The worst of times require the best from our leaders. Tragedy begets fear, and it is in these times of tragedy that we expect the most from those that we elect. Moments like this test the moral foundation of our leaders, laying bare their best (and worst) intentions. Throughout both the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the responsibility of charting our nation’s path to action has largely fallen on individual state leaders, including state attorneys general.
Some state AGs have chosen to use the crisis as cover to push forward with political dirty work. Instead of facing fear with humility and empathy, some have chosen to exploit the crisis for their own gain by ignoring what is in the best interests of the people. On the other hand, responsive attorneys general have taken the kind of action that meets the moment, putting the lives of their constituents – and the need to meaningfully contribute to the conversation on racial equality – over party politics.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our attorney general, Josh Stein, has been a reliable advocate for access to vital medical supplies, helping crack down on price-gougers. In late March, he also suspended the North Carolina Department of Justice’s debt collection operation, ensuring families across the state were able to keep their lights on and water running during this period of financial difficulty. It’s a stand that takes political bravery, putting Stein’s office in a position where he’s likely to face the ire of industry groups statewide – but at the benefit of the state’s at-risk families.
And in response to perhaps the most hot-button issue of our current political moment – the egregious mismanagement of the U.S. Postal Service by Postmater General DeJoy at the direction of the president – Stein has come out swinging for North Carolinians, suing the USPS to challenge their attempt to undermine the safety of our state’s voters and the integrity of our democracy.
The same cannot be said in other states. One attorney general, in particular, has used this moment to advance not just his own conservative platform, but that of the Trump administration’s as well. Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, has established himself as both an extension of Trump’s political operation and an opponent to civil rights everywhere.
Despite the looming public health risks posed by voting booths during this year’s elections, Paxton remains a steadfast opponent of mail-in voting – which the president made clear is his “biggest risk” in reelection. Paxton has even doubled down on this power-hungry push, proposing states take over cities that take steps to defund their police departments. Meanwhile, Attorney General Stein has taken on the challenge to co-lead Governor Cooper’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.
Paxton has repeatedly attempted to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic to score political points with President Trump’s base. Take the recent decision by the Supreme Court on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, for example. As Ken Paxton retreated, vowing to continue litigating the case in the Southern District of Texas, many others, including AG Stein, celebrated the victory as part of the legal team in defense of children who will no longer live in fear of deportation.
The corruption of Trump’s message has even spread to the Department of Justice, with AG William Barr serving as the mastermind behind the violent police actions taken against peaceful protesters outside of the White House, as well as leading a dubious, politically fraught antitrust investigation into technology companies on a presidential “hunch” that tech companies are run by the “radical left.”
Times like these, when we have to band together as a nation, reveal who we are. As I look across the landscape in this country, it’s clear that we have two types of leaders – those using the pandemic to pursue unrelated policy outcomes using the long arm of the law and others protecting civil liberties and ensuring the proper role of our law enforcement apparatus.
I am grateful that North Carolina has Josh Stein to fight for our state. Here’s hoping our nation sees a lot more of the latter.
Brian Fitzsimmons is a Systems Analyst at Medicago and served as the Chair of the Wake County Democratic Party from 2015-2017.