As a longtime champion of conservative social issues, Buck Newton was at the center of the furor surrounding House Bill 2 this year.
And as a candidate for attorney general, the Republican state senator from Wilson has been a vocal defender of the law, despite economic and sports losses stemming from strong opposition. His opponent, Democrat Josh Stein, has called for the repeal of HB2 and refers to it as “Buck’s Bill.”
“I think it was the right decision,” Newton said. “The breadth and the depth of the pushback was not something that I fully expected.”
He says the legislature needed to protect bathroom safety after a Charlotte ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom matching their gender identity, but he acknowledges that “there may have been a better way to go about it.”
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As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Newton served as the sponsor of HB2 as it moved through the Senate in March. He’d previously led successful efforts to pass an exemption for magistrates who wanted to opt out of performing same-sex marriages.
In addition to the bathroom provision, Newton defended HB2’s creation of a statewide nondiscrimination law that doesn’t list sexual orientation and gender identity among its protected categories. HB2 prohibits local nondiscrimination measures that go further.
“Federal law doesn’t provide special protections for somebody who says they’re homosexual,” he said. “You can categorize people a million different ways. We don’t have special protections for conservative Republicans. I’ve had pretty poor service because people knew who I was, and that’s not right, but that’s part of life.”
But while Newton might be best known for his role in HB2, it’s not the legislation he’s most proud of in his three terms representing Nash, Wilson and Johnston counties in the Senate.
He said his “biggest accomplishment” was a bill that paved the way for Duke Energy Progress to buy back power plant ownership from 32 Eastern North Carolina towns that operate expensive, debt-riddled electric systems.
“I’m very proud that we were able to work out a market-driven arrangement,” Newton said. “For example in Wilson, residential power rates have been cut almost 20 percent. That’s real money to a lot of people.”
Newton has also been involved in bills that toughened penalties for sex crimes and reduced regulations on gun ownership. This year, Newton sponsored a bill that restored parts of a 2008 law prohibiting sex offenders from being near children, revising the law to comply with a federal court ruling.
Outside of the legislature, Newton has run a small law firm in Wilson for the past 16 years, handling a wide variety of criminal and civil trial matters.
“My experience as an attorney is much deeper than my opponent’s,” he said. “He’s always had government jobs. I represent real people and always have.”
Stein counters that he’s the only candidate with extensive experience in the attorney general’s office. Newton, he notes, “hasn’t worked a day as a criminal prosecutor.”
If he’s elected, Newton says he wants to address police tensions that recently resulted in sometimes violent protests in Charlotte.
“The attorney general has a role to play in trying to heal community relations,” he said, adding that more training for police officers could be helpful. “The vast majority of police, the vast majority of the time are doing it right.”
Newton’s campaign is benefiting from $3.8 million in ads from the Republican Attorneys General Association, which has been criticizing Stein. The Democrat said he questions the motivations behind the oil, pharmaceutical and other corporations who fund the national group.
“They have matters before the office where they want to have influence,” Stein said. “They are desperately trying to elect Buck Newton as their attorney general because they want him to do their bidding for him.”
Newton says Stein’s major donors are worth considering in a race that has involved millions of dollars in fundraising on both sides.
“Stein is getting a lot of money from unions, he’s getting a lot of money from the Human Rights Campaign crowd,” Newton said, referring to the LGBT advocacy group that opposes HB2. “There’s a couple million being spent by the Democrat (attorneys general) group on his behalf, and they get money from sometimes the same companies. Is he beholden to them, too?”
Republican state Sen. Ronald Rabin, who served with Newton, says his colleague will focus on upholding the law if elected.
“He is a conservative, and he believes in the Constitution the way it’s written,” Rabin said. “He would endorse it very well regardless of who you are.”
Education: Law degree, Campbell University; bachelor in political science, Appalachian State University
Professional experience: Attorney with Newton and Lee in Wilson, handling a wide range of criminal and civil cases
Political resume: N.C. senator for Wilson, Johnston and Nash counties since 2011; chairman of Senate judiciary committees
Family: Married to Hope Newton with three children