Correction to This Article
In the Aug. 1 Magazine, which was printed in advance, a profile of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) says that he put $55,500 into a restricted account because the political donation had come from a director of the United States Navy Veterans Association, a charity now under investigation in Virginia. Although that investigation is ongoing, Cuccinelli announced on July 28 that he would give those funds to veterans charities across the state.

Va. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli: The rise of the confounding conservative

At 42, Virginia's Ken Cuccinelli stands as one of the most high-profile, active attorneys general in the state's history.
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ken Cuccinelli was at his desk past midnight, laboring over calculus homework, when he heard a long, loud scream. It came from an adjacent basement bedroom in the group house he rented with some friends that summer of 1989 in Charlottesville, where he was a student at the University of Virginia. The woman in the room had awakened to an intruder climbing onto her bed. She kicked him and bolted upstairs. The man fled through the window he had entered.

Cuccinelli had never heard a cry so loud and long, so pained and panicked. It became a call to action. He transformed himself into a self-taught campus expert and agitator on the problem of sexual assault. He helped establish Sexual Assault Facts and Education (SAFE), a student group that raises awareness about the issue, and designed a brochure on preventing sexual assault. Survivors confided in him. It was emotionally scalding work.

By April 1991, he was standing with a candle in his hand on the steps of the university's Rotunda, the historic center of the genteel campus designed by Thomas Jefferson. Cuccinelli was an organizer of dozens of student protesters who occupied the steps for 134 hours -- one for each of the 134 alleged victims of sexual assault at the university the previous year -- and demanded that the university fund the new full-time position of sexual assault education coordinator.

"The university tried like hell to talk us out of it," recalls Alexia Pittas, another leader of the demonstration, now a lawyer in Savannah. "I can remember Ken standing next to me. Ken said, 'Lex, I'll go to jail with you. I'll go to jail for this.'"

Pittas was surprised. Cuccinelli showed signs of being what some campus social anthropologists referred to as the classic "Joe Wahoo," the preppy, careerist, gung-ho U-Va. male, clad in J. Crew or the equivalent, baseball cap worn backward. Members of this tribe did not collaborate with Women's Center feminists such as Pittas, who thought that fraternities should be banned "because of the predatory nature of men drinking in packs." Cuccinelli was a frat boy by inclination; he rushed a fraternity but didn't end up joining because events conflicted with training to become a residential adviser.

"I said to him, 'Why are you doing this?'" Pittas recalls. "This isn't your issue. I remember him looking at me and saying: This is everybody's issue."

Just hours into the vigil, the university proposed hiring a part-time coordinator. The vigil continued for the full 134 hours. Before the year was out, a full-time coordinator was hired.


"The thing about Ken Cuccinelli is, there's right and there's wrong, and there's very little of a liberal gray in between," Pittas says. "If he deems something to be wrong, he will pursue it, no matter the cost."


Over the years, those costs have been measured in lonely stands, partisan derision, dismayed allies. Cuccinelli was always willing to pay. He lost a lot of battles, but he won all of the elections. Now, at 42, he stands as one of the most high-profile, active attorneys general in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. His willingness to charge into the most monumental and defining issues of the day -- including health care, climate change and the nature of government itself -- has made him a conservative superman, a toast of the Tea Party movement. As Cuccinelli edits bombshell briefs in his Richmond office -- where a yellow "Don't Tread on Me" banner stands beside the Virginia and American flags -- or barnstorms the state promoting his causes, he could not appear more boyishly eager to be here, now.

"I believe right now the battle of our time is the battle of liberty against the overreach of the federal government," he says. "I wouldn't pick any other four-year period to be in this office."

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