By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009; B01
Gun rights advocates gathered outside the Virginia state Capitol for a rally in January, some of them wearing their weapons tucked beneath their clothes. Among the featured speakers was Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, one of the most conservative members of the state legislature and a fixture in gun rights circles.
Tall and lean, dressed in a black overcoat and buffered against the wind by an indigo scarf, he noted that his opposition to efforts to "roll back our right to protect ourselves" is not shared by many of his Northern Virginia constituents.
"I have a district that votes four-to-one for gun control," he told the crowd in a speech that was circulated on YouTube. "But I know defending the Second Amendment is the right thing to do. And so I've led the charge year in and year out to do just that."
That incongruity has been a hallmark of Cuccinelli's seven years as a GOP lawmaker from Fairfax County, where by his own admission, conservatives of his stripe are an "endangered species." The unusual blend of politics and geography will come into sharp focus, in ways favorable and not, when he runs statewide this year as the Republican candidate for attorney general.
Critics and fans of Cuccinelli, 40, say he is a shrewd and hardworking campaigner with a record of winning in enemy territory and a loyal following among home-schoolers, antiabortion activists and others in the conservative wing of the party. That base helped push Cuccinelli over the top at the recent Republican convention, where he secured the nomination from among three competitors.
His nomination has buoyed some Democrats who believe that his views are extreme and will benefit their candidates, particularly Del. Stephen C. Shannon, their nominee for attorney general. They hope Cuccinelli will drag down the entire GOP ticket, including Robert F. McDonnell, who has sought a more centrist path to the governor's mansion.
Among the more controversial legislation Cuccinelli has introduced is a bill that would have cut off state funding for Planned Parenthood. That same session, he proposed a law that would have allowed employers to fire workers for failing to learn English. He was a champion of the 2006 state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and has said unequivocally that "homosexuality is wrong."
Shannon, a fellow Fairfax County resident, said: "People want folks elected to office who really try to work across party lines and who work on solutions. Ken has a different view, I think. He's very focused on what I consider hot-button social issues."
The two are not strangers. Their districts overlap, and it is their custom to have dinner once a year during the legislative session.
"This year he asked for a rain check because he said he was kind of busy. That's okay, because I think it was my year to pick up the tab," Shannon joked.
In the statewide campaign, the first for both candidates, Cuccinelli said he will call on those who have been charmed by his intelligence and affability and his unapologetic devotion to his causes, regardless of political pressure.
"The impression outside the legislature is that he's a rabid partisan who's hard to get along with and prickly," said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester). "That could not be farther from the truth. I think it springs from the fact that he is a champion of the causes he believes in, and he does it publicly and boldly."
Cuccinelli, who is a devout Catholic and home-schools four of his seven children, has said he supports abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. A video clip making the rounds on GOP and Democratic blogs shows Cuccinelli at a spring campaign event saying that he might not obtain a Social Security number for his seventh child out of fear that it "is being used to track you."
In an interview, Cuccinelli said he supports the concept of public education but also believes in small government. He did end up obtaining a Social Security number for 2-month-old Max, he said, and explained that his comments were part of a larger discussion about privacy and the over-reliance on Social Security numbers for identification purposes.
He has made a name for himself in less-divisive ways. He was a leader two years ago in rewriting some of the laws governing the state mental health system after a mentally disturbed Virginia Tech student killed 32 people and himself in a mass shooting on campus. Although he supports the death penalty, he has opposed efforts to expand it. He has also pushed legislation to limit the government's use of eminent domain to take private property.
He is unapologetic about his views that are less popular close to home. There's the "finger-in-the-wind style of leadership," he said, "and then there is what I think the founders had more in mind, which is a bolder form of leadership in which you do what you think is right and you are then obligated to turn to your constituency and say, 'This is why I did what I did.' And you stand for it at the ballot box."
Many of Cuccinelli's critics say his attempt to win statewide office is an acknowledgment that he would not survive another election cycle in Northern Virginia. He narrowly beat his last Democratic opponent, and his Senate district went more than 55 percent for Barack Obama last fall. Moreover, he could lose some of his base when district boundaries are redrawn in 2011.
Now that he has a broader pool of voters to choose from, Democrats are not taking the challenge lightly.
"I think it's easy to underestimate Ken. He has not survived this long on poor political skills," said Scott Surovell, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee.
He said he expects Cuccinelli's open embrace of divisive views to lead to his political demise. "The one thing I've learned about Ken Cuccinelli is that Ken rarely hides who he is. He's only going to accept so much rebranding."