The 2016 contest for state attorney general was not only a struggle between two candidates but a choice between two visions of North Carolina.
Republican Buck Newton, a champion of conservative causes including the controversial HB2, promised to use the powers of the state’s top attorney true to the conservative values that now guide the Republican-led General Assembly.
Josh Stein, who grew up in Chapel Hill in a family committed to civil rights then got his undergraduate and law degrees from Ivy League schools, wants to return the state to its long tradition of moderate liberalism as a progressive leader of the New South.
Stein won the race. But the struggle between liberal and conservative visions continues for the 51-year-old attorney general in North Carolina — and now at the national level, too, as President Donald Trump is rolling back environmental protections, weakening the Affordable Care Act and raising old civil rights questions with his stands on immigration, voting laws and more.
During his first 16 months in office, Stein has been on the front lines with a troop of Democratic attorneys general firing off a slew of lawsuits, targeted complaints and other actions against the Trump administration.
“To me, it’s not about fighting the Trump administration, it’s about standing up for the people of North Carolina,” Stein said recently.
Stein has joined the group to oppose offshore drilling, education policies, a travel ban and the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
At the beginning of the month Stein fought the administration’s plans to try to block a question about citizenship from the 2020 Census questionnaire.
Not even a whole week later, he joined other states with Democratic attorneys general in a pushback against a Texas lawsuit attempting to further dismantle the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama's signature health legislation.
In the week just passed, he was among a group opposing the Trump proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan that Obama put in place to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases from power plants. And he was part of a group opposing efforts to strip the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of its investigative authority.
Stein also has been traveling across the state to learn as much as he can about the opioid crisis and its impact on North Carolinians, and to join roundtables with law enforcement, health care providers and others to find out what’s working and what’s not while on a hunt for solutions.
He’s been on radio and TV shows talking about a range of topics — human trafficking, student loan debt, gerrymandering, Medicaid fraud and even college basketball.
Stein’s style as attorney general is different from his predecessor, Roy Cooper, who held the office for 16 years before becoming North Carolina’s 75th governor.
He's quick to respond to local and hot-button national issues and lets his voice be known through news conferences, press releases or social media platforms.
He has fired off letters of his own or joined with other attorneys general in pointed letters demanding answers — such as recent ones to Facebook and Uber about privacy breaches.
“The general impression I’ve gotten is he has been more active, both on the policy issues and in his office,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science and history professor at Catawba College who writes the blog “Old North State Politics. “I think he’s really making a name for himself.”
Though the attorney general’s office is considered a stepping stone for the politically ambitious, Stein casts off questions about his long-term plans.
“What I’m doing is serving as attorney general,” Stein said in response to a question about whether he had his eye on the governor’s office or the U.S. Senate. “I’ve been in the job a year. I’ve got three more years on the contract with the people of North Carolina.”
Bitzer and others think of Stein as one of the next generation for whom North Carolina Democrats have big hopes.
'Attorney general of what?'
Republicans know that, Bitzer said, and party leaders at the legislative helm sent a signal to him last year when they rolled out a surprise $10 million cut to the state Justice Department’s budget in Stein’s first year.
Stein eliminated 45 positions from his staff, shifted some of the appellate court workload to district attorneys and reached out to state agencies, commissions and boards to adjust.
“The budget thing certainly sent a shot across the Justice Department bow,” Bitzer said. “We’re a legislative-centric state.”
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said Republicans had put a lot of effort into trying to win the attorney general’s office in 2016.
“There’s no doubt that losing the attorney general’s race was difficult because we knew it was an important one,” Woodhouse said. “Josh Stein, for one thing, he constantly sides with out-of-state, left-wing blue states against the state of North Carolina. He complains about not having enough money, but he has joined a number of out-of-state lawsuits against what I think are the best interests of North Carolina.
"The fair question is he has acted as the attorney general of what, because it sure isn’t the state of North Carolina.”
During Stein’s early days in office, he joined Cooper in a legal maneuver to dial back a request that Republicans had submitted for a U.S. Supreme Court review of the elections law decision that overturned a voter ID law and other voting restrictions.
Since Republicans gained control of both General Assembly chambers in 2011, key provisions of the sharp political swing to the right have been challenged in state and federal court.
Republicans have criticized Stein, as they did Cooper, for not being on their side and hired private attorneys to represent them in court battles over redistricting plans and elections law changes since overturned, a law allowing magistrates to opt out of performing same-sex marriages, House Bill 2 and more.
But as Cooper did, Stein has assistant attorneys general at the defense table with the private counsel hired by the GOP legislative leadership to represent the state.
He even had attorneys from his office represent the General Assembly on gerrymandering cases, though he decided to delegate oversight of his office’s defense of state redistricting maps to two career attorneys so he could speak out publicly against partisan gerrymandering.
Jeff Jackson, a Democrat and state senator from Mecklenburg County who also grew up in Chapel Hill, praised Stein for what he’s accomplished less than halfway through his four-year term.
“Josh Stein becoming the attorney general was sort of the man meeting the moment,” Jackson said. “He’s got a clear sense of what he can accomplish and he’s not going to waste a day.”
Seeing NC as AG
Stein, a father of three with one in college and two in high school, likes to set up his days so he gets to the office after a trip to the gym around 9 or 9:30 a.m.
He’s at the head of a department with 850 employees, which includes the state crime lab, the state Justice Academy, which trains law enforcement and others in criminal justice, and the 300 lawyers who handle criminal appeals and civil litigation.
Stein, who spent eight years as North Carolina’s deputy attorney general for consumer protection under Cooper, has left the courtroom work to the attorneys in his office.
When he travels, Stein has a driver so he can power up his laptop or do work on his phone while going to the coast, the mountains and the many points between.
He likes to time his trips so he can return to his home in Raleigh to be with his wife, Anna, and his children most nights.
Some nights, he might get home at 2 a.m., Stein said, but that’s preferable to overnight trips.
“I’d rather be home,” Stein said. “I get to see the kids in the morning.”
In his travels across the state, Stein has seen what the opioid crisis has done to so many North Carolina families, and he reels off statistics to highlight how dire the epidemic has become.
Nationwide and in North Carolina, opioids — prescription and illicit — are the main driver of drug overdose deaths, which now top car accidents as the No. 1 cause of accidental death.
In North Carolina, it is estimated that nearly four people die each day from accidental drug overdoses.
Stein has met with survivors and families whose loved ones lost their battles with the powerful compounds. He holds news conferences in his office and broadcasts them on Facebook to share personal stories about the epidemic that is a priority for his office.
What was troubling Stein on one recent day was how “kids are experimenting with drugs as early as middle school.”
Not only are they sampling prescription pills they find in their parents’ medical cabinets, they also share drugs they have been prescribed with each other.
“It never would have occurred to me that’s something you even do,” Stein said, recalling his junior high school days.
Opioids, athletes and pill drops
As his office planned prescription drug drop-off events, where people can dispose of medicines they no longer need, Stein also was lamenting how high school athletes have become more vulnerable in the opioid crisis.
Stein is a former high school soccer player who still gets joy in recounting Chapel Hill High School’s game against Raleigh’s Sanderson High School in which he scored the winning goal on Nov. 8, 1983, to lift the Tigers into the state championship.
He saddens, though, when he retells the story of Caleb Shelton, a star baseball pitcher with a college scholarship waiting, who suffered injuries, was prescribed powerful painkillers, became addicted, overdosed and died. Or Ashley Fabrizio, a former Nash County cheerleader who can chronicle the push and pull between opioid abuse after she was prescribed a high dosage of painkillers as a 100-pound 16-year-old who popped her ankle landing a cheer jump.
Like many fighting the opioid crisis, Stein is using a multi-pronged approach.
He has sought records of the marketing and sales practices of five manufacturers and three distributors of powerful prescription painkillers.
In December, he sued Insys Therapeutics, an Arizona-based pharmaceutical company that he accused of illegally pushing a fentanyl-based cancer pain medication at headache clinics in North Carolina to fatten company coffers.
Issues related to the opioid crisis show few partisan divides, and Stein said that while politics bleeds into many conversations in the capital city, it’s different when he sits down with groups around the state to roll up his sleeves and find out how to tackle many of North Carolina’s problems.
“The party label never comes up at all,” Stein said.
As he works to chart a different course for North Carolina, Stein has worked with Republicans and Democrats.
He has teamed up with Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican, to advocate for legislation that would require companies that experience data breaches to notify consumers more quickly and has shown support for the STOP Act, which stands for Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention Act.
"Too often decisions are made on how to score a political point against a partisan opponent instead of asking whats going to help the people of North Carolina," Stein said. "I do my job and all that it entails. My job demands that I fight for or protect the people of North Carolina."
Elected office: North Carolina Attorney General, 4-year term beginning Jan. 1, 2017; NC Senate representing Wake County in District 16, 2009 to 2016.
Early years: Stein is the son of Adam Stein, a prominent North Carolina civil rights attorney who represented voters challenging North Carolina’s elections law overhaul that included a voter ID requirement, as well as challengers in gerrymandering cases.
Adam Stein worked for the civil rights law firm of Julius Chambers and James Ferguson, providing counsel on Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which led to a landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Josh Stein was born in Washington, D.C. Since moving to Chapel Hill in 1971, Stein’s father and mother, Jane Stein, have been active in the civil rights movement and big donors to Democratic campaigns.
Education: Chapel Hill High graduate; degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard University law school and the Kennedy School of Government.
Career: Taught English and economics after college in Zimbabwe, worked for Self-Help Credit Union in Durham and served as counsel to John Edwards when he was a U.S. senator. Stein spent eight years as North Carolina's Deputy Attorney General for Consumer Protection. From 2012 until 2016, he worked at Smith Moore Leatherwood law firm.
Family: Married to Anna Harris Stein and has three children — Sam, Adam and Leah.