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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

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; W12

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.

Victory.

"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."

Yet the journey from the campus steps of the Rotunda to the courthouse steps in the state capital, which included an eight-year stop as the last conservative GOP state senator from Northern Virginia, was no simple matter of hitching a ride on a movement. Insisting on what he calls principle, even when it might cost him, has earned Cuccinelli a certain reputation for authenticity. It's one of the few points on which Cuccinelli's supporters and detractors agree. With Cuccinelli, they say, what you see is what you get.

In his first 100 days in office, Cuccinelli filed a legal challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's intention to regulate greenhouse gases; advised public colleges and universities that they lacked authority to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; filed suit to block the federal health-reform law on constitutional grounds; and demanded that U-Va. hand over documents connected to a former professor's work on climate change, to determine whether the professor used false information to obtain taxpayer-funded research grants

At the same time, Cuccinelli has offended some Second Amendment absolutists and military families for positions he has taken in cases related to gun rights and protests at military funerals. Allies on some issues are left upset with his stances on others. "I don't like the man's politics at all," Pittas says.

Cuccinelli interprets liberally the AG's basic job, which is to be managing partner of a 250-lawyer firm, charged with representing state agencies and pursuing such crimes as money laundering. He'll wade into any matter -- and is free to do so -- if he perceives a threat to Virginia law or Virginians' constitutional rights. Some see calculation in Cuccinelli's selection of targets for action.

"Cuccinelli's model is always to try to figure out a block of people who are against something -- health care, fixing climate change, President Obama, taxes, gay people -- then show in public life that he will be a leader in fighting these things, these people, these rights," says Stephen Shannon, the former Democratic state delegate from Fairfax County whom Cuccinelli defeated in the race for attorney general.

To his supporters, Cuccinelli is that rarest of things, a Mr. Smith for the right wing. "Ken is certainly a boat-rocker," says Richard Viguerie, a Virginia-based patriarch of the national conservative movement and a mentor to Cuccinelli. "We are looking for people who will shake up the establishment, including the Republican establishment."

In person, Cuccinelli's charged public persona is softened, if not subverted, by a skewed sense of humor -- he's a "Monty Python" aficionado -- and a certain goofy maladroitness.

To build a little office spirit this past spring, he designed a lapel pin for his staff. He picked a historic version of the Virginia state seal on which the goddess Virtus happens to have both breasts covered, unlike on the current official seal. The alternative Virtus, he joked in a staff meeting, would be more "virtuous." The commonwealth was treated to a long weekend of "boob" jokes in blogs and newspaper columns until Cuccinelli, uncharacteristically, surrendered and abandoned the pin.

The episode was classic Cuccinelli. Despite his aggressive political stance, "he has an odd way of not taking himself too seriously," says Scott Surovell, a Democratic member of the House of Delegates from Fairfax County.

Surovell offers another example: "A couple months ago, when he had started doing a lot of things, I said to him, 'Ken, my constituents are not happy with what they're hearing about you.'

"He said, 'Tell them to make sure they vote next time.'"

***

Cuccinelli's boyhood geography was defined by a stretch of Kirby Road in Fairfax, just over the border from Arlington, in a middle-class neighborhood where he spent his days playing pickup sports and roaming the woods. The address was McLean, but given the chance, Cuccinelli would qualify those elite-sounding roots: "I'm from the wrong side of the tracks in McLean."

The family had moved from a town near Edison, N.J., where his parents owned a heating and cooling business, when Cuccinelli was about 2. His father, a chemical engineer, took a job with the American Gas Association. During the transition, their health insurance briefly lapsed, and Cuccinelli's mother became seriously ill. Once sick, she couldn't get insurance. She recovered after months of hospital treatments, but the expense was a heavy burden, he says.

Wouldn't the health-care reform law he now opposes solve such problems?

"My parents would not then, nor now, take the help offered by the federal health-care bill at a cost of giving up their freedom or forcing other Americans to give up theirs, just so that my family would have been spared the financial hardship," Cuccinelli says.

The oldest of three brothers, Cuccinelli was competitive, a bit bossy, as hard on himself as anyone. "When he was doing projects at school, everything had to be just perfect," says his brother Kevin, a doctor in rural Colorado. "He would get frustrated because, guess what, he's human."

The family did not yet have a fixed political identity. Cuccinelli's mother dabbled in Democratic precinct politics. But the parents passed down their strong Catholic faith. They sent their sons to Gonzaga College High School for the Jesuit education, but also because they thought Fairfax County was not the "real world," Ken Cuccinelli says. Gonzaga was more diverse than his neighborhood suburban schools, he recalls, and was located on North Capitol Street, with a homeless shelter attached. Gonzaga is where, Cuccinelli says, he became the person he is.

"I actually consciously thought about, Where am I? Where do I want to be? How do I want to get there? What are the important things?" he says. "Faith was at the top, and at Gonzaga you'd expect that. But what does that mean in the real world? And we'd talk about it at Gonzaga." Every student took a course in social justice, where he was taught theories of putting compassion into action. Cuccinelli tutored middle school students from the D.C. public schools.

Another side of his personality, the performer and occasionally corny crusader, also took shape at Gonzaga. The students would gather in a quadrangle for pep rallies. High on a third-floor fire escape, banging a big drum and leading the cheers, was Gonzaga's mascot, the Eagle, who on game day wore a fiercely beaked and feathered purple and white body suit. Cuccinelli was the Eagle.

"That's a big deal," says Joseph Dempsey, the former dean of students. "They're not going to put a shrinking violet in there. They're going to pick someone who will put on that stupid costume and go at it 100 miles an hour for the whole football game."

Going on to study mechanical engineering at U-Va., Cuccinelli was a bit of an E-school grind, but he found time to memorize the lyrics to "Rapper's Delight," Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hip-hop masterpiece, which he and buddies would perform at the slightest excuse. He was elected to the student Judiciary Committee, the prestigious arbiter in campus disciplinary matters, which helped him set his sights on law school (George Mason University). His work on Judiciary and as a residential adviser deepened his attention to the problem of sexual assault.

During his final year at U-Va., he landed an internship in the office of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the last Democrat he would ever vote for -- because he liked Wilder's fiscal toughness -- and he also got engaged to Alice Monteiro "Teiro" Davis, then a senior at James Madison University. They had met as teenagers when the attractive stranger moved a few doors down from the Cuccinellis. She attended Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington. He took her to the Gonzaga prom. They broke up during the first few years of college, until Cuccinelli sought her out again.

When he proposed marriage, he was so oblique, she didn't understand. He had to ask twice.

"I didn't have that speech written out," he deadpans. "I've made the whole rest of my life more blunt. That will never happen again."

***

Teiro Cuccinelli stands at the counter in her sun-splashed kitchen, chopping tomatoes, peppers and cilantro for homemade salsa. She will make two kinds: Spicy for her, bland for him.

Six of their seven children, ages 1 to 14, are scattered about the downstairs, reading paperbacks, playing ball, playing peek-a-boo. The family just moved from Centreville into the sprawling pale-yellow home on 10 acres in rural Prince William County. The family's green 15-seat van is in the driveway. The new house reduces Cuccinelli's commute to Richmond by 25 minutes, but it raised eyebrows in Richmond when the Cuccinellis chose not to relocate to the capital. Ken and Teiro did not wish to move too far from the Catholic school where their oldest child, Alie, is doing well. The couple home-schools their children through the sixth grade.

"I know there's got to be this perception of people that I'm like this simplistic, stay-at-home mommy, so I try very hard to be up on what's going on," says Teiro (pronounced TEE-row), who is witty and down-to-earth but rarely grants interviews and doesn't campaign much with her husband.

Ken arrives home with a box from the office, having picked up Alie from her last day of eighth grade. He immediately goes on dad duty. He sweeps up balls of shaved cheese that have been squeezed by little fists and dropped beneath a high chair. He sniffs the baby's diaper. Nope. He sniffs the toddler's diaper -- "Oh, it's you!" -- and he's off to change it. Then, it's nap time.

After the younger ones have been fed and/or put down for naps, the adults and Alie sit down on the porch for quesadillas, salsa, fruit and sweet tea.

A paradox of being what conservative groups call a leading "family-friendly" crusader is that Cuccinelli inevitably has less time for his own family.

"I think there have been challenging times with Ken's absence, but over the years I think he has learned to be here when he's here, fully here," Teiro says.

She catches him sneaking a peek at his BlackBerry. "Right now, he's looking at his phone, so you can't tell!"

"We have a stampede to the door when Dad walks in," Alie says. "And there's a fight over who gets to open the door first."

"We all sort of feel it's how we contribute to the work he's doing," Teiro continues. "We do miss him. It makes homecomings very sweet."

She knows politics have irrevocably shaped her husband's public identity, yet she realizes that, in a strange sense, his fans and his foes have equally one-dimensional understandings of him, based on his die-hard attachment to a handful of positions that they love or hate.

"His priorities are God, me, the children and everything else," she says. "What makes him more than what people perceive is his very deep-rooted emotion. On the surface, publicly, he has a very serious persona. But he has a great sense of humor and he's very sensitive, and that doesn't come out."

Early in their marriage, she almost kept him out of politics. Ken was a Young Republican volunteer, discovering within himself a small-government, anti-tax, constitutionalist conservatism, which he overlaid upon the value system he already possessed.

"I said to him, 'Don't ever think about running for office,'" she says.

On a couple of occasions, she awoke to find him staring at the ceiling. He told her he was imagining political speeches he would give, if he could.

"I realized at some point, maybe Ken has a purpose and I was standing in the way," she says.

The next time she heard him griping about another moderate Fairfax Republican, she said, "Why don't you run against him?"

It was like unleashing a tornado. That instant, Cuccinelli picked up the phone and began plotting his first race.

***

In the halls of Richmond, the freshman senator, at 34, looked as young as some of the aides and preferred springing up the stairs to waiting for the elevator. He was a little too eager, out of step with the clubby culture of Richmond.

He had won his first race, to represent southwestern Fairfax County, in 2002, the way he always would, underfunded and underestimated. He took positions that were less nuanced and more conservative than his rivals' and summoned a cadre of true-believing volunteers.

Republican Warren Barry, who had resigned the seat Cuccinelli filled, was appalled: "The GOP picked someone whose thinking is so ancient he would be an embarrassment to Northern Virginia."

So, too, were the Republican Brahmins who ran the state senate, who thought some of his early legislative proposals embodied an anti-tax extremism that was not then acceptable in Virginia. "Everyone lamented he wasn't channeled in the right direction," says John H. Chichester, the retired GOP chairman of the finance committee.

Yet to a small but growing core of fiscal and cultural conservatives, Cuccinelli was the new hero. He took pride at being on the losing end of a lot of 39-1 votes in the Senate. "Ken was one of those guys who was always trying to amend bills on the floor and force people to take votes, and a lot of times I'd say, 'Ken, why don't you give us a break for a couple days?'" says Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat.

There were times Cuccinelli practiced political heresy. He supported conservative challengers of GOP incumbents, angering party leaders. He spearheaded a legal attack on the state law that let any voter, not just party members, vote in party primaries, a policy seen by insurgents such as Cuccinelli as a way to entrench more moderate incumbents. In 2007, he switched sides and voted against the final version of a transportation package supported by GOP leaders. Cuccinelli said the amended bill violated the state constitution. If he had been attorney general, he later said, he would have issued an opinion against it -- unlike then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R), now the governor.

A reliable conservative vote on abortion, immigration, taxes and gun rights, Cuccinelli also bucked conservative pieties. Mental health reform was an area where, to the surprise of some, he favored more government involvement in people's lives. "If you're going to spend money on things, you start at the bottom," he says. "And on the human side, as opposed to, say, building roads, that's taking care of those who, through no fault of their own, can't take care of themselves."

His interest dates to his days as a young lawyer, when he started representing people facing involuntary commitment to hospitals. He took hundreds of those cases, each a window into a family in crisis.

He also opposed expansions of the death penalty, notably a proposed repeal of the "triggerman" law. Repeal would have allowed the state to execute accomplices, not just the person who pulled the trigger. Cuccinelli stuck to this position at some political peril. "It would be an enormous expansion of the death penalty, and we would often be determining life or death based on only circumstantial evidence," he says. "I just believe we have to be absolutely sure before we authorize the state to take a life."

***

Monday is karaoke night at Blues BBQ in Roanoke. About 30 people are in the joint, sampling the bourbon selection, when a tall, slim guy in a suit takes the microphone. And starts rapping.

Now what you hear is not a test -- I'm rappin' to the beat! ...

Well it's on 'n' on 'n' on 'n' on

The beat don't stop until the break of dawn.

"He had a smile on his face, and he was boogieing while he was singing," recalls head chef Bobby Middaugh.

"He added his own little hand gestures," says Chris Zaluski, who was then an online editor for the Roanoke Times.

Whenever he encounters a karaoke system, Cuccinelli asks for that song of his U-Va. days, "Rapper's Delight." Usually it's not available. On this spring night -- in town for a stop at a food bank and a visit with supporters -- he's in luck.

Cuccinelli points flamboyantly around the room as he raps:

I like to say hello

To the black, to the white, the red, and the brown,the purple and yellow.

It's a rare night off from his packed schedule. Two weeks before, he filed the health-care lawsuit. Two weeks hence, he would demand the climate change professor's records from U-Va. Lately, some of Cuccinelli's detractors have been arguing that he's an "activist" attorney general, embarked on a canny cultural crusade. "He has a very clearly defined set of beliefs and values, and the attorney general's office gives him all these tools to vindicate that agenda and carry out those values," says Claire Guthrie GastaƱaga, a former Virginia deputy attorney general and legislative counsel for Equality Virginia, the gay rights advocacy group.

The charge gets Cuccinelli going. The attorney general's office is "reactive," he insists. On his sporadic road trips around the state, as on the one to Roanoke, he takes the opportunity to make his case, campaign-style -- at chamber lunches, church gatherings, charity galas.

On the health-care lawsuit: Requiring Americans to buy health insurance is like forcing them to buy Chevrolets. "Since the government has a little stake in GM, that might not be such a bad deal for them," he cracks. "If we don't beat this back, we lose an incredibly essential element for our protection."

Some mainstream constitutional scholars agree. "In order for this law to be upheld under a challenge, the court would have to adopt an interpretation that would allow almost any federal claim to satisfy the standard of interstate commerce," says Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School. "What would be left of states' rights?"

On the gay nondiscrimination opinion: In response to requests for guidance from at least one campus, Cuccinelli's March 4 letter to all state colleges and universities said they could not bar discrimination against homosexuals because the General Assembly has declined to define sexual orientation as part of a protected class. Previous attorneys general of both parties have held that local governments could not enact similar nondiscrimination policies for the same reason. Cuccinelli's letter caused an uproar and prompted Gov. McDonnell to issue an executive directive saying he would not tolerate discrimination. The governor simultaneously endorsed Cuccinelli's legal reasoning.

Cuccinelli sounds contrite. For Cuccinelli.

"Could we have dragged our feet and made it take longer? Yes. Should we have? Yes. Should it have been written less like somebody who's a cold-blooded, objective engineer wrote it? Yes. The one thing we got right in there was: the law."

Cuccinelli also has defended another controversial decision: In May, he resolved to keep $55,500 donated to his campaign last year by a director of the United States Navy Veterans Association, a charity now under investigation in Virginia. Cuccinelli stood alone in a storm of mostly Democratic attacks, saying there had been no proof of wrongdoing, while other politicians from both parties transferred their donations to other veterans' charities. After a month, he relented, partly: He put the money into a restricted account until the investigation is complete. (On July 28, after this story went to press but before it reached readers, Cuccinelli announced that he would give away the $55,500 to veterans charities across the state.)

Generating less attention have been actions that fit the image of a conservative crusader about as well as a white guy in a business suit rapping that the "chicken tastes like wood."

He submitted a brief in a suit defending George Mason University's ban of guns from campus. The brief conjured hypothetical cases of guns being used to intimidate faculty and students. Cuccinelli says he was merely fulfilling his duty to mount a zealous defense of his client, but the rhetoric was considered highly insulting by pro-gun activists, who are among Cuccinelli's strongest supporters.

"Et tu, Cuccinelli?" Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, responded angrily at the time. In an interview, he adds: "If winning a case means defaming a friend, would you do it? Morally, where is the line you draw that you can't cross to win at any cost?"

In another matter, Cuccinelli finds himself in a 48-2 minority of attorneys general nationwide. He and his counterpart in Maine refused to sign an amicus brief in a sensational case heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. The family of a Marine killed in Iraq is suing members of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas who picket military funerals carrying signs with messages such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." The church says the soldiers' deaths are a result of the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Cuccinelli, who tears up when he recalls meeting with parents of fallen soldiers, says he can't back the family's lawsuit because it would threaten the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Some will not forgive him. "Any elected official who refuses to support any movement that would preserve the honor and integrity of a police or military funeral, I've got a problem with that," says Vic Ingram, a veteran and retired police officer, who says he voted for Cuccinelli for attorney general.

Wherever he goes, Cuccinelli is reminded that his principles have potential to cause pain.

Since he became attorney general, he has been a friend of the Daily Planet, a medical clinic and homeless shelter in Richmond. He donated $100,000 that had been raised for his inaugural festivities, and has visited to talk about challenges associated with homelessness and mental illness. But the people served by the Daily Planet are among those who could gain the most from health-care reform. Cuccinelli, their VIP friend, and his lawsuit, stand in their way.

The toughest moment, he says, came recently, at a dinner of U-Va.'s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, when a woman introduced herself and described how she had walked into her daughter's room and cried on March 21, the day Congress passed health-care reform. "She thought," says Cuccinelli, "'My 17-year-old daughter, who's bipolar and depressed, will finally have guaranteed health insurance and, therefore, a normal life.'"

He immediately went into debate mode with the woman, then stopped in mid-sentence.

"I'm a left-brain, cold-bloodedly objective individual," he says. "I'm not really that way, but that's how I think." But he says he realized, "This isn't a policy debate; this is a mother. I expressed my understanding, and I do understand, even if I don't agree."

***

Dressed in green camouflage and wearing a black cap with the motto "Don't Tread on Me," Cuccinelli leads a column of faithful followers through a pine forest to higher ground.

"In this game, the way to win, by which I mean kill people, is flank shots," Cuccinelli tells them. "You have to play the angles."

Cuccinelli's annual summer paintball fundraiser reunites a few dozen close associates from the length of his career for a strenuous competition in the nearly 100-degree heat of Hogback Mountain in rural Loudoun County. It's never too early for Cuccinelli to be girding for his next electoral contest.

"We're already running," he says, chugging water during a lull. "I'm a target, so I've got to act like one. Which just means work hard. Don't wait for the election."

The joke in Virginia is that AG stands for "almost governor," and that's what the last few attorneys general appeared to be planning. Cuccinelli maintains that he'll run for reelection.

"I look forward to voting for you for president in 2020," says a paint-spattered Michael C. Sacks, project director at a logistics design company.

"I don't see that happening," Cuccinelli says.

As he ponders his future, he has resolved to take a pass on what could be his big chance to argue a historic case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The health-care lawsuit, in which arguments are underway, is expected to land there eventually. Cuccinelli has designated his solicitor general, E. Duncan Getchell Jr., to argue the case from beginning to end. "I'm perfectly well-prepared, but he's better prepared," Cuccinelli says, heading back into the woods. "This is far more important than any individual."

The last skirmish of the afternoon will not be a capture-the-flag style competition. The team with the last person standing wins. "Take no prisoners," Cuccinelli says. "My kind of game."

He sprints through the grass, ducks behind a wall, fires a burst of paintballs. This afternoon, some of the projectiles have been bouncing off his camouflage outfit, giving him an aura of invincibility. In reality, those paintballs were fired too glancingly, from too great a distance, to break against the baggy material. Only if a paintball breaks on you are you out.

It happens near the end of the death match. "I got it in the head," he says, fingering a splotch of yellow on his black cap. "It's the most certain break, because my head is so hard."

David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at montgomery@washpost.com. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will be online to take your questions and comments Friday at 3 p.m. ET.

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