WINSTON-SALEM — Forsyth County district attorney Jim O’Neill was signing his youngest daughter up for kindergarten when he got recognized.
As he tried to fill out the paperwork, he could feel the volunteer at the table staring at him.
“She looks at me, then she looks at my name tag,” he recalled.
“O’Neill,” the woman said. “I know you.”
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh no! This is somebody who’s unhappy about a speeding ticket or something that’s happened. She’s going to be angry at me.’”
Recognition clicked in for the woman.
“I’ve seen you on TV,” she said. “That’s where I know you from!”
O’Neill nodded, still holding the hand of his daughter.
“You’re the lacrosse coach!” the woman exclaimed.
If O’Neill, who does indeed coach boy’s lacrosse at Reynolds High School, has his way, people will start recognizing for his day job in the very near future.
The D.A. for the Winston-Salem area since 2009, O’Neill is running for North Carolina Attorney General. He filed his paperwork last week. Thus far, he’s the only Republican candidate to do so. He has his sites set on winning the nomination in the March primary, then dethroning Josh Stein in November.
O’Neill ran in 2016, losing the Republican primary to state senator Buck Newton, who dropped a razor-thin race against Stein, losing by 24,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million cast.
“We got a late start,” O’Neill said of the unsuccessful bid. That didn’t happen this time around. O’Neill has been campaigning since he first announced his intentions in February.
There are three main areas where he’s targeting Stein. The first is on the backlog of sexual assault kits that the state has accumulated.
“I’ve been an advocate for victims for 23-plus years,” O’Neill said. “When I look at the 15,000 sexual assault kits sitting up on the shelves in Raleigh, and our current attorney general not making that a priority until three and a half years into his four-year term, it just makes me mad as fire. This is something he should have dealt with from day one. It wasn’t until I came out and made that announcement in February that all of a sudden, it became a priority for them.”
The untested kits are a symptom of a bigger problem O’Neill sees with Attorney General Stein—his lack of prosecutorial experience.
“Our current attorney general has never prosecuted a criminal case,” he said. “It’s never happened. Without that experience that I’ve had for the last 23 years, you don’t understand what it’s like to hold the hands of a victim’s family that have lost a loved one, or their child has been molested, or they’ve been a victim of rape. (The rape kits) are a clear indication that you don’t understand the importance of protecting people and standing up for victims.”
O’Neill also takes issue with Stein’s office for what he views as a lack of support for federal immigration policy.
“I’m a person that supports ICE,” he said. “ICE’s mission is pretty clear. They focus their limited resources on people who commit violent crime. They’re not taking empty buses to Walmart and rounding up people to take back to their country of origin. They’re trying to prevent violent crime from being committed in communities.”
By supporting sanctuary cities and refusing to help ICE agents, O’Neill charges, Stein’s office is putting communities in the state at a greater risk for violent crime.
Finally, O’Neill would like to use the state office to help continue his battle against the opioid crisis. He started a pilot program in 2018 called DATA—District Attorney’s Treatment Alternatives—to help non-violent drug offenders break the cycle of addiction.
“I visited the jail, and I saw that about one in three people who are in there are really just addicts. So the taxpayers are paying to house people that are addicts, and the addicts are not the people who are out committing violent crime. They commit crimes of opportunity—breaking into your car, stealing things off your front porch, breaking into your shed to steal your weed eater—which are all things that have happened to me.”
O’Neill worked with a number of agencies to treat drug offenders with Vivitrol, which blocks the high a person would receive from heroin, opiods, or even alcohol.
The early results are promising. In the first year of the program, “we’ve seen success beyond what I could have even hoped for,” he said. “The people in the program are not testing positive. They’re employed, some of them for the first time, and they’ve had zero contacts with law enforcement, again, many of them for the first time.”
O’Neill hopes to expand the program with the backing of state government. He’s also worked to help needy members of the community clear their driving record, breaking the vicious cycle of fines and suspended licenses that keep many of the neediest people from legally driving to jobs.
He also would like the state to end the years-long limbo surrounding the death penalty.
“I am a supporter of and believe in the death penalty,” he said. “We have not had a death penalty execution here since Samuel Flippen—out of Forsyth County—in 2006. What needs to be done is we either need to pursue these cases through final judgement, or we need to take the death penalty off the books. It’s one or the other. It’s unfair to victims of crime to look them in the eye and tell them we’re going to pursue it in their particular case, and not disclose to them that no one’s actually been executed in this state.”
O’Neill has plenty of big plans and ideas. If he has his way, eleven months from now, he’ll be in Raleigh, as the state’s top prosecutor.
Until then, he’ll have to be satisfied with being recognized as “that lacrosse coach.”