Facing A Radical Right-Wing Lt. Gov., Josh Stein Offers A Vision for North Carolina

An image featuring North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein standing at a podium and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson waving in a red MAGA hat. Behind them is a blue backdrop featuring the North Carolina flag, a protester holding a "VOTING RIGHTS NOW!" sign and another protester holding a "STOP THE STEAL" sign.

Can a state legislature fire its elected attorney general from a case? Technically, yes. And Josh Stein, North Carolina’s Democratic attorney general since 2017, found that out the hard way in August of 2021. 

It happened after a three-judge panel in a North Carolina trial court ruled that any resident who’s on probation, parole or a suspended sentence because of a past felony conviction can register to vote. It was a big win for voting rights in the Tar Heel State, restoring the right to vote for 56,000 people — the largest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina at the time since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ruling drew immediate ire from the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature, who demanded that Stein’s office appeal the ruling. 

As North Carolina’s top lawyer, Stein is responsible for counseling the state legislature on all legal matters, like appealing a court ruling. But he refused to appeal the ruling, prompting a letter from Senate Leader Phil Berger (R) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R) telling Stein that they’re seeking private counsel to appeal the ruling, effectively “firing” him. To be clear, Stein was not removed from office — it’s a complicated, lengthy impeachment process to remove an elected official like the attorney general — but rather he was fired from being involved in the case. “Until today, we were never informed that the [Justice] Department would give second thought to representing the General Assembly on appeal,” the two lawmakers wrote. 

But as Stein told Democracy Docket in an email, his oath isn’t to the lawmakers but “to the Constitution of North Carolina and to its citizens — not to the legislature. My office reviewed all of the cases brought before us thoroughly and decided we would not defend the parts of the law that are unconstitutional.”

Eventually the appeal made its way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which ultimately reversed the trial court’s ruling. 

The episode proved to be a formative experience for Stein as he campaigns to be North Carolina’s next governor. There’s a lot at stake in the race, with Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) term-limited tenure coming to an end and Republicans’ control of the state Legislature, the GOP has an opportunity to secure a trifecta and enact some of the most restrictive policies on abortion, voting rights and democracy in the state’s history. 

The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, represents the most extreme right-wing vision for North Carolina — openly disparaging the LGBTQ community as “filth,” promising to outright ban abortion and saying that he thinks women shouldn’t be able to vote. 

By contrast, Stein is positioning himself as a fierce defender of abortion access for everyone, voting rights and upholding democracy and someone who’s not afraid to fight for what he believes in, even if it puts him at odds with his fellow lawmakers. 

With so much riding on this election — as one of two swing states with a gubernatorial election the same year as a presidential election, all eyes are on North Carolina — Stein is hyper focused on what has always been his priority: the people of North Carolina. “The road is not always easy but I am committed to fighting for every North Carolinian, whether it be as Attorney General or as the next Governor,” he said.

Born in Washington, D.C., Stein moved to North Carolina when he was a kid and he grew up in Chapel Hill. He cites both his parents and his Jewish faith as the two driving influences in his call to public service. “My faith teaches me that we are each called to do our part and to make a difference,” he told Democracy Docket. “And my parents raised my brother, sister, and me to stand up for what is right, just like they did.” 

Stein’s father was a lawyer who co-founded the state’s first integrated law firm in the mid-1960s, and whose legal work he credits as a major influence in his political career. “They won path-breaking victories in our nation’s legal battle against discrimination and for equality,” Stein said of his father’s work. “And they never backed down from doing what was right, not even when someone firebombed their office and burned it to the ground. They knew that the fight for justice was both urgent and enduring.”

If there’s a theme for Stein’s political career, “fight for justice” might be it. As a state senator from 2009 to 2016, Stein’s biggest accomplishments include expanding the state’s DNA database, banning cyberstalking and increasing the state’s renewable energy tax credit. Nearly six months after Stein was sworn in as attorney general in 2017, the Legislature passed a bill to curb the overprescription of opioid painkillers — an issue he worked on as a state senator. 

In his new position, he continued fighting the opioid epidemic and was one of the leading state attorneys general to sue major drug manufacturers and distributors for their role in fueling the crisis. To date, Stein’s efforts have helped to secure $56 billion in national settlements, with at least $1.5 billion going directly toward North Carolina.

Stein’s “firing” in 2021 wasn’t the first time he drew sharp criticism from the state’s GOP. In September 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stein’s office negotiated with the State Board of Elections to extend the period for mail-in ballots for the 2020 election to be accepted and to ensure voters who submitted ballots without the required witness signature will still have their ballots counted. 

In response, Moore — the state’s Republican House Speaker — blasted Stein and Gov. Cooper to the media. “Roy Cooper and Josh Stein are attempting to gut the integrity of North Carolina voting laws by colluding with partisan Democratic attorneys from Washington, D.C., while ballots are already being cast in this presidential election,” Moore said in a statement.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, effectively leaving it up to the states to set their own abortion laws, Stein refused to defend a state law to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. He then directed the North Carolina Department of Justice not to take action that would restrict a woman’s right to choose. The move, once again, drew rage from state Republicans. 

“The attorney general is dedicated to promoting ‘reproductive freedoms’ (i.e., abortion) rather than following and upholding the law,” Berger and Moore wrote in a brief to a judge seeking to reinstate the ban, according to the Associated Press. “(Stein) publicly opposes the statutes he is tasked with defending and is engaged in fundraising efforts based on his opposition.”

Stein remains unfazed by the accusations from Republican lawmakers that he’s using his position as the state’s top lawyer to play politics. “My oath is to the Constitution of North Carolina and to its citizens – not to the legislature,” he said in an email. “My office reviewed all of the cases brought before us thoroughly and decided we would not defend the parts of the law that are unconstitutional.”

Should Stein become North Carolina’s next governor, he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him, especially as the state reckons with gerrymandered maps, a strict new voter ID law and a number of other provisions that Republicans have passed to restrict the right to vote. It’s a challenge that’s not lost on Stein, but something he sees as a cornerstone of his campaign.

“In our democracy, the people should choose their representatives, not the other way around, and the state should be about protecting people’s right to vote, not restricting it,” he said. “As Governor, I will never stop fighting to make sure the people’s voting rights are protected.”