NC Democrats running for governor: Mike Morgan, Josh Stein

With candidate filing days away for the 2024 elections, the two Democrats vying in the primary for governor — Mike Morgan and Josh Stein — made their pitches to a powerful Black political group.

Morgan, who retired from the N.C. Supreme Court this fall to run for governor, told The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People PAC about his personal story growing up as one of the first Black students to integrate schools in North Carolina, as well as his time in Durham as a student at Duke University and N.C. Central University Law School. Morgan said his 34 years on the bench give him a “special skill set” to be governor.

“I have made my whole life’s career dedicated to be sure that everyone has a level playing field. That’s what justice is all about, to make sure that everyone feels as though: as long as he or she puts their best feet forward, being lawful citizens, and being all that they can be in applying themselves, that they can be whatever they want to be,” Morgan said.

Morgan and Stein did not criticize each other during their speeches, though Morgan alluded to Stein having been chosen as the Democratic pick before anyone else got in the race.

Stein, the front-runner in the Democratic primary, spent most of his time talking about his expected opponent in the general election: Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, as well as the Republican-controlled state legislature. He noted Robinson wanting a total abortion ban.

“All of it is wrong. All of it is backwards. All of it must be stopped, and it is on us. It is on us to defend our home and fight for our people. That’s what I have had the honor of doing these past seven years as your attorney general — taking on big fights for the people in North Carolina and deliver,” Stein said, going on to talk about his work on the opioid crisis and rape kit testing backlog.

Black voters’ endorsements not a given

The Durham Committee filled a room on the top floor of University Tower with a crowd of influential Durham elected officials and community leaders. Among them were several local politicians, including the new Mayor-elect Leonardo Williams, former Durham Mayor Bill Bell, County Commissioners Chair Brenda Howerton and several more leaders.

Getting an audience with the group doesn’t mean an endorsement is coming — yet. The Durham Committee will vote on its endorsements in early 2024, a slate that can help carry the elections for a city and county that votes vastly Democratic.

Committee PAC Chair Cassandra Stokes said that support is not a given, and the event this week was a starting point ahead of candidate questionnaires they’ll send out when filing ends in mid-December.

“What is your strategy for making it past a primary?” she said is one factor in getting an endorsement from the committee. “We want to make sure that we’re supporting and endorsing viable candidates. I think both of them bring very much different experiences to the gubernatorial race: Justice Mike Morgan in his judicial experience, and Josh Stein, with his experience already as attorney general. So that’s something that we also want to dig in deeper within our endorsement process,” Stokes said.

Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People PAC Chair Cassandra Stokes, pictured at a committee “meet and greet” with Democratic primary candidates.
Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People PAC Chair Cassandra Stokes, pictured at a committee “meet and greet” with Democratic primary candidates. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

Durham Committee Chair Walter Jackson said the group is “keeping an open mind” about the primary. He said the PAC will interview all the candidates before making recommendations to the entire committee.

“So, as they say, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over.’ So until our general body speaks, there are no favorites from my point of view,” Jackson said.

Stokes said that it was important for all the Council of State candidates to show up in person and be cordial in a roomful of voters. “I think that will allow us to speak to voters more than just seeing them on TV or seeing commercials. So I think having that in-person conversation and dialogue and direct one-on-one contact with voters will be impactful, and hopefully we’ll be able to set the parameters,” Stokes said.

Former state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., who was at the event, told The N&O afterward that it’s important for candidates “to appear before these groups and to make a pitch for the viability of their candidacy, and why they are best able to serve. … I mean, if you think about issues related to the Voting Rights Act, it’s all about people having a chance, having an opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice, without regard to race.”

McKissick said that while Stein is the “heir apparent,” Morgan would have been better positioned if he had announced his campaign earlier and now needs to show why he’s the most viable candidate in the general election.

Stein announced in January, and Morgan in September. Stein had already locked in key endorsements including from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Black leaders like state Sen. Natalie Murdock and former U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield.

Pitches to the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

All the candidates at the event were Democrats. Here are the candidates who spoke to the crowd:

Mike Morgan, retired N.C. Supreme Court justice running for governor

Josh Stein, attorney general running for governor

Ben Clark, former state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor

Rachel Hunt, state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor

Satana Deberry, Durham County district attorney and candidate for attorney general

Wesley Harris, state representative and candidate for treasurer

Luis Toledo, candidate for state auditor

Lora Cubbage, superior court judge and candidate for N.C. Supreme Court

Stokes said that others invited who had schedule conflicts included Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who is running for reelection; candidate for labor commissioner Braxton Winston, who is on Charlotte City Council; and U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson, who is running for attorney general against Deberry.

Deberry said that Durham voters know her, and that in her two terms as district attorney she has been “bold,” “progressive” and done everything she said she would do.

Education was a current throughout the candidates’ speeches, which were each about three minutes. Hunt said that public education is “under attack,” and talked about treatment of teachers and the expansion of private school vouchers under the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Candidate filing starts Monday.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan is the Capitol Bureau Chief for The News & Observer, leading coverage of the legislative and executive branches in North Carolina with a focus on the governor, General Assembly leadership and state budget. She has received the McClatchy President’s Award, N.C. Open Government Coalition Sunshine Award and several North Carolina Press Association awards, including for politics and investigative reporting.

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