For Cuccinelli, a conservative heritage preserved in writing

Immigration activists called for a national day of protest in spring 2006, prompting a little-known Republican state senator from Virginia to share his thoughts with readers of his regular newsletter, the alliteratively titled Cuccinelli Compass.

“These left-wing, anti-rule of law, politically correct folks,” wrote then-Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, referring to the organizers. He deployed an all-capital-letter flourish to denigrate their planned boycott of businesses as a way to “show how much we need ILLEGAL aliens.”

Cuccinelli proposed his own response to the demonstration, which he noted fell on May Day, “an old international socialist holiday — coincidence?”

“We’re going shopping, of course!” he wrote. “Shopping is the perfect free market answer to this absurd protest. It will also give you the chance to see which retailers are cheating by employing ILLEGAL aliens.

“Let’s help take back our country with our wallets.”

Throughout Virginia’s gubernatorial race, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, has cast Cuccinelli as a tea party extremist, incapable of forging the centrist consensus necessary to manage the commonwealth. The portrait has stuck, according to recent polls; McAuliffe appears to be ahead in the race — and Cuccinelli’s conservatism is a leading reason.

For years, he articulated that conservatism in the Cuccinelli Compass, honing a combative political persona and providing opponents with material that has now driven up his negative poll ratings and lifted McAuliffe. At the same time, Cuccinelli has accused Democrats of turning him into a caricature, seeking to scare off voters by distorting and lying about his record as a state senator and Virginia’s attorney general.

The Cuccinelli Compass is where Cuccinelli presented himself as an unbridled firebrand, venting about the “left-leaning media,” “gun-grabbing liberals” and “liberals wigging out” over, say, his proposal to allow employers to fire workers for speaking inadequate English.

“We are a beachhead of conservatism in mushy, moderate Fairfax County,” he announced in 2005. At another point, he described himself in the newsletter as a “2nd Amendment supporting Christian Right-to-Life home school dad.”

Here was a forum where he could give his conservative followers what they wanted — opposition to the Affordable Care Act, gun control, abortion, taxes, immigration reform and big government, sometimes delivered in the biting, sarcastic voice of an anti-establishment agitator.

His targets included Hillary Rodham Clinton (a.k.a. “Scary-Liberal Lady”) and, when he was alive, Ted Kennedy (“past his prime/over the hill wonder-liberal”), along with then-Gov. Mark R. Warner, whose spending initiatives prompted Cuccinelli to refer to him as “Governor Warbucks.”

“Glad to get out of Richmond with no taxes having been increased, no constitutional rights having been restricted, and no pro-abortion legislation having been enacted,” he wrote at the end of the 2005 legislative session.

A Cuccinelli spokesman, when asked to furnish all the newsletters that the candidate wrote over the years, said such a compilation was not available. However, Democrats provided nearly three dozen issues. Others can be found on the Internet.

In 2007, Cuccinelli focused his ire on state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond), who had criticized proposed changes to the way capital punishment is implemented. Cuccinelli used the opportunity to ridicule Marsh for supporting abortion rights.

“He declared (please note, this is NOT a joke . . . ), ‘I have respect for all human life,’ ” Cuccinelli wrote. “Oh yeah, except for the unborn. Oh yeah, and only if you’ve been convicted of CAPITAL MURDER.”

Cuccinelli wrote of seeing “Henry in the hallway” at the Capitol in Richmond and telling him, “I was pleased that he was now supporting all human life . . . and then the stammering began.” Cuccinelli ended the newsletter by writing: “Happy Roe vs. Wade Day, if such a thing is not an oxymoron.”

Shaun Kenney, the former communications director for Virginia’s Republican Party, has been a longtime subscriber to the Cuccinelli Compass, relying on it to know “what’s really going on in Richmond.”

“Ken spoke from the heart,” Kenney said, “and he spoke on values that conservatives cared about. It wasn’t off-the-wall commentary. It was the voice of a father who happened also to be a state senator.”

For Democrats, the newsletters inspired screeds and at least one blogger, Lowell Feld, to rename it the “Cuckoo-nelli Compass.”

Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington) said he was struck by the Compass’s tone, which he described as “hard-edged” and “so mocking and dismissive” of fellow legislators. “My concern is that it gives you an idea of what kind of governor Cuccinelli would be,” he said. “Kind of inward-directed and no effort to be the governor of all Virginians — just to appeal to his core supporters.”

Anna Nix, a Cuccinelli spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the newsletters have long been a way for the candidate to demonstrate his “commitment” to principles that shaped “his policy positions and political views.”

“It also shows,” she said, “his command and ability to articulate the issues that are important to the people of Virginia from all walks of life.”

As a genre, politicians’ newsletters are not known for stylistic panache. Instead, they often serve as bulletin boards for community meetings and legislative updates, ghostwritten by a staffer.

What has distinguished the Cuccinelli Compass is that the newsletters appear, for the most part, to have been written by the man for whom they are named, as he went out of his way to point out in 2007, when he wrote: “I am the author of the Cuccinelli Compass. That’s why ‘Cuccinelli’ is in the middle of the title.

“I am the same guy I was before I ever ran for office,” he wrote, “though I feel about 20 years older (and it’s not because of my daughters . . .). I don’t play the fake little games that some others do by essentially recreating who they are once they get elected in an effort to stay elected.”

At times, Cuccinelli has used the newsletters to talk about his political philosophy, as he did when commemorating the 389th birthday of the Virginia General Assembly in 2008: “I have been a protector of the founders’ vision,” he wrote, adding that he hoped to “work toward a more limited, focused state government that is more frugal with your money.”

At other moments, he answered criticism of his hard-charging style, such as when he announced his plan to run for governor and upset some Republicans who were supporting Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

“While I would note that some have complained to me about not ‘waiting my turn,’ ” he wrote in 2011, “I didn’t get in a line and I am not in the habit of trying to stifle competition. I’m certainly not going to stifle it myself.”

Not everything in the Cuccinelli Compass is about issues.

He devoted one newsletter to saluting his immigrant grandfather on his birthday and another to praising former Redskins Art Monk and Darrell Green when they were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (“They are a study in contrasts, teammates walking arm and arm into immortality”).

Many issues begin, “Dear Fellow Republican.” At least one ends, “Frugally yours.”

He has included favorite quotes, such as one from Winston Churchill (“I like a man who grins when he fights”) and another from Woody Allen (“I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes. It involves Russia”).

There have been Hanukkah greetings “to all of our Jewish readers,” a random set of factoids about America in 1907, when “eggs were fourteen cents a dozen,” and an invitation to a Cuccinelli for Senate paintball fundraiser.

“As usual, there will be opportunities for 1-on-1 duels with the Senator,” he wrote. “Think you can take me? Bring it on!”

There also have been attempts at humor, such as: “How to be a Liberal,” the 14 suggestions including that one has to believe that “gender roles are artificial, but homosexuality is natural”; “that hunters don’t care about nature, but PETA activists do”; and that “the Cuccinelli Compass is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

In 2008, as the Democrats convened for their national convention, Cuccinelli relayed in his newsletter a satirical schedule of events, including, “1:35 am — Bill Clinton asks Ted Kennedy to drive Hillary Clinton home,” a joke that evoked reminders of a fatal accident in which Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., nearly 40 years earlier.

In a subsequent issue, he riled detractors with another joke about Hillary Clinton, titled “How to Start Each Day with a Positive Outlook,” which involved naming a computer file after the former first lady and sending “it to the trash.”

“Your PC will ask you, ‘Do you really want to get rid of Hillary Rodham Clinton?’ ” Cuccinelli wrote. “(Firmly) Click ‘Yes.’ ”

To anyone who might be offended by his humor, Cuccinelli wrote: “Sometimes we just have fun,” and there’s “no other newsletter in Virginia politics that is anything like The Compass.”

“And I’m not changing a thing.”

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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