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Race, money, mystery: Democratic primary for North Carolina attorney general heats up

Jeff Jackson (left) and Satana DeBerry (right) are among two of the leading candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Attorney General in North Carolina in 2024.
Campaign Photos
Composite Image by WUNC
Jeff Jackson (left) and Satana DeBerry (right) are among two of the leading candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Attorney General in North Carolina in 2024.

Two prominent Democrats will face off in next week’s primary for attorney general. But the biggest spender in the race isn’t the two campaigns — it’s a shadowy group based in Washington, D.C.

Attorney General Josh Stein’s run for governor leaves an open seat for the position that leads the N.C. Department of Justice. Charlotte Congressman Jeff Jackson and Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry are both running in the Democratic primary.

The winner will face Republican Congressman and former state Sen. Dan Bishop of Union County.

Deberry argues that she’s the best fit for the job based on her experience as Durham’s top prosecutor.

"We need a qualified attorney general, somebody who has a history and experience as a lawyer," she said. "I have literally done everything that the attorney general does, whether that was starting my career as an environmental lawyer, doing consumer protection issues, doing criminal issues."

Her opponent served as a prosecutor before joining the state Senate and being elected to Congress in 2022. Jackson sees the job of attorney general more broadly.

"To me, it just boils down to this: the job of attorney general is to make sure that people aren't getting kicked around. That's it. That's the job. And that's the type of public service that I've always been drawn to," Jackson said. "My response to 9/11 was to enlist and go fight. I became a prosecutor to stand up for victims. My time in the state legislature involved a lot of pushing back against bad bills."

In terms of policy, there’s little difference between the two candidates. Both want to defend abortion rights, and they say they’ll continue Stein’s practice of refusing to defend state laws they consider unconstitutional.

But Democratic Party leaders disagree about who’s got a better shot at beating Bishop in November. Jackson’s campaign has raised more than $2 million, and he notes that winning the general election will be expensive.

"We have the campaign that I think is best positioned to compete and win in what will be an extremely tough general election against Dan Bishop," he said. "This will be the most well-funded Republican nominee for attorney general in the history of our state."

The Republican has raised about $1.4 million and doesn’t have an opponent in the primary. Deberry has raised far less, but she rejects claims that she wouldn’t be able to beat Bishop.

"I find that to be a racist and sexist argument," she said. "It assumes that I am a weak candidate, which I am certainly not. And it only assumes I'm a weak candidate because I'm a Black woman."

Deberry and her supporters argue that Democrats would benefit from having a more diverse slate of candidates at the top of the ticket. The party's frontrunners for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and Supreme Court are all white. They've raised more money than their Black opponents.

"I'm talking about actual things that can happen here in North Carolina, that engages young voters, that engages Black voters and engages women," she said. "It would be a shame for the Republican ticket to be more diverse at the top than a Democratic ticket, especially when the Democrats depend on those diverse voters ... The Democratic Party keeps depending on a coalition of voters who almost never end up being the candidates at the top of the ticket. And every election, you ask Black women to come out, you ask rural communities to come out on the first Tuesday in November, and the first Wednesday in November, nothing changes for us."

Candidates talk experience, priorities

Jackson said his time in the state legislature would give him an advantage in working with GOP lawmakers to pass his legislative priorities as attorney general.

"We don't have an anti-money laundering law as a state," he said. "We should. It would be very helpful in combating fentanyl and combating human trafficking. I think the fact that I've been able to not just work in the state legislature, but actually get criminal reform passed in the legislature, is going to give me a bit of a leg up."

Deberry wants to use the position to advocate for abortion rights and reproductive justice issues, such as access to women's healthcare. She also touts her accomplishments in her five years as district attorney.

"We have prosecuted twice as many cold-case sexual assaults as any DA's office in the state," she said. "We've worked with our community partners to forgive $2.7 million in fines and fees, and returned driver's licenses to 12,000 Durham County residents. That is really important because the number one driver of poverty in Black and brown communities, and communities of color is lacking a driver's license."

Are Republicans running ads in the race?

Deberry’s campaign is getting an unexpected boost from a mysterious group called the “And Justice For All PAC.” It’s running TV ads and sending text messages urging Democrats to back Deberry.

It’s unclear who’s paying for the ads, but more than $50,000 has been spent on just one TV station, records show. Financial disclosures haven’t been filed yet, and the only available public records list a Washington, D.C. address located near the headquarters of the Republican Attorneys General Association.

WUNC called the number listed for the group’s treasurer, Randy Thomas, and didn’t get far. A man who answered the phone number said he was not Randy. No one responded to an email sent to the group's listed address.

The New York advertising firm that booked the commercial works primarily with Republican campaigns. Jackson said the PAC is running a campaign of deception made possible by loose campaign finance laws.

"If you follow the breadcrumbs on this, it does look like Republicans have decided to spend about a million dollars to try and beat me in the primary," Jackson said. "And there's only one reason they would do that, right? They just don't want to run against me in the general."

As of Monday, required financial disclosures had not been posted to the N.C. State Board of Elections database. As a federal PAC spending in a state race, state law requires the group to file the paperwork "within 30 days after they exceed one hundred dollars ($100.00) or 10 days before an election the contributions or independent expenditures affect, whichever occurs earlier.”

Influential Democratic Party leaders and groups have split over endorsements in the race. Deberry is backed by the Young Democrats of North Carolina, Lillian's List, the party's Progressive Caucus and N.C. Sen. Graig Meyer.

Jackson's campaign boasts endorsements from Planned Parenthood, the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte, the AFL-CIO and all of his fellow Democrats in the state's congressional delegation.

Early voting is underway and runs through Saturday.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.