January 08, 2013 News & Features » Cover Story


Can Anyone Stop Ken Cuccinelli? 

Here's how Virginia's radical, pro-life, pro-gun attorney general will take over the Executive Mansion.

  • illustration by Ed Harrington

It is a wintry afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. Strutting against a cobalt-blue sky, a fife and drum corps dressed in resplendent red and blue colonial garb plays martial airs in front of the steps of Virginia's stately Capitol. The governor is about to take his oath of office administered by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia:

I, Kenneth Thomas Cuccinelli II, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and I will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties incumbent upon me as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia to the best of my ability. So help me God.

It's a surreal, if not bizarre, moment. Cuccinelli, a hard-right-wing maverick, has managed to get to this position in a once-solidly conservative state where gradual changes are making it more centrist, if not progressive.

click to enlarge At his swearing-in ceremony, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli begins his hard-right odyssey meeting and greeting supporters at the state Capitol. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At his swearing-in ceremony, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli begins his hard-right odyssey meeting and greeting supporters at the state Capitol.

Didn't Virginians vote twice for Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, and choose Democrats for two of their last four governors? Didn't voters blunt the radical tea party movement that reared its rattlesnake head three years before? Aren't huge demographic shifts led by an influx of more diverse newcomers resetting Virginia's politics from red to purple to blue?

During these inauguration festivities, social conservatives and libertarians may be cheering, but others find it absolutely apocalyptic. Gay rights activists, artists and social workers are stunned at the ascension of the former attorney general, who won fame for bashing homosexuals in state government and staging a long and expensive witch hunt against a college professor who maintains, like most climatologists around the world, that humans are responsible for global warming.

 For women's rights activists, the scene is especially bitter. On these very steps nearly two years before, 30 of them and their supporters were manhandled and arrested by flak-jacketed state troopers and Capitol Police officers for protesting a bill that women must submit to mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasound exams prior to undergoing legal abortions.

Cuccinelli, a staunch pro-lifer, didn't publicly support the transvaginal bill, but became a central figure in the dustup over a new state law requiring abortion clinics be regulated as "hospitals." Pro-choice advocates say the law is a disguised attempt to shut down the clinics with cumbersome regulations.

Also scratching their heads are the state's Main Street Republicans, led by outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, whose carefully crafted succession plans were laid to waste by Cuccinelli's brash independence and clever moves. Watching intensely on the sidelines are national news media, which see Cuccinelli's campaign as a litmus test of how conservatives can come back after their drubbing in 2012 elections.

How did Cuccinelli get here?


click to enlarge Ken Cuccinelli, holding a "don't tread on me" flag on inauguration night, was "tea party before the tea party was tea party," says longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ken Cuccinelli, holding a "don't tread on me" flag on inauguration night, was "tea party before the tea party was tea party," says longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth.

The simple, but wrong answer is that Cuccinelli merely tacked left of the center after Virginia painted itself blue and went for Obama in 2012. To be sure, the 45-year-old took some turns, such as siding with environmentalists against powerful state utilities for getting renewable energy ratepayer charges for dams they built nearly 100 years ago.

But this view diminishes Cuccinelli's talent as a political tactician. "Cuccinelli is not going to move to the center on anything," political analyst Bob Holsworth says. "He's just outside the corporatist structure."

Indeed, Cuccinelli, who declined to be interviewed through a spokesman for this story, seems impervious to traditional Old Dominion politics. He has his own social code, of sorts, and his own stridently outsider's view, which, reviewing his history, is hardly a surprise. With Cuccinelli, what you see is what you get. Just about every move he makes can be traced back to a similar one he made years before.

Not everyone has noticed. Cuccinelli is continually dismissed in political circles. "Democrats are underestimating his potential vote-getting appeal," says Paul Goldman, longtime Democratic strategist and former state Democratic chairman. "Look at Ronald Reagan — no one thought he would win because he was too conservative."

Cuccinelli already has shown his mastery of tactics. One of the reasons he was able to finesse his candidacy within the Republican Party was a palace coup he helped stage in June. The central committee of the Republican Party, taken over by a band of arch-conservatives, voted 47-31 to nominate the party's gubernatorial candidate in 2013 in a closed convention rather than the open primary that was agreed upon in 2011.

 It was a big win for Cuccinelli, and it set him up for the gubernatorial candidacy, because selection by closed convention is open to less meddling by outsiders. Primaries tend to be big-money deals with lots of political advertising, some of which is paid for by taxpayers. Primaries also are open to all voters, regardless of party. Shifting from primary to a convention in 2013 was a major loss for the Republican establishment, including McDonnell and U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, who's played an enormous role in the fiscal cliff debates.

Going with a convention was the death knell for two-term Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, first elected to the post in 2005, when Democrat Tim Kaine won the Governor's Mansion. Bolling, a mainstream Republican, agreed to step aside and not challenge McDonnell when McDonnell ran for governor in 2009, with the somewhat presumptuous understanding that his turn would come in 2013.

click to enlarge The attorney general helps cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Colonial Shooting Academy in the West End in April. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The attorney general helps cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Colonial Shooting Academy in the West End in April.

For a while, all looked well for the McDonnell camp. He had an approval rating of better than 60 percent, televised well, and was able to recast himself from his social conservative views on gays and women from the 1990s to something more acceptably moderate. The grand plan was for McDonnell to be selected as Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate in 2012. Bolling, a get-along, go-along guy from Hanover County, would smoothly step right in and serve the remainder of McDonnell's term, and assume the power of incumbency in the 2013 election.

It didn't turn out that way. Romney didn't pick McDonnell, in part because of ugly national fallout over the trans-vaginal abortion exam requirement that brought the state derision during the 2012 General Assembly. Romney's campaign proved a disaster and Obama easily beat him, shoving national and state Republican parties, including the Old Dominion's, into a swamp of soul searching.

With Cuccinelli seemingly firmly entrenched as the GOP's gubernatorial nominee, Bolling quit the race. He melodramatically dissed Cuccinelli on Newsradio 1140 WRVA, stating: "I question his electability in a statewide campaign for governor."

For their part, the state's Democrats are equally disorganized. To oppose Cuccinelli, the best they've come up with is Terry McAuliffe, a Washington insider, environmental investor, schmoozer and former head of the Democratic National Committee. Well-regarded U.S. Sen. Mark Warner chose not to run again for governor, a job he held from 2002 to 2006, clearing the path for the charismatic Cuccinelli.


click to enlarge In March 2010,  Cuccinelli issued a legal opinion invalidating hiring policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation at state universities. Students at Virginia Commonwealth University protested the decision. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • In March 2010, Cuccinelli issued a legal opinion invalidating hiring policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation at state universities. Students at Virginia Commonwealth University protested the decision.

Most of the recent events are presaged in Cuccinelli's playbook, which fits his unyielding anti-government philosophy, except where it interferes with his views on sex, gays and marriage. As a state senator from 2002 to 2010, for example, he backed strict conservatives and opposed allowing voters to participate in political primaries regardless of their party affiliation. Doing so would allow more moderates to participate and dilute conservative power.

He's been true to form on any number of other issues, such as his hands-off policy on guns, arming school personnel after the Sandy Hook massacre, forbidding children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States to automatically become citizens, keeping state funding for sex education focused on "abstinence only," and being the first attorney general in all 50 states to legally challenge Obamacare.

 He's pushed for state Medicaid fraud investigators to carry firearms in their jobs that aren't exactly fraught with danger. Declaring "homosexuality is wrong," he's fought gay marriage and refused to support resolutions stating that gays shouldn't be discriminated against in state jobs, including those at public universities.

The same suspicion of government carries through on other issues, but with a twist. Cuccinelli fought vigorously to free convict Thomas Haynesworth after DNA testing found that Haynesworth was innocent of the rapes for which he'd served 27 years in prison. Cuccinelli later helped Haynesworth find a job. Other revealing and countervailing acts include declaring that high-school students shouldn't be required to pay $75 to take Advanced Placement tests, and a crackdown on payday lenders.

Cuccinelli is sensitive to the plight of the mentally ill. While he appeals to the anti-government conservative base, he's also pressed to restrict the mentally ill from legally obtaining guns, and has called for more communication between doctors and the courts in mental health cases. After Sandy Hook, he called for more mental-health funding.

He also handed $100,000 from his surplus inauguration donations to the Daily Planet, a downtown Richmond medical clinic that offers free health care to the homeless.

"Inauguration events," Cuccinelli said when he made the donation, "are certainly a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power in a democracy, but they can also stand as a time to bring to light the needs of some of society's most vulnerable, underserved citizens."


click to enlarge Cuccinelli addresses Mitt Romney supporters during a campaign stop at Meadow Event Park in Doswell the week before the presidential election. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Cuccinelli addresses Mitt Romney supporters during a campaign stop at Meadow Event Park in Doswell the week before the presidential election.

So what drives Cuccinelli's worldview? His background offers clues. Born in New Jersey, he moved to Northern Virginia when he was 2 after his father, a chemical engineer, changed jobs. According to a lengthy 2010 profile in The Washington Post Magazine, Cuccinelli dominated his two younger brothers in a bossy, perfectionist way.

Devout Roman Catholics of Italian and Irish descent, his middle-income parents found the money to send Cuccinelli to Gonzaga College High School, an expensive private school on North Capitol Street in Washington. Gonzaga is run by the Jesuits, a Catholic order known for strict academic discipline and strong belief in social justice.

 It rubbed off. As a mechanical engineering major at the University of Virginia, Cuccinelli shunned his preppie Wahoo demeanor to help run a group supporting female students against sexual assault by male students crazed by booze and machismo.

After law school at George Mason University, practicing business law and a stint as a state senator, he and his wife, Tiero, moved to a 10-acre property in Prince William County, from which he has commuted to his job in Richmond as the state's top lawyer. Their seven children are and have been home-schooled into the seventh grade. Tiero told the Post: "His priorities are God, me, the children and everything else."

Cuccinelli was once an intern for L. Douglas Wilder, the country's first black elected governor who shares remarkably similar ideas on government spending. Like Rep. Eric Cantor, a rival conservative with whom he doesn't get along, Cuccinelli shares a fondness for rap music. He also likes paintball and holds an annual private camouflage-and-splatter competition among friends in Loudoun County to raise political funds. 


Mix together Cuccinelli's extreme social views with his in-your-face provocations against the state's traditional political and business establishment and you have a political race that the national media is dying to cover.

In a piece headlined "Virginia embodies GOP's woes," Politico recently noted the irony that Cuccinelli is such a powerhouse in an off-year election just after the GOP got an electoral drubbing, which many people blame on the party's social agenda: "What gnaws at Virginia campaign veterans is the degree to which Cuccinelli is already defined as a polarizing culture warrior at a moment when Republicans seem to be clamoring for kinder and gentler candidates."

"Cuccinelli will be a test of the internal Republican argument of how they can win," analyst Holsworth says. "They can say we need to moderate our message or our message is already moderated the right way."

While Holsworth insists that Cuccinelli won't budge on his core views, there's some evidence of him shifting away from issues such as immigration, which now is a political nonstarter, to issues that may have broader appeal.

In late November, for example, Cuccinelli issued a scathing report on a voluntary state environmental program called the "Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)," which allows utilities Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Co. to charge customers extra for supposedly using renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, solar or wind.

But the utilities aren't developing much in the way of new and alternative energy sources, Cuccinelli's report says. Instead, they're using out-of-state dams, some 80 years old, to get the credits amounting to $15 million during the past two years for Appalachian Power and possibly $76 million for Dominion for that period.

The report got attention, especially because it came from an attorney general notorious for his attacks on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the climate-change lobby. Green groups have given their quick, if skeptical, approval.

 Dawone Robinson, Virginia policy coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, praises the report but notes that the law setting up the standards remains unchanged. "The timing of Ken Cuccinelli's report is very interesting," Robinson says. "He did a five-year-review and he didn't have to. He did it, coincidentally, just as he's running for governor."

Pundits already expect money to flow during the 2013 gubernatorial race in Virginia, which has no limits on spending. The race "figures to be one of the most expensive in state history," wrote The Washington Times. Indeed, records from the Virginia Public Access Project show that campaign contributions to "Cuccinelli for Governor" already are coming in.

Locally, some of the biggest contributors are Richmond specialty chemical mavens Floyd D. and Bruce C. Gottwald, who contribute regularly to conservative causes, Smithfield Foods and Richmond law firms McGuire Woods and Williams Mullen.

One out-of-state name stands out: Koch Industries Inc. The Wichita, Kan.-based company is the second-largest privately held entity in the country, run by Charles and David Koch, staunchly conservative billionaires who have bankrolled the libertarian think tank Cato Institute. Other out-of-state funds for Cuccinelli are coming from Texas, Wyoming and North Carolina.

click to enlarge Calmer days at the state Capitol, during Cuccinelli's swearing-in as attorney general. The arrests of 30 women's rights protestors on the same Capitol steps two years later potentially could derail his gubernatorial bid. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Calmer days at the state Capitol, during Cuccinelli's swearing-in as attorney general. The arrests of 30 women's rights protestors on the same Capitol steps two years later potentially could derail his gubernatorial bid.

Despite such powerful backing, Cuccinelli's campaign appears to have had its teething pains. Politico reported that the attorney general seemed to ramble at a recent Alexandria fundraiser. He also kept on using the word "illegals" when asked about immigration policy, a complex issue involving documented as well as undocumented foreign nationals.

He has fierce opposition in some corners, including the women's rights activists who emerged after last year's General Assembly session. The grass-roots, pro-choice activists — including those behind "Cooch Watch," a blog that chronicles the attorney general's comings and goings — have become adept at reframing Cuccinelli's pro-life advocacy as an attack on women.

Still, Cuccinelli seems in an exceptionally strong position given his colorful nature and a so-far lackluster competition. The Democrats seem ready to run McAuliffe, who lost his last primary bid, in 2008, to state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County. The Democrats seem listless after former governor and current U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said he wouldn't run for governor, preferring Capitol Hill. Some trial balloons to see if outgoing U.S. Sen. Jim Webb was interested went nowhere.

Shunted Republican Bolling, however, could become a dark horse candidate. Bolling is making the rounds of newspaper offices and businesses gauging interest for a possible run as an independent. In a new turn, he's distancing himself from the McDonnell group by coming out against uranium mining in Pittsylvania County and opposing arming school teachers and administrators after the Sandy Hook massacre.

Considered a long shot by most, Bolling might be able to steal away moderate voters who may be on the fence about a recast Cuccinelli. But Goldman warns that "the idea that Bolling is a moderate is something the media has put on him. As a senator, his voting record was more conservative than Cuccinelli's."

Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who has worked with Cuccinelli, says the attorney general will be "continuing some of the things that McDonnell has done," such as privatizing more road construction.

For now, Cuccinelli has an obvious advantage as the ultimate contrarian candidate. His association with the now-diminished tea party movement shouldn't be a factor. As Holsworth says, "He was tea party before the tea party was tea party." If Cuccinelli plays his iconoclastic advantage as skillfully as he has outmaneuvered McDonnell and the rest of the Republican establishment so far, his inauguration a year from now very well could become a reality. S

Corrections: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly reported that the attorney general supported the transvaginal ultrasound bill during the 2012 General Assembly session. He didn't publicly support it. In addition, we misidentified his wife, Tiero. Also, he announced his intention to run for governor in December 2011. We regret the errors.



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