JOHN HOOD COLUMN: 3 Democrats run for attorney general

RALEIGH — Since end of Reconstruction in 1877, a Republican candidate has been elected North Carolina’s attorney general precisely one time, in 1896. Two other Republicans served briefly in the office, but only by appointment.

John Hood

Starting in the 1960s, North Carolina Republicans gradually closed their longstanding competitiveness gap with Democrats. First the GOP picked up legislative and congressional seats. Then, in 1972, Republicans won statewide races for U.S. Senate (Jesse Helms) and governor (Jim Holshouser). Additional federal, state and local victories have followed over the next five decades.

The office of attorney general has been a conspicuous exception. Republican Jim O’Neill came close in 2020, losing to Democrat Josh Stein by just 13,722 votes, but O’Neill decided not to make another attempt. He’s running for lieutenant governor. Stein is running for a different office, as well: governor.

Will 2024 be the year Republicans finally pick the Democrats’ lock on attorney general? U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop is going to try. A veteran campaigner who’s won races for county commission, state house, state senate and Congress, Bishop drew no opponent in the March 5 GOP primary.

The Democratic field features three competitors. Satana Deberry, the two-term district attorney of Durham County, previously worked as a criminal attorney, general counsel of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition.
Deberry calls herself a “progressive prosecutor” and told Charlotte public radio station WFAE that she believes in “trying to right-size the criminal justice system” by focusing more on violent criminals rather than minor offenses.

One of her primary opponents is Tim Dunn, a Fayetteville attorney and former Marine Corps officer and prosecutor who served multiple overseas deployments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, Dunn said that as attorney general he’d focus on reducing gun crimes, battling the fentanyl and opioid epidemics, and protecting constitutional rights. “We need public servant-leaders, regardless of political party, who are dedicated to preserving our U.S. and N.C. constitutions, uphold the rule of law, and will abide by the oaths they swore to,” he said.

The third Democratic candidate is one of Bishop’s congressional colleagues, Jeff Jackson. Before his election to the U.S. House in 2022, Jackson served four terms in the state senate, where one of his priorities was criminal-justice reform.
He previously worked as a business litigator in Charlotte and assistant district attorney in Gaston County. He’s also a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and continues to serve in the North Carolina Army National Guard as a major in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. In a recent News & Observer interview, Jackson said that raising pay for law enforcement officers and tackling the fentanyl and opioid epidemics would be top priorities.

Even before going to Washington, he’d cultivated a national following through the skillful use of explanatory videos. “We have politicians who refuse to stand up for us and who have turned a blind eye to several clear challenges we face,” Jackson says. “The results have been devastating, especially for working people and working families.”

In her WFAE interview, Deberry drew a clear distinction with Jackson. “I think there are people out there who want to see a ticket with an attorney general who knows what they are doing,” she said. “Someone who is a serious lawyer. I’m a serious lawyer and a serious person — not a national social media following.”

Deberry’s endorsers include the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the Durham People’s Alliance, and the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund. Jackson has been endorsed by his fellow Democrats in the state congressional delegation, dozens of Democratic state lawmakers, and such organizations as the state AFL-CIO, the N.C. Association of Educators, the Sierra Club, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus.

All of these candidates have campaign websites where you can find more about their backgrounds, endorsements, and positions. Early voting for the March primary is now underway.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.