Jeff Jackson on what he’d do as NC attorney general

Jeff Jackson on what he’d do as NC attorney general

Photo: Cardinal & Pine

By Dylan Rhoney

July 1, 2024

The next attorney general will play a huge role in shaping the direction of North Carolina. In an interview, Democrat Jeff Jackson explains how his vision for the state differs from that of his opponent, Dan Bishop.

Jeff Jackson’s done a lot of things in his life. He enlisted in the military after 9/11 and served in Afghanistan. He went to law school and became a prosecutor in Gaston County. He’s been a state Senator, a congressman, and even a TikTok star.

This year, the Chapel Hill High School graduate is hoping North Carolina voters will elect him to another job: North Carolina Attorney General (AG). As the top law enforcement official in the state, the AG is the people’s lawyer charged with defending the state and its residents. The AG can initiate legal action when necessary, represent and defend entities of state government in court, and work with local law enforcement agencies. 

Cardinal & Pine recently sat down with Jackson for an interview to get a better sense of why he’s running, what he would focus on as AG, and why the stakes of this particular election are so high. The interview covered a range of topics, including reproductive rights, the fentanyl crisis, corporate accountability, and his opponent’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Cardinal & Pine: A lot of people in North Carolina know you from being in the state Senate and now as a member of Congress. But for people who may not have been in your district or might just be learning about you, what do you want them to know about why you decided to run for attorney general?

Attorney general is one of the best jobs in public service. The core of the job, the essential function, is to be a shield to defend people from a variety of threats. And it’s really not about left versus right. It’s more about doing what’s right. So you get to wake up every day, not really worried about partisan politics, just looking for ways to stick up for people in a very direct way.

And that’s a beautiful thing. If you enjoy feeling useful, if you want to spend your life being as useful as possible, there’s few better ways to do it then a position like that.

You served in the military, you were an assistant district attorney in Gaston County. I want to get your thoughts on how those experiences would inform your approach to serve as attorney general.

Being a prosecutor, seeing low level cases, traffic cases, and then moving up and handling DWI cases, and then moving up and handling first-degree murder cases and serious sex offense cases, you run the gamut of the victims that you’re working with—the severity of the harm that’s been done to society, but also your knowledge of the law in North Carolina and your sense of how broad the impact can really be both to victims and to the families of the perpetrators. 

Just the complexity that comes with criminal behavior, but also criminal justice—not a theoretical understanding, but a practical, granular understanding, I think that’s really important for the person who’s going to be our state’s top prosecutor. I think it’s important there’s only one person in this race who has ever served as a prosecutor.

This job is really not intended to be an entry level position, despite what my opponent may say. So we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to tell stories. I’m going to tell stories from having served as a prosecutor in Gaston County and how that informed my perspective on criminal justice.

How would you approach public safety and ensure North Carolinians feel safe? How does it differ from Congressman Bishop’s approach? And why would you be better on that issue?

He and I have a very different approach to politics in general. He is a member of the right flank. He is all about some Twitter. He is all about some outrage. He is, every day, testing various lines to try and antagonize as many people as he can. He is using his position to gain some type of amplification for a certain audience, and I think that’s exactly how he would use the position as attorney general.

That’s a radical departure from how this position has been used in the past. This position has typically been used the way I described it to you, as a shield for vulnerable people. I think he sees it more as a sword to use against some people and some groups of people. This was the author of HB 2. He has a demonstrated antagonism to certain minority groups, and particularly the LGBTQ community in North Carolina.

Having him in that position—so in Congress, we have 435 [representatives]. The attorney general is one of one, and having a political extremist in that position would be an experiment we have never run before as a state, and I think it would be a very dangerous experiment.

One thing that many voters may not be aware of is the role that the state attorney general can play in protecting reproductive rights, especially in a post-Roe world. Could you talk to our audience about how the attorney general can protect reproductive rights in the state?

Yeah, absolutely. So when I say this job is supposed to be a shield for people, that would be a good example. I expect the General Assembly to continue to run offense on reproductive freedom the way that they have. This is going to look very different, whether I or my opponent serves as the next attorney general will have a direct impact on women across the state and on their freedom.

My opponent has taken, true to form, a very extreme stance on this in the things that he has said, endorsing various extremely widespread abortion bans to legislation that he’s co-sponsored, including legislation that could ban IVF. My wife and I have two kids from IVF. I think his position is all the way outside of the mainstream, even in a state like North Carolina.

His position on [the abortion medication] mifepristone was way to the right of the US Supreme Court, which just saved access to mifepristone. He signed onto a brief that would have had them ruling the other way. I think if more people in our state knew this well, it wouldn’t end up being as close an election as I expect it to be.

If the legislature were to further restrict abortion, how could the AG’s office potentially challenge this? And do you believe that the current 12-week ban, as well as any potential future bans against abortion are unconstitutional? And if so, what do you think the basis for that is?

Yeah. So you would challenge it in court, you’d have an option of challenging in state court or in federal court. I think the current attorney general, Josh Stein, was right to challenge aspects of SB 20, which is the current abortion ban.

What people need to know is that it didn’t just include an abortion ban. It had other pieces in there that implicated reproductive freedom and restricted it in various ways, including access to abortion medication, and recently [we] had a federal ruling on that case that agreed with Attorney General Stein’s position on that.

Congressman Bishop voted to overturn the 2020 election results. Do you have concerns about steps he could take to undermine future elections in the state if given the opportunity?

People need to understand that what’s at stake in this election is so much bigger than what is normally at stake in an election. And I would love us to get to a point where elections didn’t feel like an existential crisis. We’re just not there yet. And the difference between myself and my opponent when it comes to basic rule of law just can’t be exaggerated.

He was a huge proponent of pushing the ‘Big Lie’ that was completely dishonest. He voted not to certify the last election when he knew better as an attorney. He knew all the courts and all the judges had ruled the other way. But he decided to pander to the folks who stormed the US Capitol. He didn’t have the guts to look them in the eye and tell them that they were wrong.

So he voted not to certify the election. The only way we have to peacefully transfer power, he said, was to throw it out the window, because we don’t have the guts to tell these people who stormed the Capitol, ‘actually, you’re wrong about that.’ Then he said that his own election was rigged, even though he won. Really not sure what the deal was on that.

A few weeks ago, he said ‘a reckoning is coming for [our] gangster government,’ which to me isn’t the way you talk before you become attorney general. It’s the way you talk before you storm the Capitol. I just don’t have any doubt in my mind that he’s going to take the far-right position every time. And if the far-right position means being antagonistic to the outcome of a lawful election, then he’s going to do that because he has done that. That’s what happened after 2020.

Sticking with the January 6th insurrection, in the last few weeks, Bishop co-sponsored a bill that would rescind subpoenas that the January 6th committee had issued, including those for Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, both of whom are facing jail time. I wanted to hear your thoughts on a person who is taking that position while seeking to be the top law enforcement official and running on a law and order platform. 

So Senator Menendez [of New Jersey] is a member of my party. I haven’t met him, but he’s in my party, serves in the other wing. I’m in the House and he is in the Senate. And I read the indictment against him about the gold bars and all that stuff, and was one of the first people to call for his resignation because it just seemed obvious that the weight of the evidence there was very clear.

The position of attorney general is not defense of a party, it’s defense of people. It’s supposed to be an independent voice and what I see from my opponent on that, but also other issues, for instance, the electoral fraud that we had in North Carolina with the Mark Harris congressional campaign, the worst case of electoral fraud in my lifetime in North Carolina—we had a bipartisan the state board unanimously agreed to throw that election out because the evidence of electoral fraud was so clear.

My opponent said it was fairly minor illegal ballot harvesting. His comments about January 6th, trying to downplay that—so what you see, to your example of throwing out those subpoenas—what you see is him constantly trying to run defense for his party when they have crossed the line and looking for any opportunity to attack the other party to include saying false things like that his election was rigged, or that the presidential election was rigged.

That is the opposite temperament that you need from an attorney general. This is supposed to be an independent voice. His voice is partisan every single day. He just doesn’t miss an opportunity honestly.

Do you have concerns that he could use the office of attorney general to weaponize the law or to use the office for political gain?

He put on Twitter a few weeks ago that he was going to use the office of attorney general to go after a specific college professor in North Carolina. There’s no reason to do that. That is gross. I mean of course that’s an abuse of power. Of course, saying that, ‘hey, when I’m attorney General, watch out. I’m coming for you, Mr. Professor, with the power of the state.’

That’s absurd. And if you’re willing to do that, in what other ways are you willing to abuse your power? Probably more than one.

The cost of housing and cost of living is a real issue across the state. The FBI recently raided Cortland Management, a property management company that owns properties across North Carolina as part of an investigation into rental price fixing. How would you protect North Carolinians from corporate exploitation and bad faith actors in the real estate industry?

Well, first of all, to the extent the FBI is a part of those investigations or law enforcement, there’s again a major point of difference between my opponent and myself in that my opponent said, ‘we must [break] the FBI into [94] pieces.’ That’s not exactly what you would expect from an attorney general. It certainly is not pro-law enforcement. It’s not even conservative. 

It’s just a totally weird, outrageous, far-right, bizarre thing to say. And it has no bearing on anything that’s going to happen in the real world. 

So to your question, yes, absolutely. A big part of being attorney general is holding bad actors accountable and there are different ways to do that with respect to corporate actors. Price gouging is one, particularly when there are natural disasters, the attorney general gets heightened authority to guard against price gouging. I think Josh [Stein] used that authority a couple years ago during a hurricane.

[There’s also] pollution, making sure that polluters pay, but ideally making sure that polluters know they will have to pay, so that serves as a deterrent to the pollution in the first place. A big part of being attorney general is deciding to care because you sort of set your own agenda, and that sends a message.

If people know that you’re going to care if they break the law, in particular corporate actors, it makes them less likely to break the law in the first place. Having an attorney general who sends a message, ‘hey, I’m not out to get anybody, but I am going to enforce the law. I’m not going to turn a blind eye,’—well, guess what? You can create compliance, and that’s good. That’s good for public safety. It’s good for clean air. It’s good for clean water.

Going back to reproductive rights for a moment. When we spoke back in February, you talked about how an Attorney General Bishop could work in tandem with the state Supreme Court to potentially roll back reproductive rights further. But I wanted to ask you how an Attorney General Jackson would be able to defend reproductive rights in the state, especially when we talk about the State Supreme Court, currently with A 5-2 Republican majority.

Well, you know, the attorney general has some limited power as to progress you can make because you’re going to be limited by the court. And ultimately, a lot of these decisions will come down to a state court or a federal court. That said, on that issue, my stance is clear. On voting rights, particularly gerrymandering, I will be maximally aggressive in defense of people’s right to vote and not having it be gerrymandered away by either party.

And this is a huge difference between myself and my opponent. The nightmare scenario for a lot of people—for the state—that I don’t think everybody fully realizes, is what my opponent could do as attorney general is basically lock arms with this very conservative state Supreme Court and create an end run around the General Assembly. So if we have a veto that can be sustained, that’s a check on the General Assembly.

But if my opponent is attorney general with this [North Carolina] Supreme Court, they can just go right around and start rolling back reproductive rights, voting rights, [and] environmental protection without involving the General Assembly.

We also talked about the fentanyl crisis in the state. And one of the remedies that you had mentioned for that would be an anti-money laundering bill.  How would those tools help your office fight this crisis?

You know, it’s funny you should mention it, because as soon as I started talking about it, it passed the General Assembly. So as of last week—and I don’t think that my talking about it was prompting it, I think it was a coincidence—but as of last week, we now have an anti-money laundering law, but it doesn’t go into effect until this December.

So the next attorney general is going to have this new tool. What I would like to do is very intentionally start planning for how to use this new tool. When we’re talking about the fentanyl epidemic, but specifically the supply part of fentanyl—because I think of the fentanyl epidemic, supply side [and] demand side, the demand side is about treating addiction—supply side is about interrupting the supply and the trafficking. 

It’s about the distribution cells that exist within our state, identifying them, breaking them apart. It is going to be very helpful, I think, to have this new tool in making a case and having grounds for investigation and in working your way up the criminal supply chain, both for fentanyl but also human trafficking and with the gun trade.

Some of our rural communities have some of the highest levels of gun violence in the state. Proposals have been made about safe storage laws and other things. Do you believe there are steps that can be taken to limit gun violence, gun murders, especially in these communities?

I know that there are and I think there are steps that are widely supported. And look, I’ve served in the military for 21 years now. I enlisted after September 11th. I served with Army Special operations in Afghanistan. I’m a major now with the National Guard. I’ve got a drill coming up, I have to get a haircut. I have fired more rounds with more different weapons than my opponent has ever watched on television.

I’m just much more familiar with firearms than he is. I’m positive about that. So when I talk about this, it’s from a place of familiarity, not from a place of ignorance or fear. And I’m telling you, you go out to these communities and you talk to them about guns. The conversation is a lot more nuanced than politicians in Congress or the General Assembly would have you believe.

Some of those folks think if they support any law here at all that their voters back home are going to completely flip out. It’s just not the case. They’re not giving people enough credit for being able to have a serious, sensible conversation. Red flag laws [are] overwhelmingly supported, as long as you talk to people about due process, and as long as you show them, ‘hey, here’s the way it’s working in other states, here are the due process protections that exist,’ safe storage laws, once again, ‘look, here’s how it’s working in other states.’

We are trying to save lives from homicide, accidental death, and suicide. An enormous share of death by firearm in North Carolina is suicide, and it’s just amazing the steps that we could take that I know would reduce death and be widely supported in urban areas and in rural areas.

You just have to start by giving voters a little more credit than assuming, ‘oh, they’re just all going to be categorically against this.’ No they’re not. You just have to talk to them in a sensible way.

You touched on this earlier, but your opponent does have a history of disparaging remarks towards the LGBTQ community. As you mentioned, he was one of the authors of HB 2. He defended that bill even after the legislature repealed it. What concerns do you have about how he could further impact LGBTQ people in the state if he were to win this election?

He’s going to treat them like a pinata. He is going to treat the LGBTQ community like a political pinata. That’s how he sees them. That is how he has always treated them. Since his time serving on the county commission, when he was a strong opponent of same sex marriage all the way to right now. 

He uses this group to fearmonger and that is the exact opposite—listen, there are 25 pages in our state code that describe everything the Attorney General was supposed to do, but really, the attorney general is there to make sure that people aren’t getting kicked around. That job includes everybody. But in particular, it includes communities that have historically been kicked around. And this is one of them. And he’s been a guy who has done the kicking.

Of course having him be in an executive position where he will have more power than he has ever had before is going to be a threat.

What steps would you take as attorney general to further protect the LGBTQ community?

There are legal things that you can do, but there’s also the power of your example. First of all, I would be a relatively young attorney general. I think I would be the youngest elected attorney general in the country. Being able to speak to this issue as someone who has grown up with friends who were out and has served with people who were out, being able to speak to young people, to tell them they all deserve respect, that this country they’re living in is getting better and healthier and smarter about this issue over time and that ‘we want you to be full participants and you deserve to be and I know some other people have treated you poorly, but that’s not the way we’re going to do things going forward.’

To have someone in the role of attorney general who can speak directly to that issue, I think that matters. There’s an intangible quality to that kind of leadership, but I really believe that you have an obligation, especially in an executive role like attorney general, to model good leadership and not give bullies new inspiration for being bullies, which is exactly what I think my opponent would do.

We talked about voting rights earlier, but, how would you work to safeguard voting rights and push back against efforts to take away the right to vote?

If you’re going to be a shield as attorney general, you have to know the state legislature, given their history, is going to run offense on voting rights. Why? Because they always have. They always have. They consider that one of the big levers they have to pull to juice their numbers and entrench themselves, in particular with gerrymandering. The history of gerrymandering in our state is just terrible.

And my party had the opportunity to end gerrymandering when they were in power back when I was in high school, and they chose not to because they thought they would never be out of power. So there was no reason to do things the right way and the fair way. That turned out to be a political mistake for them long term, but it was always an ethical mistake.

There is no ethical defense for drawing districts in a way that benefits one party over the other. This isn’t ethically complicated, it’s like bank robbery. It’s really simple. Anybody who sees that knows well that’s clearly wrong, no matter which party does it. 

I want to be an attorney general who’s capable of saying to either party, ‘no, we’re not going to rob the voters, we’re not going to disrespect them and find ways to diminish their power.’ 

In our democracy, things work best when voters have as much power as possible. Gerrymandering is simply about transferring power from the voters to the politicians. I would be completely opposed to that.

We’ve talked about a lot of issues. But thinking ahead, if you are elected, you get sworn in that first week of January. What issue, as you walk into the Justice Department and you meet with your team, what is the top priority for you as the elected attorney general?

I think day one has to be fentanyl. I’m going to ask the General Assembly to invest in a fentanyl control unit. We’re losing nine people a day in our state. The folks who are using fentanyl, they’re not using it to get high. They haven’t gotten high in a long time. They’re using it to stave off withdrawal. So talking to our counties about the gold standard for treatment, which is medicated assisted treatment—about a third of our counties use that—making sure that we push that out.

I think it can be really effective having an awareness campaign for teenagers, which some counties have right now. Mecklenburg has one that’s been pretty effective. Also, just being able to use social media and speak directly to young people and say, ‘hey, there’s no such thing as safe experimentation with drugs, whether or not you know it, fentanyl is in all of these drugs,’ which is why such a large percentage of people who are ODing are under the age of 20.

They don’t even know that they’re taking fentanyl. They think they’re taking something else. So they have no tolerance. So their threshold for ODing is much lower. Being able to have that conversation directly [matters]. So tackling fentanyl involves doing all of these different things. That would be day one.

And do you see yourself working with sheriff’s departments and other local law enforcement?

I’m already calling a number of these folks, not to tell them my ideas, but to learn from them. I mean, I think that’s what I would envision a transition period looking like between the election and January 1st, is having those conversations and just absorbing as much as possible.

And now we have 10 lighthearted questions,  a lightning round whenever you’re ready. Best thing about North Carolina?

The weather. We get all four seasons in equal proportion. I think that’s really special.

Favorite North Carolina based brewery?

There are 35 breweries in my district, and you’re going to force me to pick among them?

Fair enough. Beach or mountains?

I was just in the mountains yesterday. It was perfect. The weather was perfect. So I’m gonna’ go mountains. Love the beach. Love everybody at the beach. But I was just in the mountains yesterday.

Eastern or Western barbecue?

No. Absolutely not. Not falling into that trap. We love all North Carolina barbecue on this campaign and in this house.

And it’s all delicious.

And it’s all delicious.

Favorite sport?

You know, growing up in North Carolina, we didn’t have a professional baseball team. I mean, we still don’t. So I was a Braves fan growing up. Would love for us to land a Major League Baseball team in North Carolina. That would be great.

It’s the best sports experience going to a baseball game.

I got to play in the congressional baseball game last year. That was amazing. Yeah, just to be under those lights with all those people, so cool.

A political or historical figure that influenced your politics?

Political or historical figure? Man, I think you got to go Lincoln. I mean, if you’ve read enough about him and his life, the inspiring thing to me about him is most of his pre-presidency. There’s a lot to read in his presidency, but the life that he led and how dramatically unlikely it was that he was going to end up in that office ever, let alone under those circumstances.

And then you go back and read the Gettysburg Address. You can read the Gettysburg Address right now, today, and it feels fresh. It feels like he is talking about this moment, ‘a nation so conceived, shall it endure?’ Got to go Lincoln.

Favorite season in North Carolina?

Fall.

One thing that you liked about Congress and one thing that you don’t?

There’s a lot that I liked about Congress, and people are always coming up to me like, ‘are you okay? Are you hanging in there?’ I get a lot of sympathy because things are so dysfunctional. But I got lucky. The two committees that I serve on, Armed Services and Science, are relatively nonpartisan committees. 

And on the Science committee, they asked me when I showed up the first day, ‘what subcommittee do you want?’ And I said, ‘space.’ And they said, ‘why?’ I said, ‘because I think that stuff is cool.’ And they said, ‘okay, welcome to the Space Committee. Would you like to meet any astronauts?’ And I said, ‘yes, I would.’ 

So since then, I’ve gotten to meet the Artemis II crew. That’s going to be blasting off next year. They’re going to go around the moon in preparation for the moon landing that will occur, I think 2026 is when it’s currently scheduled. 

That part of the job, and the fact I’ve got to mention is, if you want Congress to be the world’s best university, it is. I can get almost anyone in the country on the phone. If all I want to do is learn something, that’s such a perk, and the people I serve with who really make me nervous are the ones who show up and say, ‘nah, I got this. I know what I need to know.’ No you don’t. You need to be constantly asking people all the time because anyone will stop what they are doing and give a member of Congress information.

I say, ‘hey, I just need to know what you know.’ Anyone will stop and say, ‘here you go.’ 

It’s been a wonderful education.

Dream vacation destination?

Well, look, I’m not getting dad of the year this year and I know that between Congress and the campaign and National Guard, I just have been away from home too much. So I’m pretty sure there’s a Disney trip in our future, like mid-November, and I’m going to try and make up for everything in the last two months of this year.

Is Disney with my kids my dream vacation? Probably not, but we’re going to put the dream vacation off a little bit and just try and be there for the kids as soon as I have a chance to do that.

And are you driving a used Ford Fusion for this campaign?

I’m driving my used Ford Fusion for this campaign. Gets great gas mileage. It’s a great car. It’s very practical.

My first car was a used Ford Fusion.

Yeah, I think I got it for, like, $15,000 or something. So good ood price. I’m almost done paying it off.

Author

  • Dylan Rhoney

    Dylan Rhoney is an App State grad from Morganton who is passionate about travel, politics, history, and all things North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh.

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