosecutor.
“You look at it and say North Carolina at this point has been fortunate not to deal with a terrorist attack, but we’re seeing it going on across the country,” O’Neill said. “In my opinion, you want a tough prosecutor who is equipped to handle these cases. We have prosecuted gang members. Look at what ISIS is doing. ISIS is far more organized and far more wealthy. They also can be seen like a gang of terrorists.”
Buck Newton, O’Neill’s opponent in the Republican primary, pledges on his campaign website to “fight to ensure that the lawful decisions made by the citizens of North Carolina are not overturned by an out-of-control federal government that ignores the 10th Amendment of the Constitution.”
Expanding on his point, O’Neill said in an interview that he would have liked to see Cooper challenge a number of White House policies that are unpopular with conservatives.
“What we have is an imbalance between the role of the federal government and the states,” he said. “We’re seeing this in evidence more frequently with decisions to overturn the marriage amendment and unconstitutional executive orders dealing with immigration, Obamacare, rules from the EPA dealing with regulation of water quality and requirements for clean power plants that are designed to do nothing but raise our electrical bills. It’s been tremendously negative. The current attorney general is nowhere to be found.”
Newton indicated that not only would he be willing to use the power of the office of attorney general to challenge the federal government, but he’s also ready to impose the will of the state on North Carolina cities.
The candidate joined Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger in a press conference last week denouncing an ordinance recently enacted by the Charlotte City Council allowing people to use the bathroom that is consistent with their gender expression. The ordinance passed by a 7-4 vote after the city council heard from people about the potential for violence if they’re outed as transgender while trying to use the bathroom.
“This nonsense of who can go in the bathroom — why that is on Charlotte City Council’s mind is just very surprising that that is the first thing they would do,” Newton said. “This ordinance is unworkable. The city of Charlotte simply lacks the authority to pass an ordinance like this. These are decisions that should be made on a statewide basis. They knew that and acknowledged it. Would I intervene? Absolutely. The General Assembly should not have to come back into session if the attorney general would just do his job.”
With the Republicans almost guaranteed to retain control of the General Assembly next year, any Democrat elected to the office of attorney general will likely be called upon to defend laws he does not personally support. Josh Stein said he would apply a strict test.
“My oath is to swear to the uphold the Constitution of the United States, the North Carolina Constitution and the laws of North Carolina as long as they are consistent therewith,” Stein said. “I will defend state laws unless those laws are unconstitutional.”
As an example of how he would exercise judgment in such cases, Stein said he would have defended North Carolina’s constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman up to the point that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Virginia’s prohibition on same-sex marriage violated the US Constitution.
Marcus Williams, Stein’s opponent in the Democratic primary, said he believes the attorney general has some latitude in determining which laws to defend in court.
“I believe there is a zone of discretion,” Williams said. “You have to look diligently at the resources that you have at your disposal. Then, if there’s clear law to the contrary of federal or established law, it’s a discretion of the attorney general.” He added that if Republican lawmakers disagree, they are free to hire their own counsel — an option that the current legislature has exercised.
Williams cited two cases as being potentially indefensible.
“One’s to eliminate the tenure of teachers,” he said. “That, I believe, is a vested property right. There are cases that are questionable. The other one is the fact that the Highway Patrol has to sue to get paid on the scale they were promised when the enlisted. That is one I would have to deliberate on.”
When asked if he would defend the state voter ID law that is under challenge by the US Justice Department, the North Carolina NAACP and other groups, Williams replied, “Someone in my office would have; it wouldn’t be me.”
All four candidates say they are uniquely qualified for the job of attorney general.
O’Neill noted he is the only candidate who holds prosecutorial experience. After describing a 2008 case in which a couple beat a disabled man to death in his home and then shot two Meals on Wheels volunteers, O’Neill said, “We now turn that case over to the Attorney General’s office that has to defend that case in the [federal] appellate court. It’s frightening to think that the next attorney general has never prosecuted a case. We have robberies, child molestation cases. With an attorney general that has never prosecuted a case, that’s upsetting and unnerving to law enforcement officers. That’s a scary world we could enter into where that experience is thrown to the side.”
Stein noted his experience working in the Attorney General’s office under Cooper coupled with his legislative experience, where he’s earned the respect of his Republican colleagues, uniquely equips him for the job.
“The advantage of my having served as senior deputy attorney general is that I know the job. I won’t need any on-the-job training. I demonstrated an ability to take on powerful interests effectively and vindicate people’s rights when they’ve been harmed by powerful corporations. There’s no one else in the race that has that kind of experience.”
Williams said his 37 years of experience as a lawyer distinguishes him from the other three candidates. He added, “I’m the only candidate that has extensive courtroom experience in both civil and criminal law.” He cited his experience running a statewide legal services program in Pennsylvania and two regional programs in North Carolina as excellent preparation for administering the North Carolina Attorney General’s office.
“I had the opportunity to supervise, manage and inspire fellow professionals in the mission of providing high-quality legal service to the poor, the elderly and the sick,” he said. “I also served as assistant public defender. I had a tsunami of cases on the criminal side. The people of North Carolina will have a well versed attorney general if they elect me.”
Newton goes into the election uniquely positioned as the only candidate with legislative experience whose party controls the General Assembly. Newton said his experience as co-chair of the Senate Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety Committee will serve him well at the Attorney General’s office, particularly with regard to improving the state crime lab, which has been plagued with long delays. He also said he wants to work with local district attorneys to see if there’s a way to have analysts testify by video instead of traveling across the state to appear in court in person as a way of saving staff time.
“Of all the candidates running for the job, I’m the only one that’s had to wait on a lab result,” O’Neill said. “What we did in Forsyth County — in Forsyth County it could be anywhere up to 18 months that the person suspected of being a rapist is running around able to commit more crimes while we wait for the evidence to come back — we pushed our city council to enter into contracts with a private lab. We brought a private lab to Forsyth County and we got the police department to donate space, and as a result we got results back from anywhere between three and five business days.”
As attorney general, O’Neill said he would share that model with other district attorneys until the crime lab was able to get up to speed.
Stein noted that he helped introduce bipartisan legislation, along with Sens. Tom Apodaca and Bill Rabon, to increase funding for the crime lab. He said he was happy that the current budget included a number of provisions from the bill, including hiring six new lab technicians who can take on some administrative duties that are currently bogging down the scientists at the lab.
“The issue is not with management or talent at the crime lab,” Stein said. “The problem is with the General Assembly severely underfunding it.”