Originally in The News & Observer
October 15, 2016

On an opposition website labeling him an “extreme Harvard radical,” Josh Stein appears to be wearing a “flower power” shirt and bracelets in an altered photo.

The site is part of a $3.8 million campaign to defeat the former state senator and Democrat from Raleigh. The Republican Attorneys General Association is helping to make this year’s race for attorney general the most expensive in history, but Stein laughs off the hippie portrayal as “ludicrous.”

“They clearly will say and write anything,” he said.

In reality, Stein wears a business suit and touts his experience working under Attorney General Roy Cooper as a senior deputy attorney general handling consumer protection issues. During his seven years in the office, he led a major crackdown on the payday-lending industry.

“I don’t need on-the-job training as attorney general, because I already know the job,” he said.

Stein’s opponent, Republican state Sen. Buck Newton, seeks to tie Stein to Cooper’s record as attorney general, which has faced criticism as Democrat Cooper runs for governor.

Republicans say Cooper should have led appeals of court decisions striking down GOP-sponsored laws, most notably the voter ID law overturned by a federal court. But Stein agrees with his former boss, arguing that there’s a limit to how far an attorney general should defend a law judged unconstitutional.

Stein says he’ll defend laws he disagrees with “unless it violates the United States Constitution.”

“It’s a very simple test, and that is the oath I will take when I’m sworn in” to uphold the Constitution, he said.

Newton faults Cooper and Stein for being unwilling to defend the voter ID law further. “Most legal minds would agree that at least it’s a fair argument to carry the case forward to the Supreme Court and let them decide,” Newton said.

He says the attorney general should “defend it to the end” on appeal “99.9 percent of the time.”

Stein was a vocal opponent of the voter ID law while serving in the state Senate. Besides requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, the 2013 law reduced early voting, eliminated same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, and ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. It won’t be in effect for next month’s election after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the was designed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

“He’s good in floor debate,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham, a Democrat who sat next to Stein in the Senate. “When it came to issues dealing with voting rights, he was very concerned when those issues came before us.”

After being elected to the Senate in 2008, Stein sponsored bills that banned stalking through GPS devices, created tougher penalties for drunken driving and expanded the state’s DNA database.

He wants to address similar issues as attorney general. “I want to protect families by cracking down on violent crime, confronting the opioid epidemic and reducing repeat crime through effective re-entry programs,” Stein said, adding that he also wants to tackle Medicare fraud.

McKissick says Stein could help advise the legislature about the legal implications of the laws it passes. “You need to have somebody there who’s looking at things carefully in an analytical way, who understands existing law and existing court precedent,” he said.

But Republican Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County says he expects Stein might force legislative leaders to pay for outside attorneys when GOP laws get challenged.

“He has opposed virtually anything that the majority in the Senate has tried to do since I’ve been there,” Rabin said.

One Stein-sponsored bill that has drawn fire during the campaign had bipartisan support: A ban on plastic bags in several coastal counties. The Republican Attorneys General Association refers to that as a “crazy idea” to “ban grocery bags.”

“They call it an extreme bill, but it passed the Senate 47-1,” Stein said.

Stein has also been criticized for a job he held early in his career: Campaign manager and deputy chief of staff for U.S. Sen. John Edwards. “I think it speaks volumes how long and deep his association was with our former, now disgraced senator,” Newton said.

Stein left Edwards’ office to join the attorney general’s office long before the senator ran for president. Stein says his connection to Edwards is “irrelevant.”

He also disputes claims that he “hates charter schools.”

“I actually voted to lift the cap on charter school authorizations,” he said, noting that he’s sought to make sure the schools are held to accountability standards and offer subsidized meals and transportation to low-income students so “they don’t become essentially publicly funded private schools.”

Stein resigned his state Senate seat after the March primary, while Newton is finishing out his term. “The best service I could provide the people of North Carolina was being their attorney general,” he said. “In order to make that the most likely outcome, I wanted to put my heart and my soul into this campaign.”