While Donald Trump dominates headlines and Hillary Clinton’s campaign rallies occupy the gaps in between coverage of his controversies, the race for North Carolina Attorney General has been undeniably contentious yet largely ignored by a mass media that has had its hands full with an unusual presidential election. The bigoted remarks of Donald Trump have distracted North Carolina residents from other essential down-ballot races. Though the presidential race is undeniably important, this heavy focus on the vile, bigoted remarks of only one candidate may obscure other essential races at hand.
For those living in North Carolina right now, the stakes are high. Even the races of which few have heard represent legitimate contests between progress and regression. And yet, many people don’t even know what the NC Attorney General does, let alone the names of the candidates running for this position. Josh Stein (D), a former Deputy Attorney General Attorney General and State Senator, and Buck Newton (R), a state senator, are locked in a dead heat to replace current Attorney General Roy Cooper as election day nears.
The Attorney General is basically the state’s leading lawyer. According to the North Carolina Department of Justice, the Attorney General is the representative of all state government departments and agencies in legal matters. They are to provide legal advice and opinions to the Governor, General Assembly, and any relevant public official. Their duties include interventions in court proceedings on behalf of public interest, and handling appeals from state trial courts.
By any measure, this is a vast jurisdiction. The attorney general holds massive power in North Carolinian legal affairs and in steering the state’s rhetoric in matters of civil rights—for better or for worse. Over the past 15 years, Roy Cooper, current candidate for North Carolina governor, has held this office. Cooper won each Attorney General election with an overwhelming majority and maintained high approval ratings throughout his career. The Attorney General seat is now the subject of a close race between Stein and Newton. Each candidate represents a distinct and different vision for North Carolina.
Stein has a track record fighting voting rights violations and public education cuts. During his time in the North Carolina Department of Justice, he worked with Roy Cooper to protect the environment and the state’s healthcare system. Because of his longstanding public service, his record is thick and complete, full of impressive stands for marginalized groups.
But perhaps a more telling analysis of the Attorney General race is a look at Buck Newton. Newton’s policies and career trajectory serve as the antithesis of Stein’s. He has been an elected official for the past six years, as compared to Stein’s lifelong service. He has little experience in the North Carolina legislature, and during his short tenure he has fought for voting rights restrictions, voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, and to sponsor the “Bathroom Protection Act.”
After graduating from Appalachian State University, located just outside of Charlotte, Newton served as an aide to famed segregationist Jesse Helms. Helms, an ultra-conservative politician who served in the United States Senate from 1973-2003 is often called “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country”. Newton takes after his former boss in more than just his party affiliation. His full-throated support for civil rights violations like House Bill 2 have made it clear that Newton is not interested in protecting equality. In an April speech, Newton proclaimed to a crowd of HB2 supporters that “we must fight to keep our state straight.”
This November, Democrats have more to account for than just an angry orange man running for president. In just under a month, North Carolinians will decide the direction we take our state. It might be hard to make the race for NC Attorney General sound glamorous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a momentous decision that will affect the future of our state. At every ballot position, this November represents a choice between bigotry and tolerance, hatred and compassion, recklessness and experience. Regardless of your feelings on Trump, be sure to find yourself a Governor, Attorney General, state legislators that you know you can get behind.