Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan’s formal announcement on Tuesday that he is running for the Democratic nomination for governor was expected, but still felt like a surprise.
Morgan, who served on the bench for 34 years in four different judgeships, has a judicial manner – a good listener who avoided partisanship. Now he’s decided at 67 to take on heavily favored state Attorney General Josh Stein in a Democratic primary. It’s a sharp departure from his long tenure as one who sought to be above politics.
Given Stein’s head start in time and money – he announced his candidacy in January and his campaign has more than $8.2 million in cash on hand – Morgan is unlikely to be the Democratic nominee. Still, his entry will be good for the Democratic Party and for Stein.
It’s said that the initials for “attorney general” also stand for aspiring governor. That’s certainly been the case in North Carolina. Two of the last four governors became the state’s chief executive after serving as attorney general. And Stein, a former state senator who won the attorney general’s post in 2016, has long been considered the heir apparent to Gov. Roy Cooper, who will complete his term-limited two terms in 2024.
Stein will be sharpened by sparring with Morgan, an African-American who is running on a populist message of giving North Carolinians a greater voice in who governs and what issues get attention. That message starts with a challenge to Democratic Party leaders – including Cooper – rallying around Stein as the party’s nominee.
Morgan said in his announcement, “I am disappointed by the growing trend — even in my own political party — of a few folks in power trying to select the people’s leaders and determining our destinies. I am committed to challenging the status quo that allows a few at the top to choose the winners and losers among us.”
Certainly, the Democratic Party could use such a challenge. The party has been unable to regain control of the General Assembly since losing it in 2010. Its nominees have been routed in statewide judicial races. Its last nominee to win a U.S. Senate race was the late Kay Hagan in 2008, who lost her reelection bid in 2014.
Stein is in danger of adding to that record of Democratic futility. He has been a hardworking and capable attorney general, but also politically tentative. He is a progressive politician who is shy about appearing too progressive.
That approach is aimed at wooing moderate voters, but it also diminishes enthusiasm for him among the Democratic base. Meanwhile, even moderates who agree with Stein’s carefully measured positions, may find him more calculating than sincere.
Morgan touched on that enthusiasm deficit in an interview with the News & Observer. He said voters “will understand that there has to be a message that resonates with the voters, and that it has to be a candidate who represents their interests.”
Morgan’s message will resonate with Democrats. He’s strong on gun control, wants more spending on public schools, lower costs for health care and changes that will help people reenter society after serving time in jail or prison.
Stein’s backers are eager to have him run against the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. They think Stein’s experience and sensible manner will play well against Robinson, a right-wing firebrand serving his first term in elected office.
But Robinson is steamrolling toward the GOP nomination for a reason. He excites the Republican base. He is often uninformed and can appear mean-spirited, but he’s also clear and unapologetic.
Morgan’s challenge will pressure Stein to appeal more directly to the Democrat base. That will clarify not only where Stein stands, but also sharpen the contrast if it comes down to Stein against Robinson.
Running as not Mark-Robinson was Stein’s plan. Now, with a prominent Democrat competing against him for his party’s nomination, Stein will have to first show Democrats who he is.
Morgan is unlikely to win the race for governor, but because he’s decided to try, his party might.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett @newsobserver.com