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Attorney General's Race: Stein v. Newton

Charlotte Observer

For the first time in 16 years, someone different will occupy the state’s attorney general’s office. Former Democratic state Sen. Josh Stein of Wake County and current Republican state Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson are in a close race to succeed Roy Cooper.

There’s not much that Stein and Newton agree on and when they do, they still sound far apart. Take for instance the death penalty. They both say they favor it, but part ways when it comes to the Racial Justice Act—a state law the Republican-controlled General Assembly repealed in 2013. The law had allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences if they can prove race played a role in their conviction. Newton opposed the law. Stein supported it.

In a televised debate last month, Stein said, “In carrying out the death penalty, we must ensure that no innocent person is executed or no one put to death based on the color of their skin.”

Newton called the Racial Just Act ridiculous and said, “When you bore down into the facts. This law allowed convicted white murderers of law enforcement to appeal their death sentences, simply because they said there weren’t enough black people on the jury or whites on the jury.”

The two also disagree when it comes to the Innocence Commission. The Commission looks at new evidence in convictions and has led to the overturning of some sentences, including death-row cases. Stein supported it while Newton sponsored legislation in an attempt to abolish it.

Newton is in a third term in the state Senate. Stein served nearly four terms. He resigned in March to focus on the AG race. Before his Senate election in 2008, he worked for seven years as a senior assistant attorney general for consumer protection issues. He touts that experience and his success cracking down on pay-day lenders, telemarketing abusers and identity theft as reasons he’s qualified for the job.

Newton chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. He pushed legislation to exempt magistrates from performing same-sex marriages for religious reasons. He also was a major proponent of HB2, which limits LGBT protections. Stein has not worked in the AG’s office since 2008. Still, Newton directs most of his criticism of Stein on decisions Roy Cooper has made since then—specifically not to fight the Affordable Care Act or appeal a court ruling that the state’s new voting laws were discriminatory.

“I don’t agree with his position on this,” Newton said. “As an attorney general your job is to defend the laws of the state as chief law enforcer. It’s not how I would vote on a bill that would make that determination but it’s the interests of the people of N.C. and the constitution.”

Stein says he will defend state laws and the U.S. Constitution and stood up for Cooper by saying the courts ruled that North Carolina’s overhaul of voting laws, including a voter identification requirement, discriminated against African-Americans with, quote, “…almost surgical precision.”

“When you’re been told you’re denying people their constitutional rights, it’s appropriate for you to step back. That’s the discretion the attorney general has to respect the constitution,” Stein said. He added, “By the way, my name is Josh Stein not Roy Cooper. I think he may be running against Roy Cooper.”

On crime, Newton takes a hard line against criminals and was critical of the AG office’s decision to prosecute former CMPD police officer Randall Kerrick, after he fatally shot Jonathan Ferrell last year, an unarmed African-American man.

"It’s very unfortunate that some for political purposes have decided for political gain to try to vilify our law enforcement. As attorney general I will not stand for it. We have to support them. Mistakes are made, everybody is human, but the vast majority of the time, our law enforcement does it right,” Newton said. 

Like Newton, Stein says, he wants police to have the tools and training they need and realizes they have to make tough, quick decisions on the job but said, they have to be prosecuted when they are accused of wrong doing.

Like any profession, there are bad police just like there are bad lawyers, senators and when they do wrong they need to be held accountable,” Stein said. “Our collective ambition should be to reduce the amount of conflict from citizen-on-police violence and police-on-citizen violence. And we can do that with effective training and ensuring that police departments reflect the communities they serve, that they are diverse.”

A Republican has not won an election for attorney general in North Carolina in more than 100 years. In June, Stein had raised more than $2 million, and Newton less than $1 million, but the National Republican AG Association has earmarked nearly $4 million for ads for Newton around the state.