Cuccinelli shows business leaders a new facet of his image

Ken Cuccinelli II, center, talks with Carl McNair, left, and Fran Fisher at a luncheon with the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.
Ken Cuccinelli II, center, talks with Carl McNair, left, and Fran Fisher at a luncheon with the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010

For close to an hour last week, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II stood before two dozen top business executives of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and, without notes or prepared remarks, held forth on the legal minutiae of his court challenge to the federal health-care bill.

By the end, the Republican appeared to have dispelled any notion from the group of power brokers, who last year endorsed his Democratic opponent, that he is the out-of-control ideologue his political foes have portrayed him as after a controversy-filled few months in office.

"Very cerebral," one executive termed the presentation.

"He's the right man for this time," said another.

Cuccinelli has never aggressively courted or been a favorite of the Virginia business establishment, either in his eight years as a state senator from Fairfax or in his campaign for attorney general last year. He prided himself on running shoestring campaigns powered by the kind of conservative grass-roots activists who have become the backbone of the "tea party" movement.

But since becoming attorney general, Cuccinelli has been making an effort to reach out to business leaders, whose support in Virginia is often essential to making policy, not to mention political careers. To win them over, Cuccinelli has an issue both agree on: his suit against the federal health-care overhaul that has caused deep anxiety in much of the business world.

On Thursday, Cuccinelli and his top attorneys will face down the federal government for the first time in a court of law as a federal judge in Richmond hears oral arguments over a motion to dismiss the suit.

"The whole thing is just ludicrous, what the federal government is forcing us, instead of asking us, to do," said Fran Fisher, chairman of the Fairfax chamber's political action committee, which had endorsed Democrat Stephen C. Shannon for the attorney general's job. "To have someone like Ken champion us is a welcome relief. There are some things I don't agree with him about, but overall, I really appreciate that."

Cuccinelli has been traveling across the state and has met with 16 chambers of commerce. He has also been arranging casual private meetings with business leaders to learn about their industries' top issues.

In a single week in March, he held a breakfast with Richmond developers, lunched with top executives from Trane air conditioning and two Virginia construction giants, invited the Virginia chief executive of HCA hospitals to his office for a meet-and-greet, and addressed the Virginia Association of Realtors, which did not endorse him last year. Last week, Microsoft sent a national government relations official to Richmond to meet with Cuccinelli over lunch at the swanky Jefferson Hotel.

"Some of them were supportive in the race, but they didn't know me," Cuccinelli said of his efforts. "I'm just trying to create channels of communication, so if they need it, they can use it. And if I need it, I can use it."

'Off his rocker' image

Part of the effort is intended to reassure business leaders that he is a more sober, even-tempered leader than his reputation might suggest.

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