Raleigh, N.C. — With Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper running for governor, Republicans hope to win the statewide seat that has been in Democratic hands for decades.
State Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, faces Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill for the GOP nomination in the March 15 primary. Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, faces Lumberton lawyer Marcus Williams in the Democratic primary.
O'Neill, who has been a prosecutor for 20 years and district attorney since 2009, says his experience is crucial for the state's top law enforcer.
"I want to know that that person has been in my shoes and they know how to protect victims and keep people safe like I've done for the last 20 years," he said this week. "The next attorney general has to be a prosecutor, somebody who knows and understands victims and victims' rights and can stand up for the little guy."
Newton is an attorney, but has never been a prosecutor. Still, he said, "the attorney general doesn't prosecute cases," and his three terms as a legislator has given him insight into the needs of the state Department of Justice.
"I'm fully aware of the budget situation over there, of the budgeting situation, having been a chairman of that," he said. "Frankly, I'm the only one with the experience who's ready, willing and able to stand up and fight for the people of this state in this position."
Newton backed legislation that moved the State Bureau of Investigation out of the Attorney General's Office in 2014 and into the Department of Public Safety, which is under the governor's control.
"It's a very important agency, the lead law enforcement agency in the state, and it's very important we remove politics from it," he said.
O'Neill said the new arrangement is still political, and he plans to work to persuade lawmakers to move the SBI back.
"When that transfer was being contemplated, I was one of the few people who stood up and said this is the wrong thing to do," he said. "The attorney general needs to have the SBI underneath them to help him conduct investigations."
Both men said they expect the use of outside counsel to defend state laws in court to drop if they are elected, but each had a different reason for the belief.
"I think the Attorney General’s Office has the finest and smartest lawyers across the state," O'Neill said, dismissing the need to hire additional lawyers. "I think you let them do their job."
"We’re having to hire outside counsel simply because the attorney general won’t do his job," Newton said, criticizing Cooper's decision not to defend in recent years North Carolina's ban on same-sex marriage and several other laws or challenge the federal actions such as the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations.
"I would imagine it would be much, much much less frequent than is currently the case," he said. "I expect it would only be in specialized situations where you need the additional expertise."
O'Neill said the biggest challenge facing the next attorney general is reducing the backlog of cases at the State Crime Lab, while Newton said it's fighting against federal overreach and protecting religious freedom.
"We’re dealing with, in my view, an overbearing federal government," Newton said. "The balance between the states and the federal government under our Constitution has gotten unbalanced, and I think that friction, that need to stand up and fight for the state of North Carolina is going to continue for quite some."
Forsyth County now contracts with a private lab to speed processing of DNA tests and other evidence in criminal cases, O'Neill said, and he thinks similar resources can be used statewide to ease the strain on the State Crime Lab.
"It’s unreasonable and unconscionable to think it takes 18 to 24 months before you can get a lab result back, and the potential rapist is walking around looking for his next victim," he said.