Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia attorney general who brought the first successful legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s health-care law, displays his political lineage on his Christmas card.
It features a photograph of the 42-year-old, his wife and seven children, standing before historic St. John’s Church in Richmond where Revolutionary War leader Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Cuccinelli said the backdrop seemed appropriate.
Obama signed the legislation March 23, 235 years to the day after Henry’s call to arms, and Cuccinelli says he also is fighting to free Americans from the excesses of government.
The health law “epitomizes the incredible growth of government power and the overreach of federal power into every aspect of society in ways that aren’t legal or constitutional,” Cuccinelli, who was elected attorney general in 2009 after eight years as a Republican state senator, said in an interview.
In his first year as attorney general, the proponent of limited government and low taxes and anti-abortion advocate also has challenged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its finding that greenhouse gas emissions are a health danger.
After Obama signed the health-care law, it took Cuccinelli 15 minutes to file his lawsuit charging that Congress has the power only to tax, and can’t force people to participate in a market. This week, a federal judge agreed with his assertion that the measure unconstitutionally requires Americans to maintain a minimum level of health insurance.
The case, which is all but certain to reach the Supreme Court, might make Cuccinelli a national figure in his party.
“He has nailed a major scalp to the wall,” said Richard Land, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville. “This puts him on the map.”
The ruling “is very helpful to him politically,” said former Republican Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, who led his party’s recruitment efforts in Congress from 1998 to 2002. “I don’t think his career will end as attorney general.”
Bob Holsworth, the founder of the nonpartisan website Virginia Tomorrow, which tracks trends in state politics, said Cuccinelli is “becoming a conservative version of Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer,” both of whom were elected New York governors after stints as attorney general. “Where they made reputations suing companies, he is suing the federal government.”
Some analysts say Cuccinelli is expanding the role of his office to push a personal agenda.
“He’s a very ambitious guy and has been for a very long time,” said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. “I highly doubt he’s in it merely for the legalistic side of the issue.”
He’s already using the victory to raise money. The day of the judge’s Dec. 13 ruling, Cuccinelli’s campaign website started an appeal: “A major health-care victory today, but the liberal assault has already begun. Donate now!”
Cuccinelli received a standing ovation at Virginia’s Tea Party Convention in October.
“He’s a bit of a rock star in the movement right now,” said Chip Tarbutton, president of the Roanoke Tea Party in Virgina.
Cuccinelli earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia and studied law at George Mason University’s School of Law and Economics, where he also earned a master’s degree in international relations. Cuccinelli says he likes to read -- he just finished a biography of Patrick Henry -- and skeet shoot. A practicing Catholic who attended parochial high school, he said his children, age 1 to 15, are home-schooled through the sixth grade.
“I would recommend it to anybody,” he said.
The challenge to the health-care law isn’t the first time Cuccinelli has drawn attention. In his first year in office, he also demanded that the University of Virginia turn over documents related to research by a global warming scientist to determine if grants were obtained improperly.
On his website, Cuccinelli says the science and data that contributed to the EPA’s ruling on the harm caused by greenhouse gases aren’t “simply unreliable, but involve enough mendacity to warrant the label ‘Climategate.’”
He stirred controversy on Virginia campuses in March when he sent a letter to public universities and colleges saying they can’t prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation because that authority rests with the state legislature. That prompted Republican Governor Bob McDonnell to issue a directive banning discrimination against gay state employees.
“He’s using the office to push an ideological political agenda,” said Paul Goldman, former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party.
As a state lawmaker, Cuccinelli supported initiatives to change the U.S. Constitution so children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants wouldn’t be granted citizenship; deny unemployment benefits to workers who were fired for not speaking English, and limit abortions.
Cuccinelli says his actions are guided by legal principles and not thoughts of his political future.
“We make decisions on how to proceed in this office first based on the law,” he said. “And that starts first and foremost with the Constitution.”