Friends and foes note Cuccinelli's ability to connect

By Amy Gardner
Monday, October 19, 2009; B01

Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a state senator from Fairfax County, hopes to be an entirely different attorney general than what Virginians have grown accustomed to.

In addition to talking up gang prevention, Internet crimes and sex offenses against children, Cuccinelli promises to make defending Virginia's ban on gay marriage a top priority. He doesn't believe the theory of climate change. He is ready to sue the federal government if it restricts emissions or expands union powers.

Cuccinelli, 41, says he wants to transform a job most people know virtually nothing about from a steppingstone to the governor's office into a platform for long-term reform. He is prepared not to defend state laws he deems unconstitutional. He plans to scrub the books clean of what he calls burdensome regulations. He would push a constitutional amendment protecting private property rights.

Perhaps the greatest departure is that Cuccinelli has no plans to run for governor in four years, unlike the last seven people elected to the post. If anything, he envisions a long career as Virginia's top lawyer -- and a dramatic, if slow, transformation of government, state regulations and the lives of Virginians.

"This office, for someone who focuses on it day to day for a long period of time, can affect the direction of Virginia government," Cuccinelli said. "It isn't one dramatic step on any given day, or getting one bill passed. It's the gradual, slow, drip-drip-drip impact that you can have."

To win Nov. 3, Cuccinelli is running an aggressive, even combative campaign against his Democratic opponent, Stephen C. Shannon. Cuccinelli has amassed a boisterous and loyal following across Virginia, collected more campaign contributions in September than Shannon and registered ahead in all recent polls. That has left Democrats and other critics alarmed about a possible Cuccinelli win not only because he is different -- but because few of them thought it possible.

"A lot of people thought Cuccinelli was going to be easy pickin's for the Democrats," said Robert D. Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst based in Richmond. "Here's a guy who is a social conservative. He's departed from his own party on votes. But he's proven to be a very interesting campaigner. While he may be very conservative, he's saying a lot of things that resonate for people."

The attorney general is the senior partner of the state's law firm -- commander of an army of about 200 lawyers who provide legal advice to the governor, field consumer complaints and defend the state in lawsuits and criminal appeals. But few candidates talk about those mundane duties, instead promoting credentials to appeal to voters: their experience as prosecutors or their records fighting for tougher criminal sentences.

Shannon, a three-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates, is running largely on his public safety record. Shannon is a former Fairfax County prosecutor, and he co-founded, with his wife, Virginia's Amber Alert program to find missing children. Shannon is also trying to convince voters that Cuccinelli is a right-winger whose conservative ideology is out of step with Virginia.

"I'm a pro-business, law-and-order centrist," Shannon said at a recent debate. "Last week I got the endorsement of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. I am not an ideologue."

Man of surprises

Cuccinelli, whose genial manner helps soften the sharp edge of his opinions, has always performed better than his opponents expected, winning election to the Virginia Senate three times this decade in the most liberal part of the state. His legislative district overlaps with Shannon's in Fairfax and has overwhelmingly elected Democrats in recent statewide elections. All the same, it has come as a surprise to Republicans and Democrats that Cuccinelli is comfortably ahead in statewide polls.

Cuccinelli is a hero to supporters of a range of conservative causes, and he does not shy away from his views on gun rights, gay marriage, abortion, home-schooling (he has seven children, and wife Teiro home-schools four of them). At a debate with Shannon in Prince William County two weeks ago, Cuccinelli volunteers wore the "Don't Tread on Me" image seen at this year's "Tea Party" protests.

Robert and Monica Chiralo attend Cuccinelli's church in Clifton and have been friends and political supporters for several years. Both said they were astonished to see the level of statewide support for Cuccinelli at the Republican convention in the spring. "The energy in the room, the energy in the hall, it was all Cuccinelli supporters," Monica Chiralo said.

Cuccinelli can be inflammatory. Disdainful of theories about climate change, he has called advocates of emissions caps "watermelons": green on the outside and red (communist) on the inside.

He has also gone after Shannon for his actions after a U.S. Supreme Court decision this year required live testimony to introduce scientific reports in criminal trials -- and jeopardized thousands of DUI and drug cases. When Cuccinelli immediately called for a special legislative session to revise state law, Shannon called it a "political stunt" and said administrative fixes would be less costly than convening the General Assembly. Ultimately, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) called a special session in July.

"He got the law wrong twice in a week, and his own governor didn't agree with him," Cuccinelli said at a recent debate.

Shannon has accused Cuccinelli of wanting to impose his own moral compass to decide which laws he would defend. The implication is that Cuccinelli's views on such matters as abortion, state funding for stem cell research or abstinence-only education could come to bear while in office.

Evaluating the law

Cuccinelli denies the characterization. It is appropriate, he said, for the attorney general to evaluate the constitutionality of state laws; if anything, recent attorneys general with an eye to higher office have avoided this responsibility, he said. In 2007, then-Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, now the Republican candidate for governor, helped broker a transportation deal in the legislature that he has since taken credit for on the campaign trail. The state Supreme Court eventually struck down part of the law because it gave taxing authority to unelected regional bodies, but McDonnell never offered an opinion that the bill was unconstitutional.

Had he been attorney general, Cuccinelli said, he would have offered such an opinion and then declined to defend the bill when it was challenged in court.

Do stories like that mean Cuccinelli has no plans to run for governor? If he wins next month, Cuccinelli could find himself under pressure to run. He has pledged to serve his entire term, and he has not ruled out a long tenure.

"That doesn't sound so bad to me," Cuccinelli said. "There have been folks who arrived in the attorney general's office, who arrived running for some other office. I'm not one of those people."

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