By last fall, less than a year into the job, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli had scorched so much earth that he had to tell his mother and wife not to read stories about him. Newspapers were calling him an embarrassment to the state—and worse.
Taking office in January 2010, the former state senator from Fairfax County wasted no time setting a course in the direction of his conservative compass. He sued the federal government over its regulation of greenhouse gases and then boldly took on President Obama's hard-fought health-care bill.
He launched an inquiry into a former professor at the University of Virginia—Cuccinelli's alma mater—over climate-change research, told the state it could tighten regulations on abortion clinics, and sent a letter to the state's colleges and universities advising them that they didn't have the authority to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. Governor Bob McDonnell stepped in and tried to defuse his attorney general's explosive, if legally defensible, opinion, saying that discrimination based on sexual orientation wouldn't be tolerated in the state.
"The governor's a nicer guy than I am," Cuccinelli says, shrugging off McDonnell's response. "And he would like to be perceived as a nice guy. I would, too, but I don't put as much effort into it."
As a freshman attorney general, Cuccinelli even put scant effort into making nice with his new colleagues—his fellow attorneys general from around the country.
State AGs often work together, so they try to maintain as much bipartisan spirit as elected officials can. One longstanding tradition: They don't go into another state to campaign against a fellow AG.
Cuccinelli, an aggressive, confident man who doesn't mind making enemies if the cause is right, had little use for such a courtesy. He planned to fly around Iowa last October to stump for Republican Brenna Findley, a tea-party favorite who was trying to unseat Democrat Tom Miller, Iowa's attorney general for nearly 30 years.
Cuccinelli's counterparts, even Republicans, were surprised and upset—and told him so. It's a matter of the bipartisanship and civility we still maintain and try to preserve, colleagues told him. It's not how we operate.
But it's how Cuccinelli does.
He gave his colleagues' comments "polite consideration," he says—then hopped a plane to Iowa, making campaign stops in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Dubuque.
His candidate lost, but Cuccinelli has no regrets and made no apologies: "I didn't run for office to make friends."
Since becoming Virginia's top lawyer in January 2010, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, nicknamed Cooch since his school days, has become one of the most active and controversial attorneys general in Virginia history—and one of the highest-profile in the nation.
"This guy's better known than many governors," says Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
Cuccinelli's effort to dismantle health-care reform has given him a national platform. And his victory in round one last December, when a Richmond federal judge upheld his argument that the law's requirement that people buy health insurance was unconstitutional, propelled him to the forefront of the debate and gave him a new measure of credibility.
With a driver at the wheel and an iPad on his lap, Cuccinelli, 42, commutes to Richmond each day from his home in Nokesville in rural Prince William County. His wife is home-schooling their five girls and two boys, ages 1 to 15, through the sixth grade, a practice the couple began when their eldest daughter seemed ready to be a student earlier than the schools would allow. She and the next eldest now attend a Catholic school.
Succeeding Governor McDonnell as attorney general, Cuccinelli combines a conservative social agenda with an eagerness to push back against the federal government and a willingness to go it alone—or go rogue.
"Sarah Palin without the spectacles," says Democratic state senator J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen.
Like Palin, Cuccinelli leaves little room for lukewarm responses.
Conservatives, especially tea-party members, have fallen hard for him. "He was in the tea party before it was invented," says Bob Holsworth, who runs a Web site on Virginia politics.
At a state tea-party convention in Richmond last fall, supporters slapped KEN CUCCINELLI FOR PRESIDENT stickers on their jackets and formed such a mob around him that he could barely walk through the lobby of his hotel. "The boy's a rock star," says Mark Lloyd, chair of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots.
At the convention, Cuccinelli upstaged not only media celebrities such as Lou Dobbs and former US senators but also McDonnell and lieutenant governor Bill Bolling. Cuccinelli's fiery speech, blasting Republicans as well as Democrats in Washington for running up the debt and stepping outside the Constitution with new regulations and laws, brought the crowd to its feet.
"Ken's not afraid of anything," says Lloyd. "When he takes a stand, that's it. There's not a lot of squish to him—he's got a spine. He's got a little bit of that Ronnie Reagan thing working."
On the flip side, the response from critics has been withering. Many Democrats accuse Cuccinelli of using his office to push his personal ideology, an agenda considered high-octane even by some conservatives.
Washington Post editorials last year said Cuccinelli seemed "determined to embarrass Virginia" and accused him of "bigotry" for his view that homosexual behavior is "intrinsically wrong" and doesn't "comport with natural law."
His positions, especially on the issue of sexual orientation, have stood in contrast to political currents in DC and Maryland, where elected officials have paved the way for same-sex marriage.
"Ken's doing exactly what he said he'd do, but nobody was paying attention to it when he ran," says Democratic delegate Scott Surovell. "It makes Virginia look like a laughingstock."
Cuccinelli, who runs an office of 250 lawyers, denies he's doing anything but interpreting and defending Virginia law. He says he has always been up-front about his plans: "It isn't like we didn't give people fair warning. All my cards were on the table in terms of how I intended to conduct this office."
What's more, he says he doesn't much care if editorial writers at newspapers such as the Post attack him, "when I think they all start from the basis of being wrong about most things."
In an interview in his office, where copies of the Federalist Papers and the US Constitution sit on a coffee table and a Gadsden flag with its "don't tread on me" slogan—a symbol adopted by the tea party—stands behind his desk, he says both he and the voters knew what they were getting.
"I look Italian. I'm half Irish. I don't mind fighting as long as it's for a good cause. You don't sign up to do this if you aren't ready to take that."
He has said his 14 seasons as a basketball referee were good training: "Every time you blow the whistle, half the people are going to be mad at you."
As attorney general, he took only a single season to make people mad. Several months after he took office and launched his flurry of opinions, suits, and inquiries, he ran into Surovell, his former colleague from the legislature, who represents part of Fairfax County as Cuccinelli did.
"Hey, Ken, a lot of my constituents are giving me a lot of complaints about you," Surovell told the new attorney general.
"Tell 'em not to vote for me next time," he shot back.
Next: "He was willing to lose for the right reason."