Quick: Name Virginia's attorney general. That was easy, right? Now name any of Virginia's previous attorneys general. Unless you're a Virginia politics buff or reading this with Wikipedia open in another window, you probably blanked out. And that's because Ken Cuccinelli is a unique creature in politics: the rock star (or would-be rock star) attorney general.
Nearly three years after his election, Cuccinelli's time in office has been marked not by any particular aptitude at his job, but rather by his obsession with media coverage and his belief that the best way to do that is to pursue red-meat conservative pet issues, even when (or especially when) they have nothing to do with his job.
In autumn of last year, Gov. Bob McDonnell pushed a wave of new regulations for clinics that provide abortions in Virginia, which would require them to conform to the same physical dimensions as hospitals, with the backing of the conservative Christian Virginia Family Foundation.
Earlier this year, the Virginia Board of Health, while establishing the new guidelines, grandfathered existing clinics, allowing them to remain open. This was widely hailed as a victory by pro-choice advocates. But this month, Cuccinelli has announced his refusal to certify the less burdensome regulations, and wants to force all the clinics in the state to comply or close. According to Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein, "The role of our office is to provide our client with advice that we feel will ensure the regulations created are in compliance with the law the General Assembly passed, as well as with any other applicable laws."
This comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, the result of a lengthy, expensive lawsuit supported by Cuccinelli, making him a breakout political star. In fact, pretty much everything Cuccinelli has made headlines for — his jihad against climate scientists at the University of Virginia, his attempt to reverse bans on anti-gay discrimination at Virginia universities, even his now-infamous censorship of the breast on Virginia's state seal — seems less about enforcing the laws of the Commonwealth and more about activism on topics near and dear to the heart of the hard-right base of the GOP.
This is why he's skyrocketed to the top of Style Weekly's 2012 Power List (see page 16). Cuccinelli has become the uncontrollable force in the GOP, and he's the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination for governor in 2013.
This isn't to say Cuccinelli's the only party to blame in all this. McDonnell, who's made no secret of the hard-right religious groups influencing his office, was responsible for the initial regulations, and just this month appointed John Seeds, who described abortion as "turning away from God and His love," to an open seat on the state Board of Health. But it seems a little too convenient that Cuccinelli has catapulted himself back into the news cycle after the Supreme Court decision, which, had it gone differently, would have been a huge boost for him.
Of course, every time Cuccinelli does something like this, he receives push back in some form or another. After his letter instructing state universities to end policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, mass demonstrations erupted at colleges across Virginia. Meanwhile, his latest stand in the schoolhouse door has inspired the creation of CoochWatch, an organization that's vowed to protest Cuccinelli's public appearances. The group started off with a bang when it picketed his speech to a tea party group at Freeman High School on July 17.
"Look at the stuff he's appeared in the national news for," CoochWatch founder Stephanie Arnold says. "Covering up an illustrated nipple on our state seal? You've got to be kidding me if you think that is a valuable or effective use of time for an attorney general. Truthfully, I think that this man cannot help himself."
But at the end of the day, it probably doesn't really matter to Cuccinelli if his actions draw public protests, or if the Supreme Court smacks him down, or even if what he's doing isn't actually within his purview as attorney general. Because Cuccinelli's activism isn't necessarily about success or failure; it's about letting the true believers know that one of their own is in the attorney general's office, and, moreover, that he thinks he was elected to that office to harass climate scientists, encourage discrimination against gay people and keep women from having legal medical procedures.
And who knows? That might make them so happy that they decide to elect such a person governor. It's too early to know whether he'll succeed or fail in that regard, but something tells me that as long as Cuccinelli gets plenty of attention and television appearances, he'll put it in the victory column. S
Zack Budryk is a freelance writer living in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.