The first Virginia debate: McAuliffe versus Cuccinelli
On Saturday, our colleague Errin Whack looked at some of the competing claims in the first Virginia gubernatorial debate between businessman Terry McAuliffe (D) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R). Here is our take on two of the candidates’ more dubious claims; we may examine others in the future.
“If you read the report, which I have done, it says the attorney general should have been prosecuted, but Virginia laws are insufficient.”
McAuliffe was roundly criticized for this remark, which earned him an instant “Pants on Fire” from PolitiFact Virginia. For example, here’s how The Washington Post headlined its article on the report by a state prosecutor: “Ken Cuccinelli didn’t break law by not disclosing Star Scientific stock, prosecutor says.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch called the report “a significant political boost for Cuccinelli.”
At issue are substantial stock holdings in Star Scientific and gifts from the company’s chief executive that Cuccinelli omitted on his state disclosure forms.
But there’s nothing in the report that suggests Cuccinelli should be prosecuted, though the report suggested Cuccinelli had an appearance problem: “Although one cannot help but question whether repeated omissions of gifts from [Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.] are coincidence or a pattern reflecting intent to conceal, the disclosure of several other gifts and benefits from Williams in his original statements suggests that the Attorney General was not attempting to conceal the relationship.”
How did McAuliffe get this so wrong?
His staff points to the fact that, when releasing the report, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring said that state laws needed to be “beefier” and that increasing the penalty for violations of the law from a misdemeanor to a felony would offer “a lot more of a disincentive to strategically forget or amend than misdemeanors.”
McAuliffe also clarified his statement in remarks to reporters after the debate: “The way I interpreted the reading of it, he could have been prosecuted if we had tougher disclosure laws in Virginia, which is why I’m arguing for tougher disclosure laws.”
In other words, the Democratic nominee assumed that if the law had made Cuccinelli’s actions a felony, he would have been prosecuted. That sounds like logic out of Alice in Wonderland: He could have prosecuted Cuccinelli for having a last name that ends in “I” if that were illegal. Note also that Herring said increasing the penalties would make it more likely that people would pay closer attention to the law.
Moreover, McAuliffe flatly asserted that the report said Cuccinelli should have been prosecuted — and that’s certainly wrong.
MODERATOR JUDY WOODRUFF: “And on contraception, would you again seek to make several forms, common forms, of contraception illegal, as you did several years ago?”
CUCCINELLI: “Well, I certainly didn’t do that several years ago. My focus in this race is on growing jobs for the middle class, and supporting them and not the well-connected. There are people, like me, who sincerely hold beliefs about protecting life, and I certainly bring those with me into the governor’s race.”
— exchange during the debate
This is one of those times when context is important. Woodruff asserted that Cuccinelli sought to make contraception illegal, which he denied. But did he ever back a bill that, as a further consequence, might have made forms of contraception illegal? Let’s take a look.
In 2007, when he was a member of the Virginia Senate, Cuccinelli was co-sponsor of House Bill 2797, which would have added this line to the Virginia constitution: “That life begins at the moment of fertilization and the right to enjoyment of life guaranteed by Article 1, § 1 of the Constitution of Virginia is vested in each born and preborn human being from the moment of fertilization.”
The main sponsor of this bill was Robert G. Marshall, a member of the House of Delegates from Prince William County, and in 2012, the House of Delegates approved a version of it. This bill stated that “unborn children at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of the Commonwealth.”
At the time the House of Delegate took this action, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists denounced such “personhood” laws, warning that they could “deny women access to the full spectrum of preventive health care including contraception.” In talking points that accompanied the announcement, ACOG said that “some of the most effective and reliable forms of contraception — oral contraceptives, intrauterine devices, and other forms of FDA-approved contraceptives — could be banned in states that adopt ‘personhood’ measures.”
Indeed, Del. Vivian E. Watts, a Fairfax Democrat, successfully amended the bill to say, “Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful contraception.” (The measure has stalled in the Virginia Senate.) [Update: A Pinocchio to the Fact Checker for misreading the legislative history--Watts’s amendment failed.]
In any case, the 2007 proposal Cuccinelli co-sponsored appears to be even more conservative than the 2012 one, as it defines life as beginning at “fertilization.” There are various ways to interpret the impact on birth control, but some methods might be affected because there are birth control methods that prevent a fertilized egg from implantation in the wall of the uterus.
We were told we would receive a response from the Cuccinelli campaign, but never got one.
Cuccinelli’s answer was too cute by half, perhaps an effort to soften some of his conservatism. While he might not have specifically sought to ban contraception, that likely would have been the practical effect of the bill he co-sponsored.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker