AG Stein announces run for North Carolina governor

Published 10:56 am Saturday, January 21, 2023

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced a bid for governor in 2024 on Wednesday, with the Democrat pledging to focus on public education, economic advancement and equality, and to provide a sharp contrast with a potential Republican opponent.

“We’ll build a better and brighter North Carolina by standing up for what’s right, fighting to fix what’s wrong and doing right by every single North Carolinian, no matter who you are,” Stein said in a video released by his campaign.

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Stein, the state’s top law enforcement officer since being first elected in 2016, was always considered a likely candidate to attempt to succeed Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is term-limited from seeking reelection. Cooper was attorney general for four terms, and Stein served under him for several years as head of the Department of Justice’s consumer protection division.

Stein’s early announcement — 14 months before primary elections — could make others think twice before entering the Democratic field. He unveiled what his campaign called 150 endorsements from current and former officials, from former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt to nearly all Democrats in the legislature, as well as ex-Supreme Court justices, big-city mayors and members of Congress.

Cooper stopped short of an endorsement in a separate statement Wednesday, and said he’s focused now on his final two years as governor. But he said Stein has “been an excellent Attorney General for North Carolina.”

Figuring prominently in the campaign video is Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has said it’s extremely likely that he’ll enter the gubernatorial race, too.

The video included snippets of Robinson’s speeches for which he’s been criticized, in particular for some about sex education in schools that critics say disparaged LGBTQ people. In one segment, Robinson calls abortion a “scourge that needs to be run out of this land.”

“Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant and who you should hate,” Stein said. “I’m running for governor because I believe in a very different North Carolina, one rooted in our shared values of freedom, justice and opportunity for everyone.”

Robinson campaign adviser Conrad Pogorzelski said in a written statement that “it should be clear that Stein is scared of a primary” and that he hopes to avoid one by “creating the narrative that it is him against Robinson.” State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, has also been considering a gubernatorial run.

Stein has been a prolific fundraiser, and had $3.4 million in his attorney general campaign coffers at the end of June. But he narrowly won both of his general elections in 2016 and 2020 — by less than 25,000 votes in a state that, save for gubernatorial contests, has been leaning slightly rightward.

The 56-year-old Stein is the son of civil rights attorney Adam Stein and grew up in Chapel Hill. He went to Dartmouth College and later Harvard University, where he received a law degree. He was campaign manager for John Edwards in his successful U.S. Senate bid in 1998. Stein also served in the state Senate, representing a Wake County district, before running for attorney general.

As AG, Stein has been known for his involvement in a national opioid settlement and for a landmark legal settlement that forced electronic cigarette giant Juul Labs Inc. to pay $40 million to North Carolina and take more action to prevent underage use and sales. Stein has co-led a task force on racial equity in criminal justice initiated by the governor and is a strong abortion-rights supporter.

But the attorney general at times has taken criticism from left-leaning advocates, saying he has fallen short on protecting civil rights, particularly within the criminal justice system.

Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University not related to the governor, said Stein’s early entry in the race was “strategically smart” and could freeze out other Democrats considering bids.

But his lifetime spent largely in urban centers diverges from the paths of victorious Democratic governors of the past 50 years who came from or lived in small towns or rural areas, from where they attracted needed electoral support, according to Cooper.

“He appears to play to Democratic strengths, but it’s hard for me to understand how he would open up the map for Democrats,” Cooper said.

Stein had what he called a “minor stroke” last spring that prompted doctors to remove a small blood clot. There have been no signs of lingering effects.

The AG also has a pending legal fight with the Wake County district attorney over her office’s probe and potential prosecution of Stein and his aides for a 2020 campaign ad through a little-used state law. Stein’s campaign sued last summer to overturn the law. An appeals court is weighing whether to block enforcement while the lawsuit goes to trial.