RALEIGH — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein frequently takes on President Donald Trump in court. Republican primary voters have three choices for who will try to beat Stein in November, and they come from three different legal backgrounds.
They are Sam Hayes, Chris Mumma and Jim O’Neill. Stein won by only fractions of a percent in 2016 — a rare bright spot for North Carolina Democrats in a year Trump carried the state. Like many other statewide races in 2020, the race for attorney general is expected to be close yet again.
As the state’s top lawyer, and the head of the N.C. Department of Justice, the attorney general is an important elected position that takes the lead on both criminal and civil issues.
Stein was a deputy to then-attorney general (and now governor) Roy Cooper in the early 2000s. He represented Wake County in the state Senate from 2008 until 2016, when he won the election to replace Cooper as attorney general.
Stein has been more active than some of the state’s past AGs in involving North Carolina in national politics, joining numerous lawsuits against the Trump administration. Pew Charitable Trusts, which monitors public policy trends, has called Stein one of the most politically active Democratic attorneys general of the Trump era.
“To be sure, during the Obama years, it was Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his red-state peers who led the charge against the president’s policies,” Pew’s Stateline news outlet wrote in an article last November. “Now, it’s Democrats such as Stein ... whose activism stands out, even among his peers.”
And while Stein has also shown an ability to be bipartisan — working with the Republican-led General Assembly on issues like the opioid epidemic, his would-be Republican challengers say he has made the office too political.
The three Republicans all come from different legal backgrounds, indicating how wide-ranging the office’s duties are. O’Neill and Mumma have experience in criminal law — but on opposite sides of the courtroom — and Hayes has experience in civil law.
All three candidates say they’re the true conservative pick. They all also say they want to focus on the opioid epidemic and on eliminating the state’s backlog of untested “rape kit” evidence — two issues Stein has already made top priorities for the office.
But in addition to their different resumes, there are also some political stances that set them apart.
O’Neill is a career prosecutor, as well as a former Duke University lacrosse player who now coaches high school lacrosse in Winston-Salem in his spare time. He has been the top prosecutor in Forsyth County since 2009.
This is O’Neill’s second time running for attorney general. He lost the 2016 GOP primary to Buck Newton, who went on to lose to Stein.
Part of what makes him think he can win this time, O’Neill said, is his strong support for the death penalty. Stein has also said he supports the death penalty, but North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. Since the attorney general’s office handles criminal appeals cases, O’Neill says Stein — and Cooper before him — are to blame for the state’s 14-year drought in executions.
He invoked a death penalty case his office won in 2010, saying: “Imagine how hard I had to work with law enforcement to bring that verdict about. And then you turn that case over to the attorney general’s office, to defend that case, and it’s theirs until the end of time.”
Part of the reason for the state’s halt of executions is a concern that many death row inmates don’t actually belong there. Between 2006 and 2016, WRAL has reported, more than two dozen prisoners were let off death row. Several were proven innocent by groups including Mumma’s. Others won lighter prison sentences after appealing their cases.
Despite new attention on problems in the justice system, O’Neill said he has nothing to apologize for after 23 years as a prosecutor. But he also doesn’t have the same old-school views on nonviolent crimes that some district attorneys hold, he said.
He pointed to two programs he has recently started in Forsyth County. One was a partnership with a local civil rights group, the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem, to help people settle unresolved traffic issues so they could get their driver’s licenses back and wouldn’t be pulled over repeatedly.
The other is a pilot program that lets people with alcohol or opioid addictions get low-level charges dismissed, if they complete probation and rehab. The program recently finished its first year.
“Every person in that program is testing clean,” O’Neill said. “Every person in that program has a job, some for the first time in their lives. And every person in that program has not committed further crimes.”
Mumma is a longtime advocate for the wrongfully convicted. She’s the executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit group that has been able to prove the innocence of nine North Carolinians who were serving time for serious crimes like rape and murder.
The News & Observer named her the Tar Heel Of The Year in 2007 for her work.
“I’ve shown what I can do as a private citizen,” she said. “I think I can do even more as attorney general.”
Mumma became a lawyer a little later in life, after working in finance and having kids. She was inspired to change careers when she served as a juror in a Durham murder case, saying that “just from that trial, I could see the problems with the process.”
After law school, she clerked for the late N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. He was a Republican judge who transitioned from tough-on-crime to pro-reform, pushing in the early 2000s for the creation of the nation’s first state-run commission to investigate potential wrongful convictions.
Mumma took over the Center on Actual Innocence in 2002. It’s a nonprofit and operates separately from the state-run Innocence Inquiry Commission that Lake helped create. The two groups have combined to free 21 wrongfully convicted North Carolinians.
If elected, Mumma said, she would focus on making the office less political and more focused on overdue reforms that “nobody wants to touch.” There’s a common political joke that AG really stands for “aspiring governor,” not attorney general. Mumma said that clearly applied to Cooper, and it seems to apply to Stein as well, but she doesn’t want a higher office.
“The issues that I want to work on are probably not going to be the sexy issues that are out there right now,” Mumma said. “I mean, I’m definitely going to work on the opioid crisis, and I’m definitely going to work on the backlog of the rape kits. But I’m going to work on a lot of other things that aren’t going to be in the public eye but impact the justice system overall.”
Unlike his two challengers who come from a criminal-law background, Hayes’ background is in civil law. He said that makes him the most qualified person in the race, since the AG’s office mostly does civil work — whether it’s filing consumer-protection lawsuits or defending state agencies in court.
After spending the first part of his career in private practice representing businesses in court for Arnold & Porter, Hayes returned home to North Carolina to take a job in state government.
He was the general counsel for what’s now the Department of Environmental Quality under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. That job put him in the thick of fights between North Carolina and the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the initial legal settlement with Duke Energy over coal ash pollution.
“I’m very proud of that remediation for holding Duke Energy accountable for that cleanup, and for providing municipal water — clean drinking water — to those impacted communities.”
He also pointed to a high-profile case he led more recently in the State Treasurer’s office, when a group of State Health Plan members sued after losing their insurance coverage for therapy or surgeries related to being transgender — treatments for a condition called gender dysphoria.
Hayes said under state law, the attorney general’s office should’ve defended the state against that lawsuit, but Stein declined to do so, leaving the work to Hayes. That lawsuit is ongoing in federal court.
“The State Health Plan faces a $35 billion liability for retiree health care,” Hayes said. “And regardless of what you think, or what I think, or what anyone thinks about the issue of transgender or gender dysphoria benefits, I would hope we would all agree ... that we don’t need to have more elective benefits, let alone have the taxpayers on the hook for sex change benefits.”