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Cuccinelli Struggles to Appease Conservative Base in Fairfax

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007; B06

In increasingly Democratic-leaning Fairfax County, state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R) is accustomed to labels. One of the General Assembly's most ardent conservatives, Cuccinelli has been called extreme, radical, out of touch and worse.

What the state senator from western Fairfax is not used to is dissent from the right. Yet that's what he's getting because of his vote, in February, for major transportation reform, including regional taxes, as well as controversial new fees for driving offenses.

In addition to battling Democrats intent on winning Fairfax's three Republican-held Senate seats, Cuccinelli, 39, must appease his base: the anti-tax, pro-gun, anti-abortion conservatives whose loyalty and heavy turnout have, in past elections, allowed him to overcome the left-leaning demographics of Northern Virginia.

Republicans, Democrats and Cuccinelli agree that if those voters don't turn out for him Nov. 6, he's in trouble.

"I'm a little conflicted here because Ken is a friend," said Phil Rodokanakis, president of the Virginia Club for Growth, a vocal anti-tax organization that has pledged not to support any lawmaker who voted for the transportation bill. "But his vote on House Bill 3202 went against what this organization stands for."

Cuccinelli's opponent is Democrat Janet S. Oleszek, a county School Board member who is making the most of the Republican's vote for the transportation bill. Oleszek's campaign hosts a Web site, http://www.cuccinellitax.com, that boasts the headline: "$3,000 for a Speeding Ticket?"

Oleszek is also going after Cuccinelli for his conservative positions on various issues that she said illustrate how out of touch he is with a district that voted overwhelmingly for U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) last year and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) in 2005. Cuccinelli has consistently stood in favor of abortion restrictions, gun and property rights and minimal growth in state spending.

"This is not an extreme district," said Oleszek, 60. "There are issues that my neighbors and my community have supported for years and years and years. They support reproductive rights. They support stem cell research, gun control and education."

The upset Cuccinelli has caused within his conservative base has led to an unlikely alliance between him and Republican Senate leaders, a group of veteran lawmakers with moderate views on taxes and social issues who have more often partnered with Democratic governors than the right-leaning members of their party.

Last week, Cuccinelli traveled to Richmond for a fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) and Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) -- two lawmakers who have rarely teamed with Cuccinelli on anything.

Cuccinelli acknowledged it was unusual for him to partner with Republican Senate leaders. He also noted that the list of issues most important to him transcends the conservative label critics often slap on him. Cuccinelli, a lawyer who does patent work and also takes court-appointed cases involving commitment of the mentally ill, has pushed for more state funding for mental health.

"When you talk to Janet, you hear the word 'extreme' about 200 times," he said. "Her problem is reality. I have a record on hundreds of issues that have nothing to do with ideology."

Cuccinelli said that his position, springing from his Catholic faith, applies to more than abortion restrictions. Cuccinelli opposes most expansions of the death penalty. He supports more state spending for people with mental disabilities, because "every life has equal dignity," he said.

Cuccinelli and others question just how much damage his vote on the transportation bill did to his standing among core supporters. First elected in a special election in 2002, Cuccinelli was a leading figure in the successful campaign that year to defeat a referendum to raise taxes in Northern Virginia for roads.

He has sponsored legislation that would change the Virginia Constitution to limit increases in state spending to allow only for population growth and inflation. And he voted against the final version of the transportation package, after Kaine added changes.

Cuccinelli's base consists of many single-issue voters for whom lower taxes are less important than, say, abortion or gun rights. He is also popular among police officers; about 10 percent of the Fairfax County police force lives in his district, he said.

"The National Rifle Association people, they don't like to pay high taxes, but if you stick with them on the Second Amendment, they'll gloss over the other thing," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who shares many of Cuccinelli's conservative views but who voted against the transportation bill. "I counseled a number of people that if you [vote for the bill], you're going to have a rough time explaining to your base why you did it. But it's not impossible."

Ultimately, the outcome of the Cuccinelli-Oleszek race is likely to rest on turnout. Both candidates agree that low turnout, widely expected in this year of no statewide or federal contests, favors Cuccinelli, because his loyalists tend to go to the polls more than voters overall.

What Cuccinelli doesn't want is many voters such as a woman who approached him at the Burke Centre farmers market on a recent Saturday after eyeing the sticker on his shirt and the brochures in his hand.

"Are you Ken Cuccinelli?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am, I am," he replied, extending his hand.

"I hope you enjoyed yourself!" she continued, her tone turning unpleasant.

Simulating a guillotine motion across her neck, she said, "You're done!" -- and then turned and walked away.

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