His parents had insisted that he leave the Fairfax County public schools and commute from McLean to the private Catholic school because, as his father put it, “Fairfax is not the real world.”
At Gonzaga, Cuccinelli would be with boys of different races and classes, guys from Anacostia on scholarship and kids from Chevy Chase who’d never known hardship.
Now, a liberal teacher with a beard so long the boys called him “ZZ Hoffman” assigned them readings by Karl Marx and asked them to imagine how society might be different if the world were constructed of, say, Nerf.
Suddenly, ideas could be as exciting as football. The boy who would become a state senator and Virginia’s attorney general embraced his church’s strict rules about right and wrong, and also absorbed a responsibility for those in need.
Three years later at the University of Virginia, Cuccinelli — well known on campus as a conservative guy with a frat-boy persona — was startled out of his comfort zone when a female housemate was sexually assaulted. Outraged that the university seemed eager to keep the incident quiet, Cuccinelli sought out the campus feminist group and offered to help agitate for the school to hire a professional to deal with sexual violence.
Alexia Pittas, a leader of the student campaign, was a tad suspicious when “someone like Ken — very conservative, very traditional” — offered to join the cause. But “when the university administration threatened us and tried to stop us from holding a vigil on the steps of the rotunda, Ken came to me and said: ‘I’ll go to jail with you. I’ll go to jail for this,’ ” says Pittas, now a lawyer in South Carolina.
Cuccinelli helped organize the 134-hour vigil. “You just don’t expect Joe Wahoo to go the distance, but Ken Cuccinelli was a straight-up guy,” Pittas says. “He would not be threatened.”
Claire Kaplan, whom U-Va. hired in response to those student and faculty demands, remains in that position 23 years later, and she still admires Cuccinelli’s energy and dedication.
“He was not afraid to be an outsider,” she says.
A quarter-century after those formative chapters in Cuccinelli’s life, those who watched him closely find him a more complex and thoughtful figure than the caricature of a hard-line social conservative might allow. But of those interviewed for this article,none said they would vote for him.
Hoffman looks at the man his student has become and sees someone who questions the order of things. In that sense, “I’d chalk Kenny up as a success,” the teacher says. “But I disagree with him mightily. I find most of Kenny’s political positions outrageous and obnoxious.”
Pittas still believes Cuccinelli is “a man of integrity, but I would not vote for Ken,” she says. “I disagree with him on just about every issue.”
Kaplan can’t get past his efforts to tighten restrictions on abortion clinics, his opposition to state colleges’ prohibition on discrimination against gays and his attempt to force U-Va. to turn over records of a climate scientist whom Cuccinelli suspected of manipulating data to show a spike in Earth’s temperature. (The Virginia Supreme Court said last year that Cuccinelli had no authority to demand the documents.)
When people find his approach too dogmatic, Cuccinelli, 45, professes not to be bothered. He says his motivation comes not from winning elections but from faith, the Constitution and his belief that even a pluralistic society is guided by universal values. His favorite movie is “The Scarlet and the Black,” a 1983 made-for-TV flick in which Gregory Peck plays a courageous Irish priest in Rome who stands up against the Nazis even after they have occupied the Vatican. There is right, and there is wrong.
Cuccinelli’s style and substance have made him a reliable punching bag for Democrats, a frustrating renegade to more moderate Republicans, and a stalwart hero for tea party and conservative Christian activists.
He gives each of those groups plenty of ammunition: In 2010, as attorney general, he speculated that President Obama may have been born in Kenya. (He later said he believes that Obama was indeed born in this country.) Two months later, Cuccinelli distributed to his staff pins depicting the Virginia state seal, but with the Roman goddess Virtus’s breast covered up. He sought to make it legal for employers to fire workers if they hear them speaking Spanish, and he supported a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
“Life isn’t necessarily fair and it’s not government’s job to make it fair,” he wrote this year in “The Last Line of Defense,” a book about why he considers Obama’s health-care law an attack on liberty. Taking care of the poor, he writes, is the job of “families, churches and charities, not the government.”
Legislators who served with him in Richmond, Democrats and Republicans alike, say Cuccinelli would often rather be right than win, making it hard to find middle ground.
Cuccinelli doesn’t flinch at that characterization. GOP leaders in the state Senate once told him that he could have a watered-down version of his bill or he could have no bill. “I took no bill and we walked away,” he says proudly.
In another case, as a lonely voice against raising a tax in 2004, he declined to seek a smaller increase. “We said: ‘This is the wrong course. Should we do $1 billion or $1.5 billion of the wrong thing? Well, how about if we do none of it?’ ”
‘Doing the right thing’
With an Italian father, an Irish mother and three boys, all with firmly held views about right and wrong, the Cuccinelli house in McLean was “arguments and fights and battles all the time,” says Maribeth Cuccinelli, Ken’s mother.
She recalls frequent shouts of “He’s touching my truck!” or “He’s breathing my air!” Ken, the oldest brother, tended to win those fights.
The mother remembers a night at the emergency room after Ken threw a rock at his brother Kevin, who needed three stitches. “Ken got the upper hand in that one,” she says, not without pride. “So there’s some real Irish blood there.”
And then there was the sledding incident in which Kevin and a car had an unfortunate meeting at the bottom of a hill. Kevin broke his elbow and it fell to Ken, then 14, to call home.
“He was extremely calm,” his mother says. “He’d obviously thought out how to tell me my kid got run over in a snowstorm.”
Ken broke the news gently enough that Mrs. Cuccinelli held it together — an empathy and diplomacy she expected of her eldest. He was passionate and loved to argue, but he was also a sensitive young man. His eyes welled and his voice cracked when he was faced with the pain of others.
One Sunday morning when the neighborhood mothers were gathering intel on a bunch of teenagers who had sneaked out the night before and driven around without permission, Mrs. Cuccinelli, a notoriously light sleeper, confronted her boys. She knew they had not joined in the joyride, but she wanted to know why.
“ ‘Why would we waste our time?’ ” Ken explained to her. “ ‘Mom would hear us like she can hear ants in sneakers. Why would we risk it?’ ”
The Cuccinellis were Catholic to the core, but the parents did not always agree on politics. Ken’s mother sometimes sided with Democrats, and both parents called themselves independents, at least until Ronald Reagan came along. Ken voted and worked for Doug Wilder, the Democrat who was governor from 1990 to 1994, before turning solidly Republican.
The family’s devotion to faith and free enterprise — Ken’s father came to Washington to represent the American Gas Association — put them between the two parties: “We raised our children to understand that as good citizens, they needed to be as self-sufficient as their potential allowed them to be,” Maribeth says. “But as a matter of faith, care of the poor, of your neighbors, was always very conscious and upfront. If someone is starving, you want to bring him a meal, not a book on how to cook.”
Above all, Cuccinelli’s parents taught, when you knew what was right, you were obliged to act accordingly. As his mother puts it, “we raised the boys to believe that character means doing the right thing, especially when it isn’t popular.”
The Catholic factor
From the moment Cuccinelli arrived in the state Senate in 2002, he was at the least an outlier, and to many colleagues, an outcast as well. Cuccinelli, it seemed to them, was a portrait in black and white.
Democrats saw him as a true believer, driven more by religion than by a desire to get things done. “He didn’t drink the Kool-Aid; he made it,” says Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the Senate minority leader. “You name the antiabortion tactic and he was for it. Believe me, we had some very conservative people in the Senate and they winced at his bills, they were so extreme. Whether it was bashing gays or immigrants, nobody wanted to be associated with him.”
Republicans had problems with Cuccinelli, too. Del. Dave Albo, his colleague from Fairfax, supports his bid for governor but says it will be hard to convince some voters that Cuccinelli is anything but a radical. “People write me and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re supporting Ken Cuccinelli,’ ” Albo says. “But he’s really not the crazed maniac we read about in the paper. It took me a while to figure it out: Ken Cuccinelli is Catholic, and a lot of Catholics believe the rules are the rules. He’s a lawyer’s lawyer and very intellectual.”
But another Fairfax Republican, Vince Callahan, who spent 40 years in the House and retired in 2008, sees an ideologue “who would not vote with his own party and wouldn’t work at all with the Democrats. He was off on a little island by himself. He’s against government. To get things done, you have to work with people. But we never saw him at night. You don’t go to a bar and have a drink with him.”
(Most evenings, rather than staying in Richmond, Cuccinelli drives 90 miles home to Nokesville in Prince William County to help his kids with their work. Cuccinelli and his wife moved from Fairfax to ease Ken’s commute. They have home-schooled their seven children through sixth grade, after which the kids attend Catholic schools.)
Callahan has endorsed Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor. So has Russ Potts, a longtime GOP senator from Winchester who retired in 2008. “For somebody who calls himself a conservative, he’s awfully eager to impose himself in people’s private lives,” Potts says. “I sat him down and said, ‘Look, Ken, you get more with honey than you do with vinegar,’ and he just shook his head.”
Cuccinelli did have allies in Richmond, especially among conservative Christians. Former Virginia Republican Party chairman Jeff Frederick says the two shared a reputation as inflexible ideologues.
“People tend to want to make folks like him or me one-dimensional, and it really doesn’t work that way,” Frederick says. “Ken’s not wealthy. He’s an honest guy. He’s principled. But it doesn’t look very good for Ken. It’s going to be hard for him to get people to see past that reputation.”
McAuliffe, trying to keep it that way, often quotes Cuccinelli’s strong words against homosexuality. McAuliffe quoted his opponent calling gays “soulless.” At their last debate, Cuccinelli called that characterization “offensively false.”
What Cuccinelli actually said in February 2008 at the Family Foundation offices in Richmond was, “When you look at the homosexual agenda, I cannot support something that I believe brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul.”
These days, Cuccinelli answers questions about same-sex marriage by saying that “I understand these are sensitive issues” and changing the subject to talk about the economy or health care. But if pressed, he does not back down. “Marriage should remain between one man and one woman,” he says.
On the campaign trail, his devotion to principle sometimes runs headlong into his strategy of focusing on jobs. At a town hall meeting in Fredericksburg, a man from Spotsylvania asked Cuccinelli to make social issues a top priority if he wins.
“Well, in the campaign,” Cuccinelli started, then he paused. “I mean, I believe what I believe. I support life, and I’ve been an advocate for protecting traditional marriage. . . . Fundamental principles don’t change, and my positions don’t change. . . .
“Those issues don’t go away, but they’re not what’s on the forefront of voters’ minds. . . . So my positions here aren’t changing, but my focus of, you know, the political capital I’m bringing to bear — I’m running on creative ways to drive job creation in Virginia.”
Led to politics
It wasn’t until law school that Cuccinelli felt called to take his beliefs into a life of service. At Gonzaga, he had tutored inner-city students, and in law school, he volunteered nights at a homeless shelter in Arlington. Now, he decided to put his legal skills to work for the nation. He joined the Marines’ Judge Advocate General program and attended officer candidate school.
But just as he was to graduate, he received a notice: The service didn’t need new lawyers. He was released from his commitment.
Michael Krauss, one of Cuccinelli’s favorite professors at George Mason University’s law school, had been proudly talking up his student who was a lawyer in the Marines. Cuccinelli asked him to stop. “He said: ‘Please don’t tell people that, because I can’t honestly say I was a Marine JAG, because they didn’t need me. It’s a matter of honor.’ ”
Cuccinelli doesn’t mention his Marine experience in his campaigns.
When Cuccinelli talks about why he got into politics, his wife, the former Alice Monteiro Davis, known as Teiro, takes center stage.
Teiro had moved three doors down from the Cuccinellis when Ken was a teenager (she first dated his brother Kevin, then Ken, who took her to Gonzaga’s prom). Teiro’s mother, a Republican, ran for the school board in Arlington and lost, an experience rough enough that when Teiro agreed to marry Ken, she made clear that he was not to run for office. He happily accepted the ground rules.
But years later, when Teiro told Ken that she’d signed a petition to get a Republican on the ballot in Fairfax, her husband sputtered about what an unprincipled person she’d supported. And Teiro said, “Well, if you can do better, why don’t you run yourself?”
So he did. But friends say it had long been clear that Cuccinelli’s passionate views would lead him to politics.
“He never sought office to have a job,” says Terry Wear, a GOP activist in Fairfax who knew Cuccinelli from abortion-opposition efforts and became a key strategist in his early campaigns. “He was always more interested in moving an agenda. His goal is to live the views of his faith. Right now, the principal concern is creating jobs. But if the social issues work their way to his desk, he’ll move forward on his principles. We get what we can get today, and we come back for more next week and next month and next year.”
Painted ‘in a little box’
To Cuccinelli, an engineering major as an undergraduate, politics is a mechanical problem. “Everything is easier if I can quantify it,” he says.
The numbers in this campaign have not been adding up for him, and he believes that is because voters are not seeing him whole, but only in the black-and-white caricature that his opponents’ TV ads paint.
In engineering, he says, “the number on the bottom of the page has to be right or the bridge falls down. None of this silver-shovel stuff,” the soft metrics of English majors.
He’s a data guy: He watches prices like a hawk. Asked if he’s cheap or just frugal, he says, “Either characterization might fit.” Even on his birthday, when office protocol allowed Cuccinelli to pick the restaurant, he’d tell his law firm staff to “go wherever there’s a discount.”
At the September debate, McAuliffe carried only a slim manila folder on stage; Cuccinelli came armed with a thick black binder of documents. He is, his campaign repeatedly stresses, the serious one.
He knows he can seem distant or uncaring. “I’m a left-brain, cold-bloodedly objective individual,” he told The Washington Post in 2010. “I’m not really that way, but that’s how I think.”
As Cuccinelli waged a legal battle against Obama’s health-care reforms, a woman approached him at a political dinner and told him how happy she was that the new law would allow her teenage daughter to get treatment for her mental illness. “I immediately went into debate mode,” Cuccinelli says. He caught himself, “and halfway through the first sentence, I pulled out. This isn’t a policy debate; this is a mother.”
Cuccinelli is rarely loud or blustery; onstage next to McAuliffe, he stares at his papers while his glad-handing opponent waves and smiles at the audience.
Yet Cuccinelli’s emotions lie close to the surface. His voice falters when he talks about his role in freeing a man who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. When Cuccinelli talks about the mentally ill, aborted fetuses or the wrongfully convicted, his voice becomes smaller, tighter. His eyes fill.
He knows he has trouble communicating his less analytical side, and he believes it is hurting him. At last month’s debate, McAuliffe pummeled him as hostile to women because he didn’t join 47 other state attorneys general to support the Violence Against Women Act.
After the debate, Cuccinelli said campaigns were a difficult way to get across nuances. He sees himself being painted “in a little box. That is one of my great frustrations as a candidate.”
Two sides of the coin
The nation is heading in the wrong direction, Cuccinelli believes, “and there’s almost nothing you can do about it.” Government is assuming too much power. Americans are too quick to slip into easy dependency.
“It makes me worry,” he says. “And it motivates me at the same time.”
If Cuccinelli is on the wrong end of a 39 to 1 vote, or if he stays in place even as much of the country shifts, as he has on the idea that homosexuality is “intrinsically wrong,” he feels no pressure to conform. The middle is not where he wants to be.
“I don’t back down,” Cuccinelli told evangelical leaders last year. “I’m not afraid to lose. What happens if I lose? I go home. I like going home.”
It’s not that he never changes his mind — he has come to believe in restoring felons’ civil rights, for example — but on the big questions, he says, “I’ve held personally the views I’ve got now for as long as I can remember.”
It drives colleagues to frustration, warms the hearts of tea party stalwarts, and outrages liberal opponents, but Cuccinelli is in it for the long game.
At a Constitution Day rally in Sterling in Loudoun County, he wins easy applause and cheers bashing Obama’s health-care law as an invasion of personal liberty, but then sees only dour faces and hands in pockets when he calls for increased state support for mental health care.
Both positions reflect core beliefs for Cuccinelli, two sides of the Catholicism he learned at home in McLean and in school at Gonzaga: bootstraps individualism and social justice.
He is undaunted by the crowd’s embrace of only one side of his coin.
“No, I see my role as educating,” he says. “I convert them one at a time.”
KENNETH THOMAS “KEN” CUCCINELLI II
Born July 30, 1968, in Edison, N.J.
Married to Alice Monteiro “Teiro” Davis Cuccinelli.
Children: Five daughters and two sons, ages 4 to 17.
Residence: Nokesville, Prince William County.
High school diploma from Gonzaga College High School, 1986.
Bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia, 1991.
Juris doctor from George Mason University School of Law, 1995.
Master of arts in international commerce and policy from George Mason University, 2000.
Author, “The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty,” published in 2013.
State senator from Fairfax County, August 2002 to January 2010.
State attorney general, January 2010 to present.
Cuccinelli would push for charter schools and seek a tax credit for donors who provide voucher-like scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. He would seek an amendment to the state constitution that would allow government money to go to religious schools.
Cuccinelli opposes abortion in most cases, including rape and incest, but not when the life of the mother is at stake. In the Senate, he co-sponsored a “personhood” bill that would have granted constitutional protection to embryos from the moment of fertilization, which may have outlawed certain forms of contraception.
Cuccinelli is a sharp critic of the Environmental Protection Agency and carbon standards that he said will block new coal-fired electric plants in Virginia. He has accused President Obama and Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe of waging a “war on coal” that is a “war on the poor,” saying it would cost jobs and raise electricity prices.
Cuccinelli proposes lowering taxes to create jobs. He would decrease the individual income tax rate from 5.75 percent to 5 percent over four years and cut the business income tax by one-third. He says he would pay for that $1.4 billion loss of state revenue by closing unspecified loopholes.
Cuccinelli believes that marriage should be between only a man and a woman. He supports Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage and has said that homosexuality “brings nothing but self-destruction.”
Cuccinelli opposes the expansion of Medicaid that Obama’s Affordable Care Act asks states to undertake in exchange for federal funding. Cuccinelli, who as attorney general sued the Obama administration over the constitutionality of the health-care law, has said he doubts the federal government will keep its promise to pay states.