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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Josh Stein not focusing on possible primary challenge, as he continues to attack Mark Robinson

 Josh Stein sitting behind a desk
Josh Stein
Campaign office
Josh Stein

North Carolina Attorney General and Democratic candidate for governor Josh Stein announced last week he has raised nearly $6 million, which his campaign called “record-breaking.”

The leading Republican in the race, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, reported he raised $2.2 million, which he said was “record-breaking” for a Republican at this stage in the campaign.

Inside Politics interviewed Robinson a year ago.

I sat down with Stein last week in Greensboro.

Stein has been attorney general since 2016 and previously served in the state Senate. He grew up in Chapel Hill, though he lived in Charlotte when his father, Adam Stein, formed the state’s first integrated law firm with Julius Chambers and James Ferguson. He went to high school in Chapel Hill.

That history was featured prominently in Stein’s campaign announcement video from January.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

On a possible primary challenge by outgoing state Supreme Court justice Michael Morgan:

Morgan, a Black Democrat who announced he would not run for reelection to the court in 2024, has said he is considering running for governor.

Stein said he has not spoken to Morgan since Morgan said three weeks ago he might join the race.

“I put my head down and run as far as fast as I can,” Stein said.

As for rumors that Democrats might encourage Morgan to run for something else — such as attorney general — Stein said he doesn’t know.

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Would Mark Walker or Dale Folwell be a tougher opponent than Mark Robinson in a general election?

Stein said he assumes Robinson, the lieutenant governor, will win the GOP primary in March.

But he said, “All of them would be captured by the potential Republican supermajority. And even if there is a Republican governor, they don’t need a supermajority.”

Stein then pivoted to what he said is his ability to work across the aisle.

“People are looking for common issues,” he said, then listed what he has done as attorney general. “Like fighting the opioid epidemic, protecting kids from sex abuse, funding for untested sexual assault kits. Those are bipartisan. I can do that.”

How much national attention will a Stein-Robinson get?

“The choice for voters can’t be any more clear,” Stein said.

In a Stein-Robinson race, he said one candidate (himself) has a track record while Robinson “fights culture wars.”

Stein continued.

“He even denies the Holocaust,” he added. “His brand of extremism is off the charts.”

I asked: Did he deny the Holocaust?

“He said the Holocaust was hogwash,” said Stein, who is Jewish. “It’s beyond the pale.”

The website Jewish Insider published an article July 7 detailing Robinson’s social media posts that it characterizes as having “invoked antisemitic stereotypes, flirted with Holocaust denialism.”

The article notes how Robinson repeatedly downplayed the dangers of Nazism as compared to communism.

The “hogwash” line is from a second Jewish Insider story in which fellow Republican Walker attacks Robinson for that comment.

The hogwash comment refers to a 2018 social media post in which Robinson wrote:

“The center and leftist-leaning Weimar Republic put heavy gun ownership restrictions on German citizens long before the Nazis took power. This foolishness about Hitler disarming MILLIONS of Jews and then marching them off to concentration camps is a bunch of hogwash. Repeating that hogwash makes the conservative argument against the current attempts by liberal Marxist to push Unconstitutional gun control measures in this Nation look FOOLISH.”

That appears to be a reference to the belief that had firearms been widely available, the Holocaust would not have happened.

The article references a troubling Robinson post in which he compared the death toll to the Holocaust to the death toll from communist leaders. Robinson put 6 million Jews in quotation marks.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is one of the most divisive figures in North Carolina politics. In this episode, we discuss his recently released book and his politics.

Were maps gerrymandered — or did Democrats have a really bad 2022?

Stein and I discussed the state of the Democratic Party.

In the 2022 election, for instance, the Democrats had a poor year. Despite relatively fair maps for the state House and Senate — a phrase I used when talking to Stein — Republicans won a supermajority in the state Senate and came one seat short of a supermajority in the state House.

The GOP got that supermajority in the House this year when Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

Stein objected to the “relatively fair” statement. He interjected, saying the map for the state Senate was an ”unconstitutional gerrymander.” He said it was only allowed to be used in the November election because the court said there wasn’t enough time to draw a new one.

Stein continued: “The House map — it was unfair. It did have some bi-partisan support. But the Senate map they ran on was the 99th percentile Republican map — I don’t know how you get more extreme than that.”

That’s not entirely correct.

The GOP’s first maps for the legislature were rejected by a three-judge panel. Republicans then drew new maps.

The second state House map was approved with bipartisan support in the legislature. The second state Senate map passed along party lines, but the same three-judge panel found that it was “satisfactorily within the statistical ranges set forth in the Supreme Court’s full opinion.”

Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer analyzed what would have happened under those maps if the Democrats had performed as well in 2022 as they did in 2020. He used the results from the presidential, U.S. Senate and governor’s races.

He found the House would have been a tie with each party having 60 seats. In the Senate, the GOP would have won 26 seats and the Democrats would have won 24.

(Republicans won 71 seats in the House and 30 seats in the Senate.)

After the election, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state Senate map needed to be redrawn because it wasn’t fair.

Republican Dale Folwell is the NC state treasurer and a long-shot candidate for governor in 2024.

So what is holding North Carolina Democrats back?

Stein said the party’s problems are not due to its platform, but rather its tactics.

“In 2020, we took COVID very seriously,” he said. “We didn’t engage in door-to-door work. In 2022, we were a bit out of practice, and we paid a price for that. We underperformed. We know that, and we will not do that again.”

Any differences between him and Gov. Roy Cooper?

Stein said … not really.

“I think the world of Gov. Cooper. I have known him and been friends with him for 23 years. He is a good and caring person in real life. He’s tough and smart. I have seen him negotiate with corporations. Nothing but the highest respect.”

He added: “I’ve thought about how we are different, and I tweet more than he does.”

On former Democratic state Sen. Kirk deViere, whom Cooper helped defeat by supporting a different Democrat, Val Applewhite, in the 2022 Democratic primary: 

Cooper was angered after deViere had voted with Republicans on occasion, including the 2021 state budget.

When asked about whether it was appropriate for Cooper to inject himself in the primary, Stein said that Cooper “clearly had many conversations with Kirk.”

Stein added: “I am very reluctant to second-guess someone’s decision.”

On whether he will defend North Carolina’s new 12-week abortion ban:

Stein had initially said he would not.

But the General Assembly last month amended the law. The Associated Press reported that the changes “make clear that medication abortions are permitted through 12 weeks just like procedural abortions often referred to as surgical abortions. Another change seeks to clarify that it wouldn’t be illegal for someone to help a woman obtain an abortion outside of North Carolina in states where the procedure would remain lawful beyond the new North Carolina ban’s limits.”

“We are still evaluating (the changes),” Stein said. “What I said at the beginning is that I will not defend the unconstitutional parts of that law. And there were multiple provisions that were unconstitutional. Ask the General Assembly — they immediately passed a new law to clean up their bill. The bill was passed in 48 hours — women have to wait 72 hours. I’m not surprised it was a messy, junky bill.”

What about defending transgender legislation?

Cooper recently vetoed a bill that would prohibit transgender students from participating in sports on a team that matches their gender identity. He also vetoed a bill that would prohibit minors from receiving health care such as surgeries, puberty-blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones for minors.

Legislators will likely override both vetoes.

On whether Stein will defend those laws in court:

“We will have to see those complaints once they are filed and determine the strengths of their legal arguments,” Stein said. “But as a matter of policy, I know how I would have voted — no.”

“In the last three years, there has only been one transgender boy who competed — and he was in a team sport. I understand people’s desire to have fair sports competition, but this is a shiny object. Republicans are waving it around to make people forget we are 50th in this country in the share of our economy in terms of what we spend on K-12 education. That is a travesty. They don’t want to talk about that.”

(WFAE reported that in the past four years in North Carolina, 16 trans boys and two trans girls have requested waivers to play on teams matching their identity.)

Does he support the Biden administration’s proposed policy that would prohibit blanket bans of transgender athletes from competing, while still allowing schools and school districts to prohibit transgender athletes from competing?

Stein declined to specifically answer.

“The way it has worked here in North Carolina to me is working. I have not heard from a single parent in North Carolina about this issue. I haven’t heard that my kid was put at an unfair competitive advantage. It’s just not real. It’s a shiny object.”

On defending the voter ID law in court:

“It was a tough decision,” Stein said. “As a matter of policy, it was unjustified. It was a solution in search of a problem. Voter integrity has been drummed up. They are passing laws to make it harder for American citizens to participate in democracy. But it was constitutional. And that proves my point — I don’t pick and choose based on my personal preferences.”

I-77 toll lanes

Should the state pursue partnering with a private company to build and manage toll lanes on Interstate 77 from uptown to the South Carolina state line? That would be the same arrangement the state has with Spanish company Cintra, which built and operates the toll lanes in north Mecklenburg.

Stein said he is OK with working with a private company.

“I’m not opposed to public-private partnerships,” he said. “But it’s really important that the deals be structured in the right way. The problem is that we are dealing with global companies who do this all over the world and are very sophisticated and we don’t have as much experience. When I was in the state Senate I proposed creating a specialized unit that would have expertise to make sure this state doesn’t get taken for a ride.”

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.