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Bob McDonnell's record: Fair or promoting conservatism?

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney speaks at a news conference in Virginia Beach, joined by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), left; state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), candidate for Virginia attorney general; and Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP candidate for governor.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney speaks at a news conference in Virginia Beach, joined by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), left; state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), candidate for Virginia attorney general; and Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP candidate for governor. (Steve Helber/associated Press)

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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

RICHMOND -- In one of his first moves after being sworn in as Virginia's attorney general in 2006, Republican Robert F. McDonnell advised the newly elected Democratic governor that he had overstepped his constitutional authority when he outlawed bias against gays in state hiring.

McDonnell said that only the General Assembly, not the governor, had the right to protect a category of people. But Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and others wondered whether the new attorney general had put ideology above the law.

In his three years as attorney general, McDonnell, the GOP nominee for governor, could not escape questions about the legal advice he provided, no matter how he came down on an issue.

His critics frequently accused him of writing opinions or intervening in court cases as a way to advance his conservative agenda. His supporters said he went out of his way to do the opposite, noting that he sometimes went against his own values.

His record in the office suggests that McDonnell would be a governor who often -- but not always -- takes a conservative position.

"There were cases I might not have agreed with, but my goal was to do what we thought was the right answer under the law," McDonnell said in an interview. "If you're doing the right thing and you're just declaring the law, there are going to be people who have different opinions on what they hope the law is."

McDonnell managed an office of nearly 200 lawyers who issued hundreds of opinions to legislators and state agencies, and he represented the state in thousands of lawsuits and criminal appeals. He was also considered the state's top cop.

In addition, he proposed bills that passed with bipartisan support that toughened sentencing for violent sexual predators, cracked down on dealers who sold drugs to children and fought Internet crimes. He persuaded warring factions of his party to negotiate a landmark transportation package, although the state Supreme Court ruled parts of it unconstitutional. After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, he helped Kaine block gun sales to people involuntarily committed to mental health treatment.

But for much of his tenure, until he resigned in February to run full time for governor, McDonnell was dogged by questions about whether he used his powerful statewide perch to advance his agenda.

"A smart lawyer can come up with a legal justification for just about anything," said state Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), who often opposed McDonnell. "There is no doubt he used the office to advance his agenda."

Stands on social issues

As attorney general, McDonnell addressed some of the issues that helped him make a name for himself as a legislator, including abortion, as well as other topics that he rarely talks about on the campaign trail, such as illegal immigration and gun rights.

McDonnell, who supported bills banning a procedure that its opponents refer to as partial-birth abortion, appealed a subsequent court ruling to overturn the law in Virginia and submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar case stemming from a Nebraska law.


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