Jim Jenkins

After lawmakers’ low move, AG Josh Stein takes the high road

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, left, said he had to cut about 45 workers from his department due to budget cuts during a press conference held in his offices in Raleigh on Aug. 3, 2017. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman listens at right.
N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, left, said he had to cut about 45 workers from his department due to budget cuts during a press conference held in his offices in Raleigh on Aug. 3, 2017. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman listens at right. cseward@newsobserver.com

In a phone conversation last week about a $10 million budget cut for his office – inflicted for political sport by Republican leaders in the General Assembly – I tried to give North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein several opportunities to respond to GOP leaders for their ridiculous attack.

Alas, Stein wouldn’t take me up on it.

I asked, do you think this is just naked partisanship because you beat their Republican for the job?

Stein responded, “The work we do is public work, not Democratic work, not Republican work.”

But would they be cutting the AG’s office if Buck Newton (the Republican who made a close race of it against Stein) had won?

Stein responded, “We will continue to engage the legislature and impress on them the importance of the work people here do.”

Do you think they see you as a rising star in the Democratic Party and thus want to hurt your reputation?

Stein said, “What I want is for the General Assembly to help us make sure the public suffers no more harm ...”

Doggone a Harvard man. He just wouldn’t take the bait, even the idea of sending his folks in to steal all the fried squash in the legislative cafeteria on Wednesday. (Republicans like fried squash.)

Though the AG is still fighting to recover that $10 million Republicans took from his office for no good reason (they’ve spent millions on private lawyers, by the way) and thus is maintaining some level of diplomacy, the truth is that Republicans did a sorry day’s work when they cut this budget.

It will mean losing people who prosecute serious criminal cases on appeal, including those of sex offenders, which require a lot of expertise. It will mean fewer people to help see that parents get the child support that’s due them. When it comes to environmental regulation ... well, there will be fewer resources in the AG’s office to make sure that water you and the kids are drinking isn’t contaminated.

The truth is that Josh Stein and the lawyers who work for him (and the ones laid off because of cuts) – and many other staffers – could do other things with half the hassle for two or three or four times the money. But the Attorney General’s Office, under Stein’s predecessor Gov. Roy Cooper and under his predecessors as well, has been a nice home for idealistic young attorneys seeking to do some good for at least a few years to veteran lawyers who just love public service. These are righteous people, and thousands of North Carolinians can attest to that – parents who collected that child support when they thought all was lost, consumers cheated by rascals who got some satisfaction because the Consumer Protection Division paid those rascals a visit – and even rascals sit up straight when the Attorney General’s Office comes calling.

What’s happened with the budget is mystifying because Phil Berger, president pro tem of the Senate, and House Speaker Tim Moore are both small-town lawyers. They more than most ought to understand entirely how important the AG’s office is. Certainly the district attorneys, Republican and Democratic, all over North Carolina do, because Stein’s office takes on appeals that alleviate some of the pressure on DAs.

Confronted with a partisan swipe like this one – more than a swipe, really – many people in Stein’s position would come back hard and fight fire with fire. Instead, for the good of his office, Stein’s holding out hope he’ll be able to reason with Republicans and with the help of district attorneys convince them to restore some of the money. Because this isn’t about political games – it’s about the taxpayers of the state, the men, women and children in need of help from an office that exists to serve them and safeguard their very lives, having that help when they need it.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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