Photo by Jay Paul
A breadcrumb trail of "Ken Cuccinelli for Governor" yard signs marks the path to a weedy lot filled with an abundance of two- and three-digit license plates signifying the massed presence of local party faithful. But so far, one car is still missing from this grand opening of yet another Cuccinelli campaign office.
This unassuming western Henrico County storefront is one of dozens that the Republican gubernatorial nominee has opened across the state in hopes that grass-roots connections will trump his well-funded Democratic rival. The storefront — all 1,200 or so square feet of it — is packed to the gills today, its air conditioning system weakly protesting the crush of warm bodies waiting to meet their political white knight.
The Next Governor?
The guest of honor, the candidate himself, remains miles away. Ken Cuccinelli's white Chevy Equinox sits submerged in stagnant Chesapeake Bay tunnel traffic, paddling its way toward the landlocked safety of this mostly vacant strip mall off Lauderdale Drive. The delay will make for a hectic Saturday. A brutal schedule has the candidate visiting Hampton Roads, Richmond and Stafford County all in the space of just a few jam-packed hours. In Cuccinelli's absence, the big-gun locals — Dels. Jimmie Massie, Peter Farrell and John O'Bannon, along with his Henrico supervisor wife, Pat — work the room, talking up their star's only slightly exaggerated narrative as the underdog upstart standing up to an elite, liberal, career political operative. Cuccinelli's arrival — indeed, his ascendancy to a point so close to at last putting an avowed, Gadsden-flag-waving social and fiscal conservative in the governor's mansion — is well worth the wait for many who've gathered here, including William Evans. An unabashed Cuccinelli adherent, Evans waits outside the campaign office bedecked in a starched white shirt, a Col. Sanders-style ribbon tie and pressed blue jeans. Leaning lightly on a smart-looking cane, he talks passionately of his hope that Cuccinelli will get the chance to right the state's Republican ship. "The governor's mess," says Evans, a shrug emphasizing his disappointment that the pronounced right lean of current Gov. Bob McDonnell's ship of state has turned into a dangerous starboard list in the past six months amid the now-infamous Star Scientific gifts scandal. Evans ardently hopes that McDonnell's sinking ship doesn't create too powerful an undertow. Amid scrutiny of the governor, Cuccinelli, too, has found himself forced to answer tough questions. McDonnell raised voter eyebrows for his family's acceptance of more than $160,000 in loans and gifts from Star Scientific's chief executive, Jonnie Williams, but Cuccinelli also received about $18,000 in gifts from Williams. On Sept. 10, he apologized and announced the donation of an equal amount to Richmond's CrossOver Healthcare Ministry. Evans says he thinks most voters see a distinction between Cuccinelli's relatively minimal — and legal — gift taking and the luxuries the McDonnells received. "Ken's a smart guy … he comes with very high morals," says Evans, who sees victory as vital to the conservative cause. "We have one of the finest tickets — one of the most conservative tickets — I've ever seen. [Cuccinelli] can protect the state from intrusive federal government." That's the appeal on which Cuccinelli has built his brand: the fighter, willing to square off in defense of the little guy against big taxes, big government and liberal social policies that threaten church, state and family. Since he first splashed on the scene in 2002 as a midterm replacement in the state Senate, Cuccinelli consciously built a name for himself as a conservative's conservative. And in 2010, shortly after a win the previous November that elevated him to the attorney general's office, he only extended that reputation by exerting the authority of the office in ways previously unheard of in Virginia. Just three months in, he sent a letter to all state colleges and universities advising them that they had no legal authority to prohibit discrimination against gay and lesbian state employees. This was followed shortly afterward by his initiation of an investigation — including the issuance of a civil subpoena — of a former University of Virginia scientist's research on global warming that Cuccinelli suggested might have been fraudulent. Then came Cuccinelli's challenge to "Obamacare," aka the Affordable Care Act, which earned him national headlines and the plaudits of conservative — and some moderate — pundits. And in the run-up to declaring his candidacy for the governorship, Cuccinelli opened a new front, drawing both praise and criticism for his proactive involvement in Virginia's adoption of new guidelines for regulating abortion clinics. Cuccinelli informed the state Board of Health, tasked with voting on those regulations, that if it failed to adopt strict guidelines without a clause to exempt existing clinics, he would not represent the board should any legal challenges arise. But while he may seem uncompromising in his defense of tightly held political and social values, Cuccinelli also projects a boyish earnestness. With youthful looks that belie his 45 years and a seemingly unconquerable 5-o'clock shadow — the birthright of his half-Italian heritage — his affability in person is undeniable. A lifelong Roman Catholic, he was born in Edison, N.J., but was re-rooted in Fairfax County when he was just 2 years old. In keeping with his solidly middle-class family's religious commitment, he attended Gonzaga College High School, a Jesuit school for boys. During his years as attorney general, he's become infamous for logging miles between Richmond and his home in Prince William County, but the mobile lifestyle goes back to his bachelor days, when he was "burning up I-64" to visit his future wife, Teiro, with whom he now has seven children. It's nearly 1 p.m. when Cuccinelli's car swings into the strip-mall parking lot where his adoring fans await. The candidate slips in the front door, dressed casually in hiking boots with a purple sport shirt tucked into dark denim "dad" jeans. He is respectful of Massie, who's been stoking the crowd. "We have a really clear choice this fall," the delegate is saying as Cuccinelli quietly handshakes his way toward the front of the crowd, lingering to say private hellos to fans. "McAuliffe doesn't even know where the bathroom is in the General Assembly building," Massie adds. The crowd is still laughing their affirmation as Cuccinelli takes center stage, expressing relief on this late-July day that the room's air conditioner is winning the struggle against the thick humidity outside. Almost without missing a beat, he seizes the high ground of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights as being the central issues at stake in this gubernatorial race. He points to his detractors, who say his commitment to conservative principles is radical, questioning their definition of radical: "There's nothing radical about it unless you think the Founding Fathers were radicals." There's a lot of distance between the Cuccinelli who shows up at campaign events and the stiff, imposing political figure portrayed in media reports who often comes off as unyielding and divisive. In a room full of friendly campaign volunteers, there's no evidence of rigidity. Analytical by nature and training — Cuccinelli studied mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia before going on to George Mason University to study law — he reveals a love of wordplay and puns in conversation. It's appropriate for a man whose detractors maintain a website with the vaguely naughty sounding name Cooch Watch. But the nickname is no insult to Cuccinelli: The moniker (minus the "watch") dates back to his school days, when he was hardly known for stringent conservatism on abortion rights. Making light of the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, and his famed corpulence, Cuccinelli pecks at Christie's drop in political polls, which has paralleled his perceived realignment toward more liberal political leanings: "Even he can squeeze through that crack" in political popularity, Cuccinelli says, with a genuine sense of comic timing. But while jokes among friendly campaign volunteers may serve to rally the troops, they have yet to translate into full campaign coffers. Cuccinelli doesn't hide his concern in conversation that while the ticket may be rich in message, it's cash-poor. As of June 30, Cuccinelli reported raising about $7.7 million, about 60 percent of McAuliffe's nearly $12.7 million war chest at that time. And McAuliffe is independently wealthy, rich enough to run without keeping pace with donations. In spite of this, polling has indicated a close race. Though Cuccinelli tended to lead in the spring — before McDonnell's political woes — a late-summer poll by Quinnipiac University's independent polling institute showed McAuliffe with a six-point lead among likely voters. "We're going to be outspent," Cuccinelli acknowledges. But he says that core values have enough importance in politics to make up for the fundraising differences between himself and his opponent. "The last four races, we've been outspent and we've won all four races," he says. But he doesn't intend to be out-campaigned. "Our goal is to talk to as many Virginians as possible. Their goal is to talk to as few as possible — or so it seems." The challenge leading into November remains in maintaining the value of his conservative currency in a volatile post-Star Scientific electoral marketplace. Cuccinelli studiously avoids scandal talk at this appearance. Even in a room full of friends, he takes pains to minimize McAuliffe's attacks during the first candidate debate held just a few days before. "If you read the newspapers," Cuccinelli says, offering his own summary of the debate reports, "he lied and I told a joke." What's no joke to Cuccinelli is what he says are unfair claims that his anti-abortion beliefs constitute a "war on women." He points to a record that stretches back before the current controversies about abortion clinic regulations, and even predates his graduation from U.Va. While there, angered by a sexual assault on one of his own friends, Cuccinelli founded one of the country's first campus rape-awareness initiatives. "I have a track record that just defies this war on women thing," he says, denying that his firm anti-abortion stance is at the expense of women. "And I have a wife and five daughters who I'm really rather fond of." Cuccinelli casts himself as a new brand of compassionate conservative, albeit one where the compassion may be muted against the broad canvas of his conservatism. Children — and not just the unborn — figure prominently when Cuccinelli shares his broader vision for the next four years. "We've got to be able to rescue some of the kids in our school system," he says, hitting a touchstone that elicits nods from Republicans in a county boasting some of the best public schools in the state. But Cuccinelli's eyes are looking to the east, toward Richmond Public Schools, where outcomes aren't nearly as positive and where reform efforts often end without clear results. "Those kids don't have a year or three or four for us to turn it around," says Cuccinelli, an advocate for alternative education options such as charters and vouchers that emphasize personal choice and a diminished government role. "We've got to hand that solution to parents, who love their kids more than government ever will." A few weeks later, at an event at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies, he elaborated, unveiling an education plank that would further strengthen the state's charter school laws and open more opportunities for state funding to private-education contractors and to faith-based schools. By now, the pizza is gone, and as Cuccinelli wraps up his remarks to his Henrico supporters, the candidate's handlers start pressing him to head for the next stop of the day. His plan to take up a clipboard alongside some of his volunteers and head out into the exurban mecca of Short Pump in a door-to-door search for voters gets shelved in the hope of staying on schedule. But as with the slow-motion bay tunnel traffic, Cuccinelli stalls in his efforts to make for the door. Displaying the geniality that he's not much known for outside of these small events or among friends, Cuccinelli puts as much energy into answering questions from 20-something volunteers as he does in chatting up his former colleagues in the General Assembly. He listens carefully to a middle-aged woman in capris and a tennis shirt with a sportily popped collar who asks about his plans to bolster the state's coal-energy industry. She equates past Democratic administrations' efforts at curtailing coal production to "a war on the poor." Again, Cuccinelli enjoys a twisting deconstruction of the woman's question to arrive at an answer that also gets a laugh. He invites her on an imaginary trip to a pizza parlor in Buchanan County, the heart of Virginia coal country, where "if coal goes, then the pizza parlor goes — and can you imagine a life without pizza?" A life without pizza, he reasons, is a life without opportunity. "And that's what we're guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence," Cuccinelli says, with frank seriousness. "We're not guaranteed happiness — but we're guaranteed the opportunity to it."