Virginia's Activist Attorney General: Man on a Mission

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Steve Helber / AP

Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general of Virginia

It takes a canny politician to make his name picking fights that are always someone else's fault. And Ken Cuccinelli is not even a politician, entirely.

Since taking office in January, Virginia's new attorney general has sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its plan to regulate greenhouse gases, opined that Virginia can regulate first-trimester-abortion facilities as it can hospitals, advised that the state's public colleges lack authority to bar discrimination against gays and lesbians, tweaked the state seal to cover the bare breast of the Roman goddess Virtus and subpoenaed the University of Virginia to probe for evidence that a former professor manipulated climate-science research.

On Dec. 13, he added a victorious capstone to a frenetic freshman year when a Richmond federal judge ruled that the health care reform law's individual mandate was unconstitutional, upholding a suit Cuccinelli had filed before the ink on the bill had even dried. Cuccinelli hailed the judgment as a "shot heard round the world" but was already fixing his sights on a new target: a constitutional amendment that would allow a federal law or regulation to be nullified if two-thirds of states' legislatures support its repeal.

This series of splashy brawls has sparked Cuccinelli's meteoric ascent from little-known lawmaker to the constellation of national conservative stars. "He's the complete package," says Richard Viguerie, a Virginia-based éminence grise of the conservative movement. "He's not just a social conservative or an economic conservative. He's willing to blaze new paths and buck his party. That's the test of true leadership."

That's also why opponents have issued withering indictments of his activist tenure, blasting him as a culture warrior more interested in stymieing progressive policies or establishing himself as a boldfaced name than in carrying out the duties of his office. But Cuccinelli says his litany of legal battles merely fulfills his oath as the commonwealth's top lawyer. "My predecessors have had big, ambitious legislative agendas, and I just haven't," he says. Take the suit against the EPA, his first against the federal government. "They nakedly violated their own rules in that whole process, and we don't think they abided by the minimum standards of the law," he says. "If they don't go about it in that way, there's no suit." The judgment that colleges can't protect against antigay discrimination — which Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell overruled amid a frenzied backlash — came after Cuccinelli was asked to issue an opinion on the matter. 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 had. "It's not so much that they wanted to trample [the Constitution]," Cuccinelli says of the health care law's backers. "It's that they didn't care."

Just as Sarah Palin harnessed Facebook as a medium to inveigh against Beltway elites, Cuccinelli has leveraged his niche at the nexus of politics and the law to stir up supporters. This is the paradox of the perch: he is an unabashed partisan elected to an office that prioritizes public service over politics, a defender of the Constitution eager to rewrite parts of it. His 14 seasons as a youth-basketball referee, he says, were a perfect preparation for the controversies he's weathered, "because every time you blow the whistle, half the people are mad at you." It tends to be the same half.

He has hardly soft-pedaled his principles. "For all the criticism of me, there's one thing you won't hear anybody say, and that's that I've pulled the wool over anyone's eyes," Cuccinelli tells TIME. "One of my unique features as a politician is that I am so blunt and so forthright, and I put my cards on the table to such a degree people aren't used to that there's nothing left to hide."

Cuccinelli, 42, was born in New Jersey and moved as a toddler to northern Virginia. He attended college at the University of Virginia and earned law and master's degrees at George Mason University before going into private practice as an attorney. In 2002 he won what had seemed to be a long-shot bid for the state senate, where he worked to curb abortions and crack down on illegal immigration, pushing measures to change the 14th Amendment's birthright-citizenship clause, allow business to sue competitors who employed undocumented aliens and rescind unemployment compensation for employees unable to speak English.

"A few years ago, people were dismissive of him as an out-there legislator who was close to losing his seat, which he almost did [in 2007]," says Mark Rozell, a public-policy professor at George Mason. "This guy was Tea Party before anybody came up with the idea. He's the real deal. He's not spouting lines to mobilize a constituency to win a caucus or a primary. He's a true believer. He doesn't back down and doesn't compromise. And his enemies consider him all the more dangerous for those reasons."

In 2009's off-year election, he rode a wave of frustration with a Democratic Congress and White House to a victory in a down-ticket attorney general race, notching 58% of the vote despite the derision of opponents and a bevy of newspaper editorials that warned he would embarrass the state. Critics argue he has. To gay-rights groups, he's marked the commonwealth as a bastion of intolerance, while educators worry that his UVA subpoena will chill scientific inquiry, tarnish the reputations of the state's elite universities and inhibit their ability to attract talent. "I suspect this is part of a performance to create bona fides for future runs for office," says Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, of Cuccinelli's investigation of former UVA professor Michael Mann. "It's ironic that here he is worrying about fraud against taxpayers when he is committing a ridiculous expenditure of taxpayer money for nothing."

Indeed, several investigations have cleared Mann of any accusations of fraudulent activity, and a judge quashed the original subpoena in August. "The thing on UVA was his own effort," Dave Albo, a Fairfax delegate and a friend of Cuccinelli's, told the Washington Examiner. "I agree with him on it. But would I have sued them or something? I don't think so. If I was attorney general, I'd have other things to do."

Cuccinelli is not quite a doctrinaire conservative. He has opposed expansive application of the death penalty, drawn fire for ruling against his base on a gun-rights issue and was one of just two state attorneys general to decline to file an amicus brief in support of a father whose son's funeral was picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church. "I find those people to be incredibly loathsome," he explains, "but the question was, Are you going to put a dent in the First Amendment?"

That civil-libertarian streak is often obscured by his small-government bent and staunch federalism. Cuccinelli believes government has sprawled beyond its constitutional territory, and his fights to roll it back has made him a standard bearer for a virulent brand of conservatism that has found favor in recent months. "His timing is very, very good," says Viguerie. "He fits the mood of the country, which made a significant turn to the right on Nov. 2. Ken is ahead of that curve, and he's perfectly positioned to be a major conservative leader." Attendees at a recent Virginia Tea Party convention sported "Cuccinelli for President" stickers, and pundits have floated his name as a potential candidate in the state's 2012 Senate race against first-term incumbent Jim Webb (who says he's not interested) or the 2013 gubernatorial contest (which elicited less-definitive denials).

To be sure, Cuccinelli's recent moves make it seem as if he is running for something. In the wake of the health care ruling, he took a conspicuous victory lap, launching a fundraising drive to "help defend Ken against the liberal media attacks" — all while he made the media rounds to explain, in a professorial manner, the law underpinning his positions. "I don't mind knife fights," he says. "I just want the knives to come to the front." The knives are out for Cuccinelli, but the battles that made him a target have also helped him raise an army of his own.