Satana Deberry’s plan as NC Attorney General? Talk about the things no one’s talking about.

Satana Deberry, the district attorney of Durham County, has also in her career worked as an attorney for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of the Interior, the Foreclosure Prevention Project, and the NC Housing Coalition. (Santana Deberry for NC)

By Michael McElroy

February 28, 2024

Deberry is seeking the Democratic nomination for Attorney General. She would be the first woman and first person of color to hold the post. 

North Carolina’s attorney general is the state’s top law enforcement official and a staunch advocate for issues of public health, safety, and justice. And for nearly 250 years, every person to hold the office has been a white man.

It’s the attorney general’s job to, among other things, protect voting rights, hold hospitals accountable for substandard care, and pursue polluters, identity thieves, and sexual traffickers. But while many of these issues disproportionately affect Black people, no Black person has ever been elected attorney general to address them. 

Satana Deberry, the district attorney of Durham County, says 250 years is long enough.

Deberry, a Black woman with 30 years’ experience as defense attorney, prosecutor, and advocate for public health, is seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general in the party primaries on March 5. 

She has worked as an attorney for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of the Interior, the Foreclosure Prevention Project, Habitat for Humanity, and the NC Housing Coalition. She was a defense attorney in her hometown of Hamlet, NC and, in 2018, was elected District Attorney for Durham County.

Across those roles, Deberry says on her campaign website, she has “prioritized the prosecution of serious offenses, implemented policies to reduce unnecessary pretrial incarceration … [and] worked to dismantle systems that restrict the lives of poor people, families, communities of color, and other marginalized and underrepresented groups.”

She faces US Rep. Jeff Jackson and Tim Dunn, a Fayetteville lawyer and former Marine, in the primary. The winner will take on US Rep. Dan Bishop, a Republican, in November. Bishop is running unopposed in his party’s primary and Josh Stein, the current attorney general and a Democrat, is running for governor. 

Deberry spoke to Cardinal and Pine last week about her qualifications, her priorities, and what she says separates her from the other candidates.

Changing the script

The stakes are high in the 2024 election, with reproductive rights, voting access and the overall health of Democracy on the line. The attorney general post can affect all of these issues. 

Bishop, for example, has called for a complete abortion ban and backed Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. If he wins, he could use the power of the office to further crack down on reproductive rights and voting rights. 

Many Democrats say Jackson, who has strong name recognition and a large social media presence, has the best chances of winning in November, but Deberry says that’s only because it’s hard for voters and donors to see past the typical script. 

“I may be the most qualified person to ever run,” Deberry said, but “the real pushback on me is not that I may be too progressive or that people won’t vote for me because of that, it is because I have not raised enough money.”

Many people who supported her in her race for Durham County’s DA, she said, praise her work there but “don’t want me to do a job where I might have more power or control.”

She added:“[They say] ‘We have a model and we’re going to stick with the model,’” she said. “Most of it is people just think, ‘Well, that’s just always the way we’ve done it.’”

But the way it’s always been done, she said, won’t change the things that need to be changed. The long-neglected will stay neglected, she said.

“I always think the best in people,” she said. “I’m an eternal optimist, I guess, but I think we just don’t like change, even when it’s good change, even when it would make our lives better.”

Jackson has a strong resume too. He’s a former state senator, served as assistant district attorney in Gaston County, and was a major in the Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m downgrading his career, which I’m not,” Deberry said. 

But if you laid their resumes side by side, hid their names, and asked someone to pick the most qualified, she said, “you would pick mine up every time.”

How AGs can stand up to bad laws

Part of the attorney general’s chief duties are to represent North Carolina in all legal matters, including in lawsuits brought against state laws. Stein has declined to defend the state in several high profile lawsuits against Republican-passed laws banning abortion and making it harder to vote, and Deberry said she would also refuse to defend them. 

It is a reflection of the office’s strong bully pulpit, she said, and she intends to use it often.

It will be the attorney general’s job, she said, to “stand up and call a thing a thing.”

“How do we deliver? Who’s been harmed? How do we address that harm? And how can we be good stewards of public resources while doing that? Those are not the questions anybody’s asking.”

She added: “It’s a very different thing to have me stand up and say North Carolina is near the bottom in maternal mortality, especially for Black and brown women. 

“I have that actual lived experience.”

Reproductive rights are not just about abortion

Deberry, who has three grown children, faced life threatening complications during one of her pregnancies. 

“As a woman, as a Black woman, somebody who was at risk for maternal mortality who did almost die, I have a different way of talking about what these issues mean long term, what they mean to actual people on the ground.”

Her sister, she said, lived in rural Rockingham County, but had to travel to Charlotte when she also faced pregnancy complications. 

“She had some issues and ended up being there for six weeks, admitted to the hospital 70 miles from her husband and my mother, her whole support system at the time,” Deberry said.

“That’s not exceptional. There are women experiencing that right here. I will talk about those things.”

Her depth of engagement on the issue, she said, sets her apart among her Democratic opponents.

Jackson has made protecting abortion rights a tenet of his campaign, but that’s to be expected, Deberry said.

“Every Democrat in the primary is going to say the same thing, that they’re here to protect your reproductive rights,” Deberry said.  

“But you’re not going to hear that it’s not just about abortion. Reproductive rights are really about healthcare access … about things like when OBGYNs leave a community, what happens?”

(In his successful 2023 Congressional campaign, Jackson spoke of the need for legislation to lower Black Maternal death rates.)

More women in the United States die from pregnancy-related complications than in any other wealthy country in the world, and North Carolina has one of the highest maternal death rates in the country. It’s even worse in rural areas, and is much worse among women of color.

“There are only two gynecological oncologists between the Tennessee border and Charlotte,” Deberry said. “And do you know that the only cancer in which survival rates have gone down over the last 20 years is uterine cancer?”

To maximize the reach of the attorney general’s office on these issues, she said, the next person to hold the office must have “real knowledge, actually deep knowledge of this work” to help the people who need it most.

And they need to use that knowledge to hone a more targeted litigation strategy.

“You litigate healthcare access. You put demands on healthcare systems before they buy local hospitals, before they buy up medical practices, before they start consolidating care in a way that is detrimental to rural people or low income people,” she said.

“That’s who the attorney general is there for. We’re not there to protect the healthcare service, the healthcare agencies. We’re there to protect the people of North Carolina so that they have access to the best healthcare that they can.”

Removing systemic barriers

Deberry’s work and life have given her the deep knowledge needed to maximize the attorney general’s reach, she said.

As she worked her way from criminal defense in her hometown, through several state agencies and aid organizations to the top prosecutor in Durham, Deberry learned a lot, she said, about the often thin line between systemic barriers and personal responsibility.

“I don’t know that I would’ve told you when I first started doing this work representing people at home that this was systemic. I saw it more as an individual choice,” she said. “Now I see the combination of things.”

She added: “One of the things that was most eye opening to me once I became a prosecutor is that I didn’t know anything about the defendants,” she said.

Defense attorneys know a lot about their clients’ lives and circumstances, she said, but unless a defendant chooses to share those details with the prosecution, prosecutors know nothing of homelife, childhood trauma, or any other barriers that could make a seemingly simple picture more complex.

“We don’t know anything about their lives,” she said, “so it’s really easy to fill in the blank with the worst possible things.”

“But when they do provide us with information, I can almost always see the systemic overlay in their individual choices,” she said. 

“I’m particularly aware of that as a Black person, because that’s what we do all the time in this country—we create pathways around the historic and systemic barriers that are created for us. And sometimes we’re so good at that, we just don’t say, ‘why don’t we just get rid of the barriers?’”

‘It is really time for us to step up.’

Sometimes the barriers are flagrant, sometimes subtle. Sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious.

But Black voters keep showing up to vote, she said, time and time again, saving Democracy from the front lines while getting a pat on the back and told to do it all again the next election when nothing changes. 

“The Democratic Party at this point is so dependent on the votes of Black people, especially Black women,” she said. ”What are we asking for? If we show up on the first Tuesday in November, our lives should be different on the first Wednesday in November. But they never are.”

The answer, she said, is speaking the truth out loud and then finally doing something about it.

“It is really time for us to step up. We’ve done literally everything America’s asked us to do. We’ve gone to school, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, I’ve gone to college, I’ve gone to law school, all these things. And then when it comes time for us to lead, the answer is like, ‘Well, you don’t fit the mold of who we think is electable.’”

It’s a question she keeps asking. 

“Why can’t people like me be in the center? Why don’t we get to be?”

Breaking the mold is a strength, she said, not a weakness.

“I’m just not the same thing. Whether you like me, you don’t like me, you agree with me, you don’t agree with me: I’m going to be something that you haven’t seen before.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.


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