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The Daily Tar Heel

Roy Cooper refuses to defend McCrory as race intensifies

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story identified Roy Cooper as leading Pat McCrory 42 to 40 percent. Public Policy Polling shows McCrory leading Cooper 42 to 40 percent. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.

The opponents in the North Carolina gubernatorial race are grappling with a tight race, which escalated with the passage of House Bill 2.

In a press conference March 29, Cooper announced he will not defend the law — which prevents transgender people from using their self-identified bathrooms — calling it a national embarrassment.

“This new law provides for broad-based discrimination, and we can avoid all of this by simply going in and fixing it, repealing it,” he said.

But McCrory said the attorney general’s refusal to serve as defense neglects his oath to North Carolinians.

“When you are the state’s lawyer, you are a lawyer first and a politician second,” he said.

A legal disagreement

An attorney general dissenting from a state decision isn’t unprecedented, said Deborah Weissman, a UNC School of Law professor.

“It would not be the first time that an attorney general or a state attorney declined to defend a law within his or her jurisdiction. There are a number examples of that,” she said, speaking of rulings against the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011.

If the attorney general believes a matter violates the state constitution, Weissman said it might be considered their legal obligation to make such a decision.

And UNC law professor Michael Gerhardt said in an email that Cooper’s refusal is within legal bounds.

“He has the power to make determinations like this,” he said. “His position as the state attorney general entitles him to offer an opinion on the constitutionality of the legislature.”

In a joint statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, Equality N.C. and Lambda Legal expressed their happiness with Cooper’s public comments on House Bill 2.

“We’re grateful the attorney general stands on the right side of history with the many cities, states, businesses and individuals who have come out against this harmful measure,” the statement said.

Cooper could not be reached via phone call or email from January to the present.

Partisan politics

In his press conference, the gubernatorial candidate said partisan politics should be put aside when determining the constitutionality of this law.

And to Josh Stein — who recently resigned from the senate to focus on his own campaign for attorney general — a Cooper administration would not be defined by partisan battles or an inability to cross the aisle.

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“I don’t think he will try to fan partisan flames,” Stein said. “I think he’ll just try to do what’s right for the people and work with other stakeholders to achieve real positive things for the state.”

Stein said he was not surprised Cooper declared his candidacy for governor, having heard suggestions that he should run in previous election cycles.

“But I respected his decision-making along the way in that he thought he could do more for people as attorney general, and now, he can do more as governor,” Stein said.

McCrory currently leads Cooper 42 to 40 percent, according to a March 22 poll by Public Policy Polling. Though 39 percent of voters reportedly have no opinion on Cooper.

Supporters call for new era

As in his condemnation of HB2, Cooper has been described as unafraid to defend his clients and perceptions of justice.

“(He) was always tough but appropriately tough,” Stein said. “He wasn’t looking to beat people up or seek unreasonable relief, but he also was consistent in what he was there for — which was to try to help people get some kind of compensation or relief.”

Gene McLaurin, a former state senator from Richmond County, said in his first interaction with Cooper, the two discussed the need for more transparency in government.

McLaurin, who had been considering running to regain his senate seat lost in 2014, said he had enough confidence in Cooper to put his own political aspirations on hold.

“I think people are ready for new leadership; they’re ready for someone who’ll roll up their sleeves and go to work to help everybody in North Carolina,” he said.