When people find his approach too dogmatic, Cuccinelli, 45, professes not to be bothered. He says his motivation comes not from winning elections but from faith, the Constitution and his belief that even a pluralistic society is guided by universal values. His favorite movie is “The Scarlet and the Black,” a 1983 made-for-TV flick in which Gregory Peck plays a courageous Irish priest in Rome who stands up against the Nazis even after they have occupied the Vatican. There is right, and there is wrong.
Cuccinelli’s style and substance have made him a reliable punching bag for Democrats, a frustrating renegade to more moderate Republicans, and a stalwart hero for tea party and conservative Christian activists.
He gives each of those groups plenty of ammunition: In 2010, as attorney general, he speculated that President Obama may have been born in Kenya. (He later said he believes that Obama was indeed born in this country.) Two months later, Cuccinelli distributed to his staff pins depicting the Virginia state seal, but with the Roman goddess Virtus’s breast covered up. He sought to make it legal for employers to fire workers if they hear them speaking Spanish, and he supported a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
“Life isn’t necessarily fair and it’s not government’s job to make it fair,” he wrote this year in “The Last Line of Defense,” a book about why he considers Obama’s health-care law an attack on liberty. Taking care of the poor, he writes, is the job of “families, churches and charities, not the government.”
Legislators who served with him in Richmond, Democrats and Republicans alike, say Cuccinelli would often rather be right than win, making it hard to find middle ground.
Cuccinelli doesn’t flinch at that characterization. GOP leaders in the state Senate once told him that he could have a watered-down version of his bill or he could have no bill. “I took no bill and we walked away,” he says proudly.
In another case, as a lonely voice against raising a tax in 2004, he declined to seek a smaller increase. “We said: ‘This is the wrong course. Should we do $1 billion or $1.5 billion of the wrong thing? Well, how about if we do none of it?’ ”
‘Doing the right thing’
With an Italian father, an Irish mother and three boys, all with firmly held views about right and wrong, the Cuccinelli house in McLean was “arguments and fights and battles all the time,” says Maribeth Cuccinelli, Ken’s mother.