Ken Cuccinelli in Sunday's Virginian-Pilot newspaper out of Hampton Roads...
By Julian Walker
October 24, 2010
Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore was delivering a luncheon address to a group of like-minded New Jersey voters in August when something unexpected happened. Moore asked audience members to name their preferred presidential candidate in 2012. Several offered Ken Cuccinelli's name.
"I was surprised, not because I don't think a lot of Ken," he said. "I was surprised people knew Ken."
The fact that Garden State voters know Cuccinelli well enough to mention him in presidential speculation illustrates the rapid ascent of Virginia's hard-charging attorney general.
In less than a decade, he's gone from an insurgent Republican candidate for state Senate to winning statewide office in a landslide.
And in a bit of fortuitous timing, Cuccinelli, 42, now finds his limited-government, anti-tax message resonating with swaths of an electorate anxious about the fate of the nation and their own livelihoods amid an unstable economy.
It helps that his rhetoric manifests itself in activism - he's sued to challenge the federal health care overhaul and to investigate a climate-change scientist, and he's issued legal opinions targeting immigration, abortion and gay rights.
He promised during last year's campaign to "fight with Washington," and he's delivering. To Hampton Roads Tea Party founder Karen Miner Hurd, Cuccinelli is refreshing precisely because he isn't a typical politician and his brand of no-nonsense pragmatism doesn't neatly "fit into the paradigm of conservatives."
Hurd first met Cuccinelli at a political event when he was running for attorney general and was impressed by his "genuine" demeanor and his fondness for the tea party movement.
Apparently, the feeling is mutual.
Cuccinelli was the darling of the recent statewide tea party convention, drawing a sustained standing ovation.
It's that likability, coupled with his policy ideas, that makes opponents on the left so leery of Cuccinelli.
Although foes have derisively questioned Cuccinelli's sanity, dubbing him "Kookinelli," Democratic blogger Vivian Paige is convinced that dismissing him is folly.
"The man is smart, no doubt about it," she said, praising his razor-sharp recall of a meeting between the two, and his disarming public comportment.
"That's what makes him so dangerous," Paige added. "People think he's crazy, but he's not."
A New Jersey native raised Roman Catholic, Cuccinelli has called Northern Virginia home since he was a child.
He still lives there with his wife, Teiro, and seven children. After the 2009 election, the family moved from Fairfax County to Prince William County rather than Richmond, where his job is based, so their eldest daughter wouldn't have to leave her Catholic school. His younger children are home-schooled.
An engineering graduate and lawyer specializing in business and intellectual property, he launched his political career in Fairfax in 2002 with a state Senate primary challenge against Mike Thompson.
His conservative principles helped sway former state Del. Dick Black to support him.
"He seemed to be a person whose life was in order," Black said, recalling one of his first meetings with Cuccinelli. Black added that he also was moved by Cuccinelli's "very strong" moral and ethical values, including his opposition to abortion and to a tax referendum on the ballot at the time.
With the aid of Black's political operation and others in the pro-life, pro-gun, home school movement, Cuccinelli won.
Coalition-building has long been a Cuccinelli strength, according to his former legislative aide, Eve Marie Barner Gleason, because he will "never overlook a voting bloc."
An example of that came last year when Cuccinelli attended a forum hosted by the NAACP in Richmond and spoke to an audience not filled with GOP sympathizers. He won points with the crowd when the moderator told them he was the first candidate to accept an invitation to the forum, an event his Democratic opponent didn't attend.
"What Ken has always done that's been very effective in all his races is, when he can't put together 50 percent of the vote for him, he's very good about putting together a coalition of 50 percent against his opponents," observed blogger Ben Tribbett, a frequent critic of Cuccinelli.
That strategy has kept him in office and helped him survive a tight 2007 re-election campaign for state Senate that he won by about 100 votes. And it's what has his supporters believing Cuccinelli is destined for higher office.
"Ken Cuccinelli... is on the front lines, and people know if this guy is in the White House, he'd be undoing the Obama agenda so fast, people's head would spin," gushed Rick Shaftan, a political consultant who has worked on past Cuccinelli races.
A conundrum with Cuccinelli is how to evaluate a man who seems so comfortable bucking the establishment. Is he pursuing his culture war clashes out of principle or in quest of personal gain? And what effect is he having on Virginia?
At a minimum, he brings increased attention to the state, though opinions differ on whether it's positive.
Though a spokesman, Cuccinelli declined to be interviewed, but he did respond to e-mailed questions.
He noted that he'd been upfront with voters about his intention to oppose certain federal initiatives such as health care.
"Unfortunately," he wrote, "we have a federal government that is giving us more opportunities than I would appreciate having."
His response to questions about his actions has been consistent: He cites a duty "to defend the law and the U.S. and Virginia constitutions."
That philosophy is never more evident than when he discusses the health care lawsuit.
It is "the most important thing I will do as attorney general," he said, characterizing it as a fight for personal liberty against an overreaching government trying to force people to buy health insurance.
That case has helped endear Cuccinelli to people attracted to the tea party message of scaling back government.
In him they see a champion unafraid to articulate their views from a bully pulpit and rail against a Democratic president and Congress they believe have spent recklessly on bailouts and stimulus packages without fixing the economy.
Less charmed is Steve Shannon, the attorney and former state delegate Cuccinelli trounced in last year's election. He views Cuccinelli as a calculating politician who invokes the law to obscure his unorthodox views.
As proof, he points to Cuccinelli's decision not to support a lawsuit brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq against an anti-gay pastor who organizes pickets of military funerals.
Shannon argues that the attorney general was backing up a "raging homophobe," not protecting free-speech rights as he claimed, and points to Cuccinelli's statement last year that homosexual acts are "intrinsically wrong."
Staying out of the lawsuit placed Cuccinelli in the minority among state attorneys general - 48 others backed it. (The other who didn't support the suit was Maine Democrat Janet Mills.) And it drew outrage from some conservatives who wanted Cuccinelli to defend fallen military members.
Through a spokesman, Cuccinelli called the protests "absolutely vile and despicable." But he said Virginia already has a law that balances free speech rights while stopping the disruption of funerals.
That's vintage Cuccinelli. He holds firm to his belief in a strict reading of the law - in that case, the First Amendment - regardless of scorn or dissent.
Another issue that's drawn strong reaction is a fraud investigation targeting the research of a climate change scientist formerly at the University of Virginia.
Though Cuccinelli, who is a skeptic on global warming, may have enhanced his stature with conservatives in the process, one critic worries his actions could hurt the state.
Going after the university for research records hurts Virginia's ability to recruit great scientists, said Terry McAuliffe, a onetime and perhaps future Democratic candidate for governor.
"People in the scientific community are aware of what's going on here," he added. "You just don't go out and sue scientists.... That doesn't do anything to create jobs."
Cuccinelli rejects the "maverick" label, but it's clear his agenda isn't always in lockstep with Gov. Bob McDonnell or the governor's heir apparent, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, both fellow Republicans.
That was evident weeks after taking office, when Cuccinelli gave legal advice to colleges and universities that they lack the authority to include sexual orientation in non-discrimination policies.
Cuccinelli defends that guidance as a reminder to those schools "that their powers are limited" by the state constitution and code and "no matter how well-intentioned their efforts, they may not exceed those limits."
His position didn't differ dramatically from McDonnell's stance on the issue when he was Virginia's attorney general. But the controversy over Cuccinelli's advice mushroomed enough that the governor produced an executive directive - an edict lacking the force of law - protecting sexual orientation, to quell the controversy.
There, too, lies some of Cuccinelli's appeal: Through a combination of circumstance and choice, he has emerged as a formidable outsider, even among Republicans, in a moment of anti-establishment fervor.
McDonnell, for his part, says the two work together well and Cuccinelli's office provides good legal service to the state.
As far as the cases Cuccinelli has taken on, McDonnell said, "He's got now a Congress and an administration that has clearly governed to the left of center, and has passed new laws and enacted new policies that many of us here in Virginia have great concerns about whether they're, one, good policies, and number two, whether they are proper for the federal government to be involved in. I didn't really have that as much when I was attorney general with a Republican administration.... I think he's just doing his job to represent the interests of the state."
Already there are hints Cuccinelli has set his sights on an office beyond the one he occupies.
He publicly maintains his plan is to seek re-election in 2013, but he hasn't ruled out running for another post. There is a governor's race that same year, and U.S. Senate races loom for Democrats Jim Webb in 2012 and Mark Warner in 2014.
Political tongues wagged when Cuccinelli agreed to stump for a GOP candidate in Iowa - home to the first nominating contest in presidential election cycles.
And his use of the health care lawsuit in a fundraising appeal to supporters, as well as the recent announcement that he's assembled a network of campaign volunteers across the state, only fueled the speculation.
He is a tireless campaigner who puts in face time at GOP events, and communicates with the faithful through dispatches of his long-running Cuccinelli Compass, an e-mail newsletter he pens personally, sometimes in the wee hours.
"I'm a target, so I've got to act like one," Cuccinelli told The Washington Post. "Which just means work hard. Don't wait for the election."
"He's going places. He's either going to be president or on the Supreme Court in 10 years. One or the other," predicted Shaftan, the political consultant. "I think the left is very afraid of him, as they should be."
Julian Walker, (804) 697-1564, firstname.lastname@example.org