His parents had insisted that he leave the Fairfax County public schools and commute from McLean to the private Catholic school because, as his father put it, “Fairfax is not the real world.”
At Gonzaga, Cuccinelli would be with boys of different races and classes, guys from Anacostia on scholarship and kids from Chevy Chase who’d never known hardship.
Now, a liberal teacher with a beard so long the boys called him “ZZ Hoffman” assigned them readings by Karl Marx and asked them to imagine how society might be different if the world were constructed of, say, Nerf.
Suddenly, ideas could be as exciting as football. The boy who would become a state senator and Virginia’s attorney general embraced his church’s strict rules about right and wrong, and also absorbed a responsibility for those in need.
Three years later at the University of Virginia, Cuccinelli — well known on campus as a conservative guy with a frat-boy persona — was startled out of his comfort zone when a female housemate was sexually assaulted. Outraged that the university seemed eager to keep the incident quiet, Cuccinelli sought out the campus feminist group and offered to help agitate for the school to hire a professional to deal with sexual violence.
Alexia Pittas, a leader of the student campaign, was a tad suspicious when “someone like Ken — very conservative, very traditional” — offered to join the cause. But “when the university administration threatened us and tried to stop us from holding a vigil on the steps of the rotunda, Ken came to me and said: ‘I’ll go to jail with you. I’ll go to jail for this,’ ” says Pittas, now a lawyer in South Carolina.
Cuccinelli helped organize the 134-hour vigil. “You just don’t expect Joe Wahoo to go the distance, but Ken Cuccinelli was a straight-up guy,” Pittas says. “He would not be threatened.”
Claire Kaplan, whom U-Va. hired in response to those student and faculty demands, remains in that position 23 years later, and she still admires Cuccinelli’s energy and dedication.
“He was not afraid to be an outsider,” she says.
A quarter-century after those formative chapters in Cuccinelli’s life, those who watched him closely find him a more complex and thoughtful figure than the caricature of a hard-line social conservative might allow. But of those interviewed for this article, none said they would vote for him.
Hoffman looks at the man his student has become and sees someone who questions the order of things. In that sense, “I’d chalk Kenny up as a success,” the teacher says. “But I disagree with him mightily. I find most of Kenny’s political positions outrageous and obnoxious.”