All in a Year's Work

How Virginia's attorney general became a Tea Party star

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Andrew Cutraro—Redux for TIME

Since taking office a year ago, Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has sued the federal EPA over its plan to regulate greenhouse gases, argued that the state can regulate abortion facilities as it can hospitals, advised that public colleges lack the authority to bar discrimination against gays and lesbians, tweaked the state seal to cover the naked breast of the Roman goddess Virtus and subpoenaed a state university to probe for evidence that a former professor manipulated climate-science research.

In mid-December, Cuccinelli notched his biggest victory yet when a federal judge ruled that the individual mandate in Barack Obama's health care reform bill was unconstitutional, upholding a suit that Cuccinelli filed minutes after the President signed the bill into law. By then he had launched a new crusade, circulating a letter to fellow attorneys general that pushes for a constitutional amendment that would void any federal law or regulation if the legislatures of two-thirds of the states supported its repeal.

There is nothing new about a state AG who uses an office designed for law enforcement as a lever for political change. California's Jerry Brown, New York's Andrew Cuomo and Kansas' Phill Kline have all done it in recent years. But Cuccinelli is on a tear that makes the tenures of those men look plodding. His moves have propelled him from the ranks of little-known state officials into the constellation of national conservative stars. "This guy was Tea Party before anybody came up with the idea," says Mark Rozell, a public-policy professor at George Mason University. "He doesn't back down and doesn't compromise. And his enemies consider him all the more dangerous for those reasons."

Cuccinelli argues that his opponents give him no choice. The EPA prompted his suit, he says, by violating its own rules. His judgment that colleges should strike policies protecting gays from discrimination--which moved Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, to prohibit all discrimination in the state's workforce--came after multiple colleges sought clarification. The health care law, he said at a Sept. 12 Tea Party rally, is an affront to American liberty perpetrated by an Administration with less respect for the concept than King George. "It's not so much that they wanted to trample [the Constitution]," Cuccinelli tells TIME. "It's that they didn't care."

Cuccinelli, 42, was born in New Jersey and moved as a toddler to northern Virginia. He attended the University of Virginia and earned law and master's degrees at George Mason before going into private practice as an attorney. A devout Catholic who says gay marriage clashes with natural law, Cuccinelli commutes 95 miles (153 km) to Richmond from his home in Prince William County, where his wife homeschools three of the couple's seven children. It was at her urging that he made his first foray into politics, winning a state-senate seat in 2002. Seven years later, he won 58% of the vote in the AG election after a bruising race in which opponents warned he would embarrass the commonwealth.

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