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How NC Attorney General Josh Stein is bracing for his next big political fight

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is considering a run for governor in 2024 focused on abortion access and his policy track record. Whether he'd resonate with voters remains to be seen.

Posted Updated

By
Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When the U.S. Supreme Court left it up to states to set their own abortion laws, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein refused to defend a state law that would ban abortion in most cases after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

He further directed his department not to take any action that would restrict women’s ability to access the medical procedure, infuriating state lawmakers who insisted Stein wasn’t doing his job.

The longtime Democrat made his views clear in an August news conference at the state’s Department of Justice office: "Politicians are playing with women's lives,” Stein said. “Decisions about reproductive care are deeply personal. They should be made by a woman in consultation with her loved ones and her doctor. They should not be made by politicians."

A federal judge reinstated the 20-week ban two weeks later, allowing it to be implemented over Stein’s refusal to defend the law.

Stein’s stance on abortion stands to take on heightened meaning in future elections, particularly as he eyes a run for governor in 2024 that could determine whether additional restrictions become law.

Stein, a mild-mannered policy wonk whose chief political weakness for Democrats is not being much of a self-promoter, is hoping a moderate message with a focus on his successes in addressing the opioid epidemic, robocall scammers and getting rape kits processed faster will resonate with voters.

For six years, Democrats have been able to stifle some of the GOP’s most ambitious policy goals, ranging from changes to how race can be discussed in public schools to a crackdown on unlawful immigration to restrictions on abortion.

Republicans currently control the General Assembly’s two chambers with simple majorities. If in the Nov. 8 general election Republicans fail to gain a supermajority, they won’t be able to easily override the vetoes of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, and attention would quickly move to the 2024 governor’s race. A simple Republican majority paired with a Republican governor could greatly reshape the future of abortion and other divisive issues.

North Carolina Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein discusses opposition to law banning abortion after 20 weeks and calls on other frustrated voters to show up to the polls in November.

“It will be absolutely essential for people who believe women should make these decisions and not politicians to have a Democratic governor to be able to veto any extreme measures by the Republican legislature,” Stein told WRAL News.

During his 13-year political career as a lawmaker in the state Senate and as North Carolina’s top lawyer and law enforcement officer, Stein, 56, has carved out a reputation as a collaborator who is also unafraid to hold the line on views he is most passionate about. He played a leading role in a national opioid settlement, extended mail-in ballot collection times in the 2020 election, reduced the state’s testing backlog on sexual assault kits and is now eyeing the influence social media companies have on children.

In pursuit of his policy aims, Stein has at times alienated fellow lawmakers. Most recently, his abortion views drew criticism from a possible opponent in the 2024 general election, Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

Robinson is known for his hardline views on abortion, LGBTQ rights and the public school system. As lieutenant governor, though, Robinson’s powers effectively start and end with his ability to use the megaphone of his office to elevate his status and the policies he cares about.

Stein, however, sits in a position that has more real-world implications, and his personal views have influenced his work and prompted criticism from Republicans that he is playing politics with his office.

Robinson said that, unlike Stein, he has proven himself capable of separating his personal views from the way he governs.

“You cannot say that for what many people think will be my opponent,” Robinson said. “And believe me, he’s been derelict in his duties based on his political beliefs. He has not stood up for many of the things that he should’ve stood up for in this state. He has not stood up for many of the things that he should’ve stood up for in this state. He has not stood up for the people of North Carolina. I believe he has stood up for a political agenda.”

Stein sees things differently. He insists that his political views can create a state that is more just. He thinks it’s impossible to shove aside one’s personal beliefs. Rather than conflict with his job, Stein sees his positions of voting and health care accessibility as fundamental items he’s obligated to defend.

‘The fire is raging’

Standing outside his old Chapel Hill home and a former law office building on a hot August morning, Stein cites his father’s work at what is believed to be North Carolina’s first integrated law firm and his mother’s passion for health care as major influences. He also says his Jewish faith guides him to try to leave the world a more equitable place.

“My parents were very proud Jews and they infused us with Judaism and what the fundamental values of Judaism are,” Stein said. “Foundational to that is the sense that each of us has an obligation to try to make things better than the way we find it.”

When he ran his first statewide campaign, a theme quickly became apparent to Stein: Sheriffs describing overdose deaths and jails filled with people suffering from opioid addiction.

Stein wasted little time after his narrow 2016 victory to take on an industry that he believed hadn’t been held to account for the damage it caused to thousands of North Carolina families. At a national conference with other attorneys general a week after his election, the need to act became apparent.

Attorney General Josh Stein announces a lawsuit against e-cigarette maker Juul Labs at a May 15, 2019, news conference.

“I spent two or three days just sucking up every good idea that I was hearing from other states,” Stein recalls.

During his seven years in the legislature, including five years with GOP majorities, Stein had few major policy achievements. The AG-elect knew he’d need help from Republican lawmakers if he wanted to tackle the worsening problem of opioid overprescription.

“Josh knew that I was really interested in that and was working on some legislation,” said former Republican state Sen. Jim Davis. “So before he was even sworn in, he called me and told me that that was a primary issue of the conference and he would like to work with me on some legislation.”

Within six months of Stein taking office, the legislature unanimously approved the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention Act, or STOP Act. The measure set new initial prescribing limits to reduce the oversupply of prescription opioids, only allowing doctors to prescribe up to a five-day regimen of opioids for acute pain and one-week prescription for post-surgery pain.

Stein is perhaps best known for his role in a multi-state opioid settlement that resulted in opioid distributors and a manufacturer agreeing to pay $26 billion.

He worked most closely with Herbert Slatery III, Tennessee’s former Republican attorney general. “Stein and I just developed a pretty good chemistry and looked at things in an amazingly similar fashion,” Slatery said.

During the settlement process, Slatery also saw a side to Stein that few others have experienced. Stein was infuriated after two counties in Ohio received — more than one-third the total set aside for the entire state of North Carolina. Stein found those Ohio totals unreasonably high.

“Life’s not perfect and life’s not fair,” Slatery said. “That was a point where he was very pointed about what his opinion was about them getting that kind of money ahead of not only North Carolina but a lot of the other states. He was very passionate about that.”

The $26 billion settlement included $750 million in North Carolina for treatment and recovery services for residents addicted to opioids.

“On behalf of the state, what I'm trying to do is put out the fire, and the fire is raging,” Stein said in an interview. “It is the deadliest drug epidemic in American history and we are at the deadliest moment in that epidemic. More than 100,000 Americans died from a drug overdose last year. Never anything close to that ever before. We've got to bend that curve and drive down the number of people who are dying. That's why I wanted to make sure that the money went to going to attack the crisis.”

Creating divisions

Stein’s major policy wins haven’t always translated to lasting, productive relationships with GOP lawmakers.

In 2020, Stein drew the ire of conservatives after his office struck a settlement that allowed more time for mail-in ballots to be accepted and let voters who submitted absentee ballots without a required witness signature to still have their votes counted if they returned an additional form to state elections officials without a witness signature.

Stein was on the ballot that year in a race that was expected to be decided by the thinnest of margins. Because Democrats traditionally do better when more voters cast a ballot, the eased election laws were seen as politically favorable to Stein over his Republican opponent, Jim O’Neill. Stein wound up winning by less than 14,000 votes — a margin of victory of 0.26 of a percentage point.

As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, North Carolina voters are still more interested in voting by mail than they were before the pandemic. But they’re nowhere near as likely to vote by mail as they were during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections, consisting of three Democrats and two Republicans, unanimously signed off on the rule changes Stein sought. The state’s top Republican lawmakers, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, felt blind-sided and deliberately bypassed.

“I cannot overstate how unethical this collusive behavior is,” Berger said shortly after the settlement. “The Board of Elections, which is controlled by Gov. Cooper and acting through its lawyer, Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, went around the legislature and agreed with Democratic plaintiffs to undo basic election laws passed to prevent a repeat of actual absentee ballot fraud.”
The Republican members on the state elections board swiftly resigned and said they had been misled. A federal judge later issued a mixed ruling that allowed the expanded absentee ballot collection deadline to stand but required witness signatures on mail-in ballots.

Stein said the criticism he received was unfounded. He thinks the new rules were needed to ensure voters had sufficient access to the ballot box at a time of uncertainty created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Democrats and Republicans agreed that these minor changes would actually make it easier and safer for people to vote,” Stein said. “It was only a couple of days later that the Republican leaders decided, ‘Let's make a political issue about this in order to try to influence the outcome of the election.’ It was a made-up controversy.”

Lawmakers reined in the attorney general’s powers in last year’s budget. Stein didn’t offer a clear answer when asked if he’d recuse himself from future election settlements if he were on the ballot.

He said he had done his job properly in 2020 and believes that, besides an ongoing legal battle over whether photo identification should be required at the ballot, that the state’s current election laws are “really good.”

“I want to make sure we don't go backwards,” he said.

Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, plans to remind voters in 2024 of what he sees from Stein as a highly selective enforcement of state laws.

“If you look at the number of times where he has refused to uphold North Carolina's laws or to defend North Carolina in lawsuits, that tells you that his political agenda matters more to him than the laws of North Carolina.”

Ad controversy

It’s not just Stein’s policy views that are receiving scrutiny. His campaign tactics have also come under review.

A federal appeals court last month halted enforcement of a law that was about to be used to hold Stein criminally responsible for a misleading campaign ad. A little more than 24 hours earlier, though, a grand jury had allowed prosecutors to move forward with their pursuit of a possible misdemeanor indictment — an action that would have taken two weeks to proceed with.
At issue was a 2020 campaign ad in which Stein’s campaign took aim at O’Neill, his Republican opponent, for not doing more to address a backlog of untested sexual assault kits. As the ad put it, the Forsyth County district attorney “left 1,500 rape kits sitting on a shelf, leaving rapists on the street.”

O’Neill argued that he didn’t have direct oversight over kits that Stein acknowledges are in the custody of local law enforcement. Even so, Stein maintains O’Neill knew about the problem and could have advised local authorities in clearing the backlog.

“It was an ad that I'm proud to stand by because it was true,” Stein said in an interview.

O’Neill didn’t respond to requests for comment.

After losing the election, O’Neill asked the state elections board to review the matter, citing an untested 91-year-old law prohibiting lies in political ads. The state board concluded the language in the ad had too much ambiguity and advised the Wake County District Attorney’s Office not to pursue charges against Stein. Stein has also argued more broadly that the ad isn’t any more misleading than statements made by O’Neill. The board said O’Neill’s statements could be subject to a review similar to the one conducted against Stein.

Lorrin Freeman, the Democratic district attorney of Wake County, said she recused herself before the elections board shared its conclusions because of her working relationships with Stein and O’Neill. She left it to David Saacks, an assistant DA, to handle the case and decide whether to pursue charges against Stein. Over the advice of the state elections board, Saacks sought to charge Stein with a misdemeanor.

For a man who is described almost universally as upbeat and cheery, Stein was far from his cool and collected self when interviewed by WRAL shortly after an appeals court halted the law’s implementation. An exasperated Stein expressed his frustrations about Freeman.

“She is just off,” Stein said. “She’s pursuing this misdemeanor using a statute that’s 91 years old [and] has never been used against any candidate in the history of the state. The whole 91 years, never been used against another candidate. This is the first time she is bringing an action, and she's bringing it against the recommendation of the State Board of Elections, which had concluded the matter should be closed. And the ad happens to be against a good friend of hers, who's a fellow district attorney. It doesn't strike me as an appropriate use of our criminal system.”

Freeman said Saacks made the decision to pursue charges and that she doesn’t have a friendship with O’Neill.

Saacks was not made available for an interview by Freeman’s office. Instead, Freeman spoke with WRAL, citing the need to protect an ongoing investigation. She also declined to discuss specific evidence in the case because the legal matter is still ongoing.

“The attorney general knows as a practicing attorney himself that I am bound by the rules of professional responsibility, and therefore, I'm not able to talk about the merits of the case or the evidence of the case,” Freeman said. “He knows that, and, quite frankly, I think is taking advantage of that.”

Freeman disputes Stein’s characterization that the case is unfounded and being pursued for political purposes.

“I am a lifelong Democrat,” said Freeman, who declined to say whether she has voted for Stein. “This is someone we're talking about who many people expect to be the next governor or certainly Democratic nominee for governor. It just doesn't make sense that out of some personal vendetta or motivation that I would target the attorney general. It’s not logical.”

Freeman also cited an opinion last month from U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles that denied Stein’s request that the law be halted over potential conflicts with free speech protections within the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Stein stood by the ad, saying he personally approved it before it aired, had it reviewed by a verification team and would feel comfortable running it today.

Intraparty drama between Stein and Freeman prove to be a political liability, as Stein faces pushback from members of his own party to the delight of Republicans.

“It’s absolutely an unfortunate development for Stein in part because it allows his future opponent — whether it’s Mark Robinson or anyone else — to weaponize the situation regardless of the facts of the case and regardless of how it concludes,” said Asher Hildebrand, who has worked on Democratic campaigns and now teaches public policy at Duke University.

Whatley, the leader of the state’s Republican Party, said voters should remember that Stein could still be indicted if the injunction is lifted.

“It is remarkable that the attorney general is the subject of a grand jury investigation in and of itself,” Whatley said. “The fact that they were trying to return an indictment — and that's wrapped up in the courts right now — is simply appalling.”

The back-and-forth between Stein and Freeman is the latest tiff in a political career that has seldom come easy for Stein. The attorney general was elected to the statewide office in 2016 and won reelection in 2020, with each victory within a single percentage point. If he decides to run for governor in 2024 as expected, another contentious statewide contest could be expected.

While a Robinson-Stein general election is a possibility, Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell is also considering a primary challenge to Robinson with a more centrist message similar to Stein.

Life goals and soccer goals

Stein was born in Washington, D.C., but spent nearly his entire life in North Carolina. He lived in Charlotte as a young child but was largely raised in Chapel Hill. His dad served as a partner in what is believed to be the state’s first integrated law firm, overseeing cases related to race, education and voting rights. His parents were also big donors to Democratic campaigns, occasionally discussing politics and current events with the children at the dinner table.

The 1970s and 1980s were very much idyllic for Stein, despite challenges he was unaware of.

Stein’s sister, Gerda, said they learned later in life that their parents sometimes received threatening phone calls at the house over their father’s legal work. But a young Josh enjoyed a largely hassle-free life with much independence. His biggest transgression, he says, was taking advantage of a family jar of pocket change to buy an after-school slushie and honey bun from a nearby convenience store.

Stein knew everyone at school, had a handful of girlfriends in his teens and developed several friendships that remain today.

He describes “the highlight of my life” not as the days he met his wife, got married, had three children or won either of his two statewide elections. Rather, he beams with joy over the softest prompt he may ever get in an interview: “Walk me through the semifinals of ‘83.”

Coming off a devastating 5-1 loss to Raleigh’s Sanderson High School the prior year in the boys’ soccer state championship game, Stein had an opportunity to avenge the loss and get his team — Chapel Hill High School — back to the championship.

Back then, penalty kicks were not used to decide deadlocked state playoff games. Rather, they were resolved with post-regulation shootouts in which a player would stand 35 yards from the goalkeeper and have five seconds to try to get the ball into the net.

Playing at home against Sanderson, the crowd looked on as nine players failed to score. Stein, a defender, was next up. He dribbled the ball as the game morphed into slow motion. One second passed. Two seconds. Three seconds. Four seconds.

He shoots. … Goooooooaaaalll!

“It was at that end right over there,” Stein says, pointing to the far side of the field with boyish enthusiasm.

Stein had just sent his team to the championship, where he and his teammates would go on to win.

Stein’s wife, Anna, has heard the story too often.

“I am pretty sure that I learned about that goal on our first date,” she said. “He has eased off on that in recent years, but definitely the first 10 years or so after we were together we had to hear that story a lot.”

Rising the Democratic ranks

Stein kicked off his professional life with Ivy League degrees, first from earning an undergraduate diploma from Dartmouth University. He then earned a law degree and a masters from Harvard University. He went to Dartmouth in part to explore an interest in New Hampshire politics and furthered his political curiosity at Harvard by diving deeper into the intersection of law and politics.

Stein developed an internal motivation to succeed from watching his parents, placing a pressure on himself in the process. He became an intern for then-state Rep. Dan Blue in the late 1990s before being appointed by Cooper as his deputy attorney general for consumer protection. Stein then made a run of his own for the state Senate in 2008, where he served until leaving to run for attorney general in 2016.

Stein has since taken on drug and electronic cigarette companies, robocall scammers, price gougers and environmental polluters.

“Josh is doing a very credible and admirable job as attorney general,” Blue said. “I would be surprised if he were not a candidate for governor. I don’t know who else would be popping out there.”

Josh Stein

Stein is politically adept, though some, including Blue, would like to see him a touch more forceful in his presentation.

Slatery, Tennessee’s attorney general who worked with Stein on the opioid settlement, described Stein as non-promotional.

“In politics, you’ve got to self-promote if you have to be elected, but he’s not one of those guys who has to be first in line for everything.” Slatery said. “There’s really not an agenda other than trying to solve a problem and that’s why we got along so well.”

In his personal and political life, Stein appears unusually mild-mannered.

“There is no hidden dark side to Josh Stein,” Anna said.

The attorney general enjoys cycling and hiking. And he says he’s in good health, despite having atrial fibrillation — a heartbeat irregularity that was diagnosed after he was hospitalized following a minor stroke while walking his dog, Jenny. He’s open about the incident, which he thinks was triggered by Covid-19. And he says voters shouldn’t worry about his physical ability to carry out his job.

“My blood pressure is low. My pulse is healthy. I'm doing alright,” he said.

Can Stein win in 2024?

Republicans who have worked closely with Stein don’t question his authenticity, but they do sharply disagree with his policy views, which could prove politically harmful in a state that remains almost evenly divided politically.

Davis, the former state senator who worked with Stein on opioid legislation, said he could see a future as a member of Stein’s professional staff but said he’s unlikely to support him in an election.

“I’ve told him that I didn't vote for him and I probably won't,” Davis said. “We just have different philosophies.”

Like Stein, Cooper won statewide races as governor in a state Trump carried in 2016 and 2020. But the Democrat did so in 2020 with far greater margins than Stein did as attorney general.

While Stein won in 2020 by a quarter of a percentage point, Cooper won by 4.5 points and 121,390 more votes than Stein. The healthy margins were accomplished in part with support from unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans, which Stein would need to replicate to be seen as the general election favorite.

“No Democrat who follows [Cooper] is going to be able to assemble that same coalition,” said Hildebrand, the Duke professor and former Democratic operative.

Republicans are committed to ensuring Cooper's success is not replicated.

“In North Carolina, we are very ready for a change in terms of the governorship,” Whatley, the state GOP chairman, said. “We do not need a candidate who is going to go along the same path that we've been going down for the last six years.”

Stein declined to identify a single action he disagreed with Cooper on, nor did he push back on characterizations by opponents that he’d effectively be a third term of a Cooper administration.

He is seeking to present himself as the pragmatic Democrat with a track record of achievement Robinson hasn’t had the time nor responsibilities to develop.

More than two years from an election, Stein is sounding alarms of what a potential Robinson governorship could mean for the state. He warns of the lieutenant governor’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, views on masculinity and desire to end abortion outright.

“I am a person of conviction. My convictions are just different from Lieutenant Governor Robinson. I don't believe that gay people are ‘filth,’” Stein said, referring to controversial comments by Robinson. “I don't believe that women are second-class citizens and that men should be the ones who lead. I don't believe that abortion in every single instance is murder. … I have a record of doing my job with fidelity, integrity and seriousness of purpose because my job is about protecting people.”