In a drab conference room at the North Carolina Department of Justice last Friday, Attorney General Josh Stein—shirt sleeves, no tie—was relaxed and confident. He seemed too at ease for a man on the precipice of launching a nearly two-year campaign for the state’s most high-profile office.
But he was keen to take his campaign talking points for a test drive ahead of Wednesday’s announcement that he is running for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“I’m a fighter,” said Stein in an exclusive interview with The Assembly. “It’s how I’ve been as attorney general, working on behalf of people who have encountered real tough challenges, and I’ve been on their side. And that’s exactly what I want to do as governor.”
Stein, 56, has been the presumptive Democratic successor for term-limited Roy Cooper for months, if not years. But his path to office is still rocky. He has strong support from party leadership, but doesn’t yet command passion from the base; his likely Republican opponent will dominate headlines and test Stein’s campaign toughness; and his long record as attorney general will provide fodder for campaign ads on both sides.
One-on-one interviews can be a way to get a candidate to say something interesting when they’re more relaxed and candid. Stein resisted—he was warm and friendly, but didn’t budge an inch from his talking points. He tied himself closely to Cooper, his mentor and former boss. Pressed for any differences, he rattled off a list of attributes he respects about Cooper while joking that he spends a lot more time on Twitter than the governor.
“I’m sure there are differences,” said Stein. “I mean, I don’t even agree with myself a hundred percent of the time. So I’m sure there are going to be some differences. But in the main, we share a lot of the same values and have a lot of the same views on how state government can be used to help other people.”
Stein’s bid follows well-trod ground; there has long been a pipeline from his role as the state’s top lawyer to the state’s top executive. His pitch: for stability, partisan balance, and a slightly more hip and accessible continuation of Cooper’s policy agenda.
The campaign video announcing his candidacy was heavy on narrative, tying his run back to his pioneering civil rights attorney father and his record as attorney general, ending with an optimistic call to action to build a brighter North Carolina.
So begins a long 657 days until the election.
Stein boasts an impressive set of accomplishments. With degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard, the Chapel Hill-raised lawyer managed John Edwards’ successful 1998 U.S. Senate run and represented Wake County for four terms in the North Carolina Senate before winning the attorney general race in 2016 and 2020. He has already made history as the state’s first Jewish state-wide elected official.
His resume is unusual for a Democratic governor in North Carolina. The last four all grew up in rural counties and graduated from state universities. But his Triangle upbringing may be more in line with a modern Democratic Party that has drawn its power almost exclusively from cities.
In our interview, Stein talked less about himself, and more about his likely opponent: firebrand Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
Robinson, the state’s first African American lieutenant governor, has relied on social issues delivered in a combative preacher’s cadence. He’s built a hardline warrior persona, though he’s recently added more emphasis on his upbringing and early years.
Stein sees the contrast with Robinson as the focus of his campaign.
“Do the voters want someone who fights culture wars, or someone who fights for them?” Stein said. “Someone who thinks … the climate crisis isn’t real, versus someone who wants to prepare for the future. Someone who wants to tell women when they’ll be pregnant, versus somebody who believes and will defend people’s personal freedoms and reproductive healthcare. Someone who believes homosexuality is filth, versus somebody who believes that we’re all children of God?”
A 2022 survey for the progressive organization Carolina Forward showed Robinson with a commanding early lead among Republican primary voters. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and state Treasurer Dale Folwell are also rumored to be mulling bids for the Republican nomination.
Jonathan Felts, a GOP strategist who helped elect Sen. Ted Budd, argued Robinson’s authenticity appeals to Republican voters.
“He’s overcome obstacles and is the embodiment of the American Dream, having literally gone from the factory floor to statewide office in just a few short years,” Felts wrote in an email to The Assembly. “Voters want to believe a candidate is authentic, and voters, in both parties, want a fighter.”
Stein seemed aware of that desire, calling himself “a fighter” multiple times in our hour-long interview. “I want to fight for the people of North Carolina as their governor just as I fought for them as their attorney general,” said Stein.
His team points to past campaigns as proof of his grit, while his critics argue his caution and polish will cost him with voters, particularly in contrast with the blunt, unvarnished Robinson.
“One of the things that makes Josh such a strong candidate is he’s won this state twice in tough, expensive elections both times when Donald Trump carried this state,” said Morgan Jackson, a longtime Democratic strategist who is working on the campaign.
“Most politicians, Josh Stein for example, put off the practiced vibe of Professional-Politician-Plasticity devoid of any sense of authenticity,” countered Felts, the Republican consultant. “They come across like the biggest risk they’re willing to take any given day is switching up which shade of khaki pants they pull out of the closet.”
On whatever battle lines the campaign is fought, one thing is clear: Stein is gearing up to do it with plenty of financial resources.
“North Carolina’s a tough race,” said Jackson, when asked why Stein was getting into the race so early. “Josh is getting in early to put his name out for the people of North Carolina and to put together the resources and build the kind of campaign that can be successful next year.”
But to beat Robinson, Stein will need to show an ability to counter the lieutenant governor’s aggressive campaign rhetoric in what is likely to be a knock-down, drag-out general election, with a price tag expected to exceed $100 million.
With Republicans in control of the state Supreme Court until at least 2028 and the only likely unknown in the legislature whether it’s a Republican majority or a supermajority, the governorship is the Democratic Party’s last firewall.
“The prospect of a North Carolina led by Mark Robinson walking step by step with the Republican legislature and the harm that it could do to our people and our state is profoundly worrying to me,” Stein said. “And it’s an incredible motivation to win.”
Stein has plenty of work to do to introduce himself to voters. In that same (very early) Carolina Forward primary poll, just 22 percent of Democratic voters chose Stein as their top choice.
That relatively mild grassroots support stands in contrast to official party support. An endorsement list released by his campaign included leaders in both chambers of the legislature, most Democratic members of Congress, and a range of mayors, sheriffs, and district attorneys across the state.
Stein has had some high profile wins. His office forced electronic cigarette manufacturer Juul to pay $40 million to North Carolina for marketing to children. He’s made headway clearing a backlog of untested sexual assault kits. And his office played an important role in the $26-billion opioid settlement, which received final approval in February. It was the second-largest settlement made by state attorneys general in history, after 1998’s tobacco settlement.
Stein’s role in the opioid settlement, which is expected to bring more than $750 million to North Carolina, is sure to be at the front of his pitch to voters. The opioid crisis hit North Carolina particularly hard, killing more than 28,000 people from 2000 to 2020.
“Opioids do not ask victims if they’re rural or urban,” Stein said. “They don’t ask if you’re Black or white. They don’t ask if you’re old or young. They don’t ask if you’re Democratic or Republican. They just come in and take over someone’s life.”
Six years of quiet, hard work across the aisle, on matters of life and death. It’s a good resume line, and Stein’s office was quick to connect us to colleagues who echoed the bipartisan, just-focused-on-the-work ethos.
Herbert Slatery, the former Republican attorney general of Tennessee, worked with Stein on the national opioid settlement.
“We both had an equal amount of disgust for what the companies had done to foster and enhance the epidemic,” Slatery said. “It didn’t really make any difference whether he was a Democrat, in my eyes, and I was a Republican in his eyes. We were both trying to do our best to solve a problem.”
Slatery pointed to an anecdote to underscore Stein’s bipartisanship. Stein was set to be the next president of the National Association of Attorneys General in 2022, but the organization had already had two successive Democratic leaders and the Republicans didn’t want to be shut out again. Slatery said Stein stepped aside to allow a Republican to serve as the 2023 president.
“He had every right to be president,” Slatery said. “He pretty much accepted that for the good of the organization and the chance to draw people in, he pulled his name out. You don’t see that many times in the political arena. I’ll always remember him for that.”
His relationships with Republicans in North Carolina have been less convivial. Much of the tension, aside from a hotly debated 2020 settlement over election rules, has come from Stein’s decision to recuse himself from certain cases on which he personally disagreed, leaving career employees to represent the General Assembly.
“The attorney general’s job is to represent his client, and his client is the state of North Carolina, and in many respects, it’s the state of North Carolina as represented by the elected representatives of the state,” said Berger at a 2017 press conference, as the legislature made a round of significant budget cuts to the AG’s office. “There have been instances where the attorney general seems to believe that that’s not his job, that his job is to do whatever he thinks is appropriate.”
Stein will also have to contend with a political headache from his own party. Last fall, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s office attempted to charge Stein with an obscure, constitutionally dubious law regarding an alleged lie Stein’s campaign told in a 2020 ad. A court of appeals granted a temporary injunction and the three-judge panel is expected to rule soon.
The incident sent party insiders into a fury, sparking confusion about the “Democrat-on-Democrat sabotage” and leading to a raft of headlines that are sure to resurface in this campaign.
Kimberly Reynolds, a Democratic political strategist, said it’s a dispute, not a rift in the party.
“Outside of Wake County, I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Reynolds, who served as executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party. “Whatever happens, the Democrats will come together. This is about the bigger picture.”
What’s clear is that there is plenty of time to adjudicate Stein’s credentials and track record. Stein’s exceedingly early campaign launch gives him nearly two years on the campaign trail.
Asked in hypotheticals about the governor’s race and the likely frontrunners, veteran Republican operative Paul Shumaker was vehement that two years out, nobody knows anything.
“There is no reliable polling on this race. Ballot tests are irrelevant until the voters are informed about the candidates and the issues,” wrote Shumaker in an email to The Assembly. “No one has tested Robinson’s negatives/positives and Stein’s and then conducted an informed voter survey.”
In short: Don’t trust anyone who says they know how this race will unfold. But Stein is sending a message that he’s ready for a long and grinding race.
Both in our meeting and in public, Stein’s discipline is clear. He was friendly and polished. When I asked a question differently, I got the same answer. The only time he told a story, he asked for it to be off the record.
Robert Crabill, a fellow lawyer who went to elementary school and played Little League Baseball with Stein, described the caution and measure as a personality trait.
“You think twice and speak once kind of thing,” Crabill said. “Two ears to listen and one mouth to talk. He’s going to give the measured thoughtful response and you’re not going to catch him unprepared.”
At the end of our interview, I asked Stein what he expects when he announces Wednesday. Did he have a good luck charm or ritual before a big speech or court case? Anything to offer a glimpse of the Stein that Crabill played baseball with, but Stein shook his head no.
“I’m not superstitious.”
I asked if he’d sleep the night before he released his campaign announcement.
“Yes,” Stein said with a slight smirk. “I need my beauty sleep.”
He will need it, because Stein just spent his last night not on the campaign trail for the next two years.
Kevin Maurer is an award-winning journalist and three-time New York Times bestselling co-author. He has covered war, politics, and general interest stories for GQ, Men’s Journal, The Daily Beast and The Washington Post. Maurer also serves as director of community engagement for the Cape Fear Collective, a New Hanover-based nonprofit.