News & Politics

Who is Ken Cuccinelli?

Whether you see him as a principled Conservative or intolerant bully, Virginia's Attorney General is shrewd and ambitious—and we're likely to hear a lot more of him.

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 m
onths 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."

Wearing black cowboy boots with his suits—he's gone for two years without wearing dress shoes—and a serious yet genial demeanor, Cuccinelli calls himself an "endangered species," a conservative Republican who's won elections in Northern Virginia, the bluest part of the state.

"There's always been a fascination with his career because he would hold views and win elections in a way people thought was impossible to do," says Holsworth, who chairs Governor McDonnell's committee on redistricting.

Cuccinelli was a patent lawyer living in Centreville in 2002 when he decided to run in a special election for a state Senate seat in western Fairfax, the most Republican part of the county, where the GOP incumbent was leaving office.

His primary opponent had the backing of the Republican establishment. Cuccinelli went down to Richmond to ask for the endorsement of former Virginia GOP chair Patrick McSweeney, a leader of the party's right wing. "I said, "Who's endorsed you so far?"" McSweeney recalls of his first meeting with Cuccinelli. "He said, 'No one. I'm going to run anyway.'"

Cuccinelli campaigned tirelessly with door-knocking, phone calls, church appearances, a big personality, and a fierce anti-tax, anti-abortion message.

Fewer than 2,000 votes were cast in total at Robinson Secondary School, the single polling place for the primary. At the end of the night, Cuccinelli drove off in his uncle's rusty '84 Isuzu pickup truck with the win.

He went on to beat the better-funded Democratic nominee after leading the charge against a proposed tax increase for transportation that had wide support in the Virginia General Assembly.

"That election shaped my attitude about Ken—how gutsy he was and how highly principled," says McSweeney. "He was willing to lose for the right reason."

In the legislature, the 34-year-old quickly earned a reputation as an energetic, engaging, and whip-smart politician who would often point out procedural missteps to his elders. Yet he was so unbendingly conservative that he annoyed the more moderate leaders of his party, who often dismissed him and thwarted his initiatives.

"I paid little or no attention to partisan efforts by him," says John H. Chichester, the retired GOP chairman of the finance committee.

Cuccinelli admits that his biggest fights were with his own caucus.

"The culture of the senate in the Virginia legislature is to eschew the extremes and cleave toward the middle," says Chap Petersen. "Ken did not buy into that culture."

During his seven years in the Senate, he gnawed at the usual conservative thorns, becoming a reliable opponent of abortion, higher taxes, illegal immigration, and same-sex unions. He wanted Congress to amend the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to deny citizenship to those born in the United States whose parents were illegal, and he supported the creation of choose life license plates to fund anti-abortion efforts.

Though colleagues considered him a fringe player, voters seemed to appreciate his firm convictions and, with the help of a loyal base of social conservatives, reelected him.

"He's not afraid to take a position," says former Democratic governor Douglas Wilder, who considers Cuccinelli a friend. "People like that. They don't want to see a finger in the wind."

Another part of Cuccinelli's success, say observers, is his likability. With a quick wit, even temperament, and quirky sense of humor—he's a big Monty Python fan—he comes across as not unreasonable. It's what makes him especially effective, say admirers. And especially dangerous, say detractors.

Next: Cuccinelli files the first law suit against Obamacare

By the 2007 election, Cuccinelli's hold on his Senate seat was tenuous as his district was becoming more liberal. After a vote so close that it required a recount, Cuccinelli ended up squeaking by the Democratic candidate by 101 votes and wasn't expected to survive another reelection bid.

As the 2009 off-year election approached, he switched gears and replaced the "ken4sen" vanity plates on his car with "kc4ag" plates. "Cuccinelli made a really smart move running statewide as he did,"says Rozell. "It was perfect timing."

Cuccinelli nabbed the attorney-general nomination at a state convention packed with the activist base of the party. And in the general election, his anti-tax, limited-government message—he vowed to pick fights with Washington early and often—seemed tailor-made for the times.

The Republican tail wind—driven by displeasure with President Obama, Congress, and continued economic distress—helped McDonnell and Bolling and, by the widest margin of all, Cuccinelli, glide into office.

"Ken Cuccinelli was elected by Barack Obama," says his former Republican Senate colleague Chichester.

But the new attorney general, who beat former Democratic delegate Stephen Shannon by a 58-to-42-percent vote, didn't see it that way. "When you run on something definitive and then win by a significant margin, you have a mandate," Cuccinelli says. "And I view that election as delivering a mandate to do exactly what we're doing in this office."

On week three of Cuccinelli's new job, it snowed. But the blizzard of 2010 was the only thing that slowed down the attorney general as he settled into office and started creating his own storms.

There was the suit against the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation to limit greenhouse gases, still in the courts, in which he argued that the agency had used faulty data to conclude that such gases were harmful.

There was the opinion sent to the state's public colleges and universities over discrimination against gays and lesbians, and the one to the state's board of health saying it could impose tighter regulations—as stiff as those required by hospitals—on clinics that perform first-trimester abortions, a measure that the General Assembly went on to pass this session and that, once signed by the governor, could force many of the state's abortion clinics to close.

Cuccinelli advised the governor to withdraw a proposed regulation that would have allowed state workers to add same-sex partners to their state health plan. And he issued an official opinion telling police officers that they, like police in Arizona, could inquire about the immigration status of anyone they stop.

There were personal dustups. With echoes of former US attorney general John Ashcroft, Cuccinelli requested a new version of the state-issued lapel pin for his staff, one that covered up the exposed breast of the Roman goddess Virtus on the 1776 state seal.

But all of that took a back seat to the move that put Cuccinelli on the map. After Obama signed the health-care bill into law in March 2010, "we waited, uh, 15 minutes," says Cuccinelli, then filed suit.

The suit, which argues that the federal government doesn't have constitutional power to compel Americans to buy private health insurance, was the first legal challenge to the law and will likely end up before the Supreme Court.

Before last fall, most constitutional scholars thought Cuccinelli's argument was pretty "adventurous and extreme," says George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen. His victory in the first round, Rosen says, "shows how successful Cuccinelli has been in changing the Constitutional debate."

Cuccinelli believes the health-care bill represents "the greatest erosion of liberty in my lifetime."

He sees it as part of a "massive expansion of government," both through spending and regulation, that the states must fight.

"We are carrying most of the load," he told a group of young lawyers. "We are protecting the Constitution and the citizens of this country from our government."

Though he believes the Obama White House has pushed the powers of government beyond the boundaries of the law, he lays nearly as much blame on the previous occupants, calling the Medicare prescription-drug benefit that George W. Bush signed into law in 2003 "an attempt to buy reelection."

"That entitlement, in my view, we have to work our way out of and back toward consumer choice and control," Cuccinelli says. "I'm one of these folks who isn't just leaping up and down because we took the majority in the House. I have a 'we'll see' attitude. Let's face it, most of the people who are there in that caucus were there during the problem years, and some of them helped create and advance and grow the problem."

Were the Founding Fathers around today, he says, they'd line up with the tea party more than with either of the two major parties.

Cuccinelli says his political philosophy stems from his reading of history. "I've read history since I was kid," he says. "I was one of those kids who got in trouble with his parents because he wouldn't put the books down. I'd read with a crack of light coming through the door after bedtime."

Next: Cuccinelli's Washington roots

Cuccinelli and Doug Wilder had a laugh when the attorney general showed the former governor a photo he had from two decades ago. There's Wilder, then the governor, sitting at his desk in his statehouse office. And standing behind him are his dozen or so bright-eyed interns, among them a tall, earnest-looking University of Virginia undergraduate with an interest in politics.

"It shows you had the right inclination," Wilder said to Cuccinelli, who served as an intern for the Democratic governor during his last year at UVA.

Cuccinelli hadn't yet made his sharp turn to the right. In fact, at a college reunion, classmates put up a photo of Cuccinelli with the Young Democrats Club on a trip to Capitol Hill.

"Given where I've ended up, they thought that was all very funny," Cuccinelli says. He adds that he went on the trip only because the group needed more bodies. "I wasn't a Democrat. I was an independent like I think my parents were."

Cuccinelli, the eldest of three boys, grew up in McLean, after the family moved to Virginia from New Jersey when he was a toddler. He didn't have an early interest in politics, and his parents—his father was a chemical engineer with the American Gas Association—identified more with the Catholic Church than with any political party.

He went to DC's Gonzaga High School, where the Jesuit education informed his values and priorities: "On a personal level, I became the person I am largely there."

It was also where he started to earn a reputation as a highly spirited student with, as classmate Paul Buckley says, a playful demeanor. "He definitely was a vivacious personality," says Buckley, who now teaches at Gonzaga. "Someone nicknamed Cooch is not going to be a wallflower."

Cuccinelli was one of the Booster Club officers, led cheers as the school mascot, the Eagle, and performed in musical productions such as Damn Yankees.

Cuccinelli was a member of the University of Virginia Judiciary Committee, pictured here in the 1990 yearbook.

At the University of Virginia, where he earned a degree in engineering five years later in 1991, he was a member of the Judiciary Committee, one of the university's self-governance panels that investigated and enforced student standards of conduct.

"He had a judicial demeanor," says Sean Gertner, a New Jersey lawyer who served with Cuccinelli on the committee. "He was generally conservative, but not beyond the pale of reasonableness. We were all strict constructionists."

Cuccinelli says his experience on the Judiciary Committee, where he heard cases related to vandalism or conflicts between students and faculty, sparked his interest in the law and politics, leading to his internship with Wilder. "I was just interested in the arena," he says. "I hadn't come down one way or another."

At college, he embraced the UVA ethic of working hard and playing hard, say former classmates. His competitive streak came out in intramural sports; he led his dorm to a multi-sport championship, gleefully annoying the dorm with the "smart kids," he says.

And he joined the Rotunda Burning Society, one of the university's social clubs. The society, says a classmate who was a member with Cuccinelli, was devoted mainly to drinking large quantities of bourbon: "To be initiated, you had to kneel down on the lawn and chug a big party tumbler of some terrible bourbon—not even cold bourbon. If you could do that, you were in."

Classmates recall Cuccinelli as such an enthusiastic partier that he had a bunch of T-shirts made up with a picture of Fred Flintstone and the words "yabba grabba brew!"

Cuccinelli admits he enjoyed his weekends at college. "I definitely had my share of fun and worked a lot of it out of my system," he says. "I'm careful, the last ten years or so in particular, to avoid that level of bacchanalia."

His frat-boy reputation made another of his college activities all the more surprising. As the issue of date rape emerged on college campuses, Cuccinelli joined other students, many of them women's-studies majors, to push for a full-time sexual-assault education coordinator.

His interest was sparked, he says, when local law enforcement failed to prosecute an intruder who had come through the window of a house he and his brother were subletting one summer and tried to assault a female housemate.

A number of male students were involved in the issue, "but they weren't Ken Cuccinelli types," says Alexia Pittas, one of the student leaders in the effort, now a trial consultant in Savannah. "You would not have expected someone with his 'Joe Wahoo' background to take on that issue."

Next: The UVA environmental harassment case

With a career in law and politics in his sights, Cuccinelli went to law school at George Mason University, where he also earned a graduate degree in international relations, and started volunteering in campaigns and for the Arlington County Republican Party.

He married his high-school sweetheart, Alice Monteiro Davis—called Teiro—who had moved in three doors from him in McLean when he was a teenager. "Best move anybody ever made in my life," he says.

In the mid-'90s, he went to work for Oblon, Spivak, a firm specializing in intellectual-property law, and later joined a small practice run by Christopher Day and Alan Gura—the lawyer who led the effort to overturn the DC handgun ban—which would eventually become Cuccinelli & Day.

He focused primarily on business law, but as an outlet for community service he worked on dozens of cases as a court-appointed attorney for mentally ill people facing involuntary commitment to hospitals. Each case paid $50, "but it was a labor of love for him," says Christopher Day, his former law partner.

The experiences made him an advocate of more government intervention—an unlikely place for him—in the area of mental illness. "As frugal as I am—and I am frugal—I think there is an appropriate role for government in helping people who can't help themselves," he explains. "The mentally ill and the mentally retarded both fall into that group."

His interest in mental health and support of such facilities as the Daily Planet, a Richmond center for the homeless and mentally ill to which he donated $100,000 from his inauguration bank account, confounds some who work on those issues, many of them liberal Democrats.

"He's an extremely good advocate for mental health,"says Rebecca Bowers-Lanier, a Daily Planet board member. "It seems so incongruous, a different side you'd never expect to see from him. I would never vote for him and I don't share his ideology, but on mental illness I'm right there with him."

There are other chinks in the conservative armor that convince associates, even critics, that Cuccinelli is more ideological than partisan, more thoughtful than doctrinaire.

In the General Assembly, he was the only Republican senator to vote against expanding the death penalty to accomplices in murders, an issue that arose during the state's effort to seek the death penalty against Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammad. Cuccinelli's stand—that such an expansion could catch people whose intent was ambiguous—maddened his conservative law-and-order base.

"He knew he would take a bit of a political hit for that,"says Day. "But he felt confident his position was correct."

He also angered fellow Second Amendment advocates when, as attorney general, he defended George Mason University's on-campus gun ban.

On free-speech grounds—and with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union as an ally—he was one of only two attorneys general in the country on the winning side of a recent Supreme Court decision protecting the First Amendment rights of the Westboro Baptist Church to stage anti-gay protests at military funerals.

"He's not just knee-jerk reactive at all," says Democratic delegate Surovell.

Even some of his outside interests seem like curve balls. Skeet shooting, basketball, and paintball games may be standard fare for a churchgoing family man—but not so much belting out the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" at karaoke night as he's been known to do. "After Run-DMC," says Cuccinelli, a fan of country and early hip-hop music, "rap went downhill."

Those who showed up at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia for a meet-and-greet with Cuccinelli were surprised to learn that the attorney general had asked for the invitation.

His audience that night, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, many of them Democrats, wasn't his natural constituency.

Whether trying to build coalitions for future elections or, viewed less cynically, to explain his principles to a wide swath of Virginians, Cuccinelli relishes a good fight and tough questions.

"I can hit fastballs harder," he says, "so let 'em throw 'em."

And audiences do: Isn't your pursuit of the UVA environmental case harassment of someone who you disagree with on the science of global warming, which you probably know nothing about?

The most pointed questions Cuccinelli gets revolve around his probe of former UVA scientist Michael E. Mann for evidence that he falsified research on global warming in applying for a $214,700 state grant.

Mann, a professor at Penn State since 2005, was part of a controversy that arose two years ago after hackers obtained and posted excerpts of e-mail exchanges among top climate researchers. Global-warming skeptics such as Cuccinelli saw the correspondence as evidence of a conspiracy to exaggerate climate change.

Several investigations have cleared Mann of fraud. But Cuccinelli has continued to press UVA for more than a decade's worth of e-mails and documents, reviving his inquiry last summer even after a Virginia judge quashed his first subpoena, saying he hadn't provided any basis to suspect wrongdoing.

University officials have rebuffed Cuccinelli’s demands, arguing that his pursuit will have a chilling effect on research and the state's ability to attract top academics. The Union of Concerned Scientists has accused the attorney general of "political intimidation." And more than 800 Virginia professors and scientists signed a letter urging the attorney general to back off.

Even Republicans have questioned Cuccinelli's actions. Retired state senator John Chichester calls the investigation "folly, more meddling than anything else," and retired New York congressman Sherwood L. Boehlert, former chairman of the House Science Committee that investigated and cleared Mann, called Cuccinelli's probe a "politically designed, headline-grabbing pursuit."

Dave Foster, an Arlington lawyer and friend who ran against Cuccinelli for the Republican nomination for attorney general, says, "Unless there's a smoking gun, it's a strange allocation of funds, a strange battle to fight, a strange tension to create."

Earlier this year, Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly tried to stop Cuccinelli, proposing a bill to rein in some of the attorney general's investigative powers.

Cuccinelli says he's seeking the documents to determine whether an investigation is warranted. "I'm the only office with responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent for what they were allocated for," he says. "We are not, as an office, in a position where we think there's a problem we're pursuing. We believe it's possible there's a problem, and we're trying to get the information to determine whether we can draw a conclusion about that."

He denies that his pursuit is motivated by his distrust of climate-change research. "I don't care what they did," he says. "If they studied hammers, we would make the same sorts of inquiries."

Next: Personal liberty, gay rights issues, and the future of Cuccinelli

Cuccinelli wasn't surprised at the firestorm that ensued after he wrote his letter to state colleges and universities last year advising them they could not prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians because the General Assembly hadn't authorized them to do so.

Cuccinelli is a favorite among tea-party members, who would like to see the attorney general rise to a much higher office.

"It is the most explosive subject in all of politics—bar none," Cuccinelli says of gay-rights issues. "Abortion doesn't come close to it, not even close. I think because it's so personal for so many people."

After his opinion of March 2010, Virginia campuses erupted with protests, and Internet campaigns denouncing Cuccinelli. To quell the uproar at the start of his administration, McDonnell issued an"executive directive" telling state agencies that no discrimination of any kind, including against gays, would be tolerated. The episode made the newly minted governor, himself a solid conservative, look moderate by comparison.

Cuccinelli continues to stand behind both the tone and the principle of his letter. "There can't be any question I was right," he says, noting that other attorneys general have come to the same conclusion.

The question of whether to add sexual orientation to the Virginia law that bans discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, and gender has come before the General Assembly many times, as recently as February, and has always been voted down by lawmakers, including Cuccinelli when he was a state senator.

He says changing the law to include protection for homosexuals "would be a bad course for Virginia."

Asked if he believes sexual orientation is a choice people make, Cuccinelli says: "Whether or not it's a choice is really kind of secondary to me. People choose how they proceed, however they may be born. It is defined by behavior, how people choose to behave, and that's their decision.

"That is not to say that public policy ought to encourage in any way that course, nor should it encourage it implicitly, because it is not healthy for the individual. It is not healthy for the society, never has been historically. As much as we want to include every individual in Virginia society and the whole society, we shouldn't necessarily alter our law to make people feel good, be it about themselves or about any aspect of the community."

Testifying on Capitol Hill this year, Cuccinelli faced a grilling from Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz on his lawsuit against the Obama health-care bill. The average family spends an additional $1,000 a year on insurance premiums due to the uninsured, the Florida Democrat told him, a situation the new bill would remedy. Think of what you could do with an extra $1,000, she said.

"Donate to a Republican in Florida," Cuccinelli lobbed back.

"You'd be throwing money away," the congresswoman said, continuing the banter.

"Freely and with no compulsion," he replied.

Every chance he gets, Cuccinelli returns to the theme of personal liberty, which is at the heart of his case against the health care bill. His lawsuit is aimed at the linchpin of the law: the requirement that all Americans buy health-care insurance or pay a fine. That mandate makes possible the provision banning insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, a measure popular with many, but not the attorney general. "I generally oppose dictating to companies how they have to do their business," he has said.

Cuccinelli often hears from constituents who believe that the reform bill will improve their lives and who ask where his humanity is: tearful mothers who can't get coverage for a sick child, fathers who have lost jobs and thus insurance and can't afford medical services. When he was a child, Cuccinelli's own mother became seriously ill when his father was between jobs and without health insurance, and the hospital costs bankrupted the family.

He points to the dispassionate engineering student in him to explain why such stories, even his family history, don't sway him. "This case is not about health care," he says. "It's about liberty." If the government can require citizens to buy private health insurance, he argues, it can force them to buy a particular brand of car, a gym membership, anything.

The Justice Department says the mandate falls within Congress's authority to regulate commerce because of the $43 billion in costs incurred by the uninsured that's absorbed by others each year. The bill's supporters liken the health-insurance mandate to required contributions to Social Security and Medicare.

Cuccinelli isn't alone in opposing the bill. Several other cases are moving through the courts, including a Florida suit to which 26 other states have signed on.

Cuccinelli says he filed a separate suit rather than joining the Florida action because he's defending a state resolution declaring that Virginians can't be forced to buy health insurance. That statute was passed by the General Assembly just days before the federal health- care bill was signed by President Obama, setting the stage for the legal face-off.

So far, there have been judgments favoring both sides. The Virginia case is scheduled to be heard by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. In February, Cuccinelli asked the Supreme Court to bypass the usual appeals process and consider the case directly, but such a move, opposed by the Justice Department, is considered a long shot.

Still, the case is likely to end up before the nation's highest court eventually.

The attorney general has already reaped attention, followers, and even campaign money from his pursuit of the health-care bill—in Virginia and beyond.

After the Richmond judge ruled in his favor in December, Cuccinelli launched an online fundraising drive, posting ads on Google and conservative sites such as the Drudge Report asking people to sign up and donate to help fend off the "liberal attacks" on him.

Such online efforts, which have followed some of his other major initiatives, have led some to speculate that he's building a national supporter and donor base with an eye toward higher office.

Cuccinelli says he's planning to run for re-election as attorney general in 2013. He says that he doesn't expect to run in the 2012 race for the US Senate seat that Democrat Jim Webb plans to vacate but that he might one day set his sights on the Senate.

He's not ruling out a bid for the governor's mansion in 2013, however, a move his supporters are urging that would pit him against lieutenant governor Bolling, who has made clear his interest in the gubernatorial race.

Former Virginia Republican congressman Tom Davis believes Cuccinelli could win nomination for any statewide office he seeks: "Within the Republican Party, I don't think anybody takes him."

Cuccinelli's success beyond that, Davis says, depends on the issues of the day, the strength of his opponent, and atmospherics. He says Cuccinelli could meet the same electoral fate as failed US Senate candidate Oliver North—another polarizing Virginia conservative—inspiring a record turnout on the right but also a record turnout on the left among those who want to stop him.

Cuccinelli has seen the stickers and heard the calls urging him to make an even greater leap and run for the presidency. "It's called a write-in," he says.

But he does hope to help a candidate who's not Obama retake Virginia in 2012: "We are a swing state now, and I think it's fair to say my grass-roots history is second to none in Virginia."

For all the comparisons to Sarah Palin, Cuccinelli isn't pushing for the like-minded Alaskan to emerge as the Republican nominee. "I'm glad S
arah Palin is out there," he says. "She certainly adds a great deal of flavor to the conservative discussion. But I think she would have a hard time as a presidential candidate. I think that she would probably struggle in the eyes of many Americans."

Cuccinelli's own political ascension may be tied in part to the outcome of the health-care lawsuit. A win for his side would make him an instant national figure.

Plenty of lawyers are lined up on both sides of the case. Many agree that those challenging the law have the heavier burden because the Supreme Court has a history of deference to Congress—dating back to 1937 when it upheld the constitutionality of the Social Security Act—anytime it involves something affecting the economy, as health care does.

But Cuccinelli says he's optimistic and eager for the case to be heard by the politically divided Supreme Court.

"My prediction is the case will end 5-4," he told a group of young conservative lawyers. His sly smile, fitting as snugly as his cowboy boots, betrayed the confidence of someone who's never lost an election. "You guess which side."

This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].