Debate pitted by verbal grenades
Va. candidates for attorney general take off the gloves

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

RICHMOND -- Stephen C. Shannon, the Democratic nominee for Virginia attorney general, accused Republican rival Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II on Thursday of planning to fight the federal government in a way reminiscent of the state's past opposition to civil rights legislation.

At a debate in Richmond, Shannon said that through history, Virginians who opposed federal law supported slavery, shut down schools instead of integrating them, prevented interracial marriage and sterilized mentally retarded people.

"Our history in Virginia of states' rights is not a flattering picture,'' Shannon said. "When he's talking about states' rights, you have to understand the mistakes we have made in the past."

Cuccinelli called Shannon a "race-baiter" and later told reporters that his opponent took his allegations too far.

"That is truly desperate and over the line,'' he said. "He was just literally trying to throw a grenade in, and, frankly, it's terribly inappropriate."

Cuccinelli, a conservative, supports limited government and sometimes wears a pin bearing the Revolution-era motto, "Don't Tread on Me," which also were seen at "tea party" protests. He said he has never claimed to want to be a "states' rights attorney general" or someone who would sue the federal government.

Shannon and Cuccinelli, both legislators from Fairfax County, were meeting for their fourth and final debate Thursday. The hour-long appearance took a negative tone from the start, with both men lodging attack after attack in front of nearly 300 lawyers.

U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who moderated the debate for the Richmond Bar Association, asked Shannon and Cuccinelli about their priorities, legislative records and suggested changes in the attorney general's office. No matter the question, the two returned to their standard attacks.

Shannon accused Cuccinelli of being a "cultural crusader" with a "personal political agenda" who would enforce only laws he agreed with. Cuccinelli said Shannon was a "back-bencher" in the General Assembly.

Cuccinelli said Shannon failed to understand the legal ramifications of a U.S. Supreme Court decision this year that jeopardized thousands of DUI and drug cases. Cuccinelli had immediately called for a special legislative session to revise state law, but Shannon said that was a "political stunt" and would be too costly. Ultimately, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) called a special session.

Shannon said Cuccinelli was not standing up against the "stain of corruption" brought by Del. Phil Hamilton (R-Newport News), who is under federal investigation for negotiating a job offer with Old Dominion University before securing state money for the school. Cuccinelli is the only statewide candidate of either party who has not called for Hamilton's resignation.

Shannon called himself a pro-business, law-and-order centrist who, unlike his opponent, will work across party lines. Cuccinelli "is not a bipartisan legislator,'' Shannon said. "He fights with members of his own party."

Cuccinelli relished the description of himself. "It is true in the past that I have fought with people in my own party whenever they are wrong, and I fought with Democrats, too,'' he said. "And I think the people of Virginia ought to get a fighter for attorney general."

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