On Monday, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) was touting a victory against the Environmental Protection Agency that he fought on behalf of Fairfax County over storm-water regulation of a local creek.
In deciding to remain attorney general while running for governor, Cuccinelli broke with a tradition started in 1957 and ended a streak dating to 1985. Since then, six straight Virginia attorneys general have resigned to run for the state’s top job.
Cuccinelli’s contrast with previous attorneys general and attention to pulling double duty underscores not only his thinking but also foreshadows an intense governor’s race ramping up eight months before the election.
His balancing act already has drawn fire from Democrats, who say Cuccinelli is a part-time attorney general using state time and resources to subsidize his book tour.
“Virginia taxpayers pay Ken Cuccinelli to be a full-time Attorney General,” Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Brian Coy said in a statement. “If Ken Cuccinelli is going to insist on being a part-time Attorney General while he chases the national Tea Party limelight, he should give Virginians a full accounting of how he reimburses them for the salary and other expenses that he racks up while he is jetting around promoting his own extreme book.”
Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix dismissed claims that he is neglecting the duties of his office.
“Cuccinelli pledged to serve his full term as attorney general and he is fulfilling that promise by continuing to win battles against the EPA, stopping out-of-state companies from preying on vulnerable Virginians, and keeping our children safe from sexual predators,” Nix said in a statement.
When he announced his bid in December 2011 to seek the Republican nomination for governor, Cuccinelli vowed that he would not resign as attorney general, saying in a staff e-mail: “Just as I had intended not to resign as attorney general to run for a second term, I will not resign as attorney general to run for governor. The people of Virginia trusted me to be their attorney general, and I intend to give them their full four years.”
Cuccinelli remains the lone GOP candidate in the race and will likely be the party’s nominee for governor. He is expected to face Democrat Terry McAuliffe, also his party’s only candidate, in November.
Much of Cuccinelli’s rise as a high-profile Republican is due to his work as attorney general: challenging climate change, suing the federal government over its new health-care law and pushing for stricter rules on abortion clinics. His conservative credentials earned him an invitation as the opening speaker at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference next week.
Cuccinelli recounts his fights with the government in “The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty,” published last month.
His office also has announced victories in recent weeks, including settlements with a mortgage company and a pharmaceutical company; touted efforts to promote legislation fighting human trafficking during the General Assembly; and promoted his involvement with the governor’s School Safety Task Force, which will address gun violence in the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
He is hardly the first Virginia politician to juggle politics and governing. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell served as chairman of the Republican Governors Association last year and campaigned nationwide. And in his successful bid for U.S. Senate last year, Timothy M. Kaine was criticized as a “part-time governor” because he headed the Democratic National Committee in 2008.
But Cuccinelli’s decision to buck the trend among attorneys general in the state is potentially politically problematic, said political observer Bob Holsworth.
“He’s clearly breaking a tradition, and in that way, he’s going to be attacked politically,” Holsworth said.
However, the practice of attorneys general stepping aside in Virginia is “an obsolete and outdated tradition,” Holsworth said. “People run for governor while being attorney general without resigning in most other states. People run for president while being governor.”
“The opponents are essentially picking at issues that would prevent almost any political figure from holding their position while running for higher office,” he said. “Any of them could be seen as having a potential conflict. That’s for the public to judge.”
McDonnell, who resigned as attorney general in February 2009 to focus on his campaign for governor, is backing Cuccinelli in this year’s contest. The governor has said that while he thought it best to step aside, if Cuccinelli thinks he can balance both duties, “more power to him.”
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the governor believes Cuccinelli is “perfectly capable of serving as attorney general and running for governor simultaneously.”
On Tuesday, McAuliffe’s campaign took aim at Cuccinelli in a statement.
“Virginians are paying for Ken Cuccinelli to campaign and sell books and, as Governor McDonnell said [during his gubernatorial campaign], the taxpayers of Virginia deserve to have an attorney general who is not campaigning for office while on the job,” said spokesman Josh Schwerin.