On the Pre-Debate Campaign Trail with Ken Cuccinelli
Ken Cuccinelli isn’t showing any sweat.
This is not to say he isn’t sweating; it’s just that he can hide it well as he walks through the Holly, Woods and Vines nursery and greenhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, in a light blue dress shirt, tie, and suit pants while in 80-degree heat with the region’s traditional wet-mop-to-the-face midsummer 88 percent humidity. I, meanwhile, have arrived straight from CNN’s studios in a dark wool suit and can feel my body rapidly dehydrating as Cuccinelli talks to Vanessa Wheeler, the owner and proprietor of the nursery, about the challenges facing small businesses like hers.
Photo credit: Jim. Pretty good for a writer, huh?
The half-dozen other members of the press in attendance aren’t interested in the shipping costs of begonias; the one big topic on their minds is the new revelation about additional gifts and donations from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. to Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his family. The latest news means Williams gave a grand total in $145,000 in gifts and loans to the McDonnell family in 2011 and 2012. With any more revelations, the scandal will stop being about a wealthy donor giving expensive gifts in a potential attempt to influence the governor and start being about a wealthy donor who vastly overpaid for alleged influence with a term-limited governor.
Cuccinelli characterizes the allegations against McDonnell as a distraction from what he wants to talk about and what he contends is preeminent in the minds of most Virginia voters, the economy and job creation. (While Virginia’s unemployment rate is relatively low, sequestration and other factors have clouded the jobs outlook in the state.)
NBC’s reporter asks Cuccinelli about his own failure to report gifts from Williams.
“I inadvertently didn’t report some things. I’m the one who went back and found them, and I’m the one who held a press conference and said, ‘hey, here are all my items.’ I missed four or five over the course of four years. That’s part of my commitment to transparency. When I make mistakes, I own up to them. Back in the Senate I supported budget transparency and other changes like that. That’s also a part of why I put out eight years of my tax returns, and I think my opponent ought to do that as well.”
(Cuccinelli also asked the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney to conduct an independent review of his disclosures.)
Cuccinelli feels like he’s got a pretty good defense. He doesn’t merely not do special favors for his donors; he’s something of an ingrate, because as attorney general, he’s actually made decisions and fought suits against them.
“Speaking for my office, the only thing [Jonnie R. Williams Sr. has] ever gotten out of my office is opposition to one lawsuit. So there’s been nothing in our office other than that one case where we came out and immediately opposed their position. . . . The perception is met best by facts, and the fact is that the one occasion that something came across the desk of the attorney general’s office responsibility, they were pushed back on, they were fought, without giving an inch.”
This was a 2011 Star Scientific lawsuit, challenging a sales-and-use tax assessment on tobacco-curing barns the company owns in Mecklenburg, Va.
“Hey, look at my biggest donor in the last ten years. What did they get for it? They got an electricity bill that will drag Dominion’s revenue down $700 or $800 million over the next twelve years. That’s what they’ve got for it. Virginians will continue to get that good policy, regardless of who’s supporting me or not.” He appears to be referring to this case, where the “Virginia Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the State Corporation Commission (SCC) regarding Dominion Virginia Power’s recently concluded base rate case. The court rejected the arguments advanced by Dominion, which would have allowed Dominion to earn a higher return on equity from customers than the SCC’s interpretation of Virginia law allows.” Cuccinelli and his office represented Dominion customers in the court fight.
Cuccinelli is nine days away from his first debate with rival Terry McAuliffe, and there’s a sense he and his team are itching to get the pair on stage, early and as often as possible. Cuccinelli’s campaign proposed 15 debates, with one in every major and minor media market in the state. McAuliffe has countered with five debates, and it sounds like negotiations for the details and rules of the remaining debates are proceeding slowly and with great frustration.
“It took, like, a tractor-trailer to drag him to the [Virginia] Bar [Association] debate,” Cuccinelli sighs during an interview on the ride over to the nursery. “They threatened to walk over one candidate-to-candidate question. So he asks me one, I ask him one. They were going to walk away from the debate for that.”
Why is Cuccinelli so eager to get out on the debate stage with McAuliffe, and so determined to get to ask his rival one question? Well, watch how Cuccinelli used his one question in a debate Steve Shannon back in the 2009 attorney general’s race.
Cuccinelli’s one question: “How many divisions are there in the attorney general’s office? And please name each one and explain briefly what each one does.”
Simple . . . as long as you’ve taken the time to familiarize yourself with the office you hope to win. Unfortunately, Steve Shannon didn’t do the reading.
Shannon responded . . . “So, I’ll talk about that in just a second, but let me go [back] to the 2004 budget real quick . . .” Cuccinelli teased him about not answering the question, but Shannon continued with an answer that meandered slightly more than the Mississippi River:
The first thing is that with the 2004 budget, we had proof that there were Virgina state troopers who were eligible for food stamps. And that budget allowed them to not be eligible for food stamps. We had sheriff’s deputies who were able to get a pay raise. That was important to public safety and important for higher education. We’ve now came to the point of the election cycle where we play a game of gotcha.’ Ken asks questions about the bureaucracy, and then I come back and say, ‘Well, Ken, last week you told a reporter that hitting a cop was a misdemeanor, not a felony.’ Or ‘Ken, are you familiar with the case of Commonwealth vs. Thomas, it’s a Court of Appeals case, very important to the criminal justice system.’ It’s about a prosecutor who went after a drug dealer in possession of firearms. Do you know what the holding in that case was? I know because I was the prosecutor in that case.
But you know what, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really doesn’t matter. Because what matters is that every four and a half minutes, another violent crime is being committed in Virginia. The reality is that presence of gangs is at its worst point since 2000. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.
[audience begins to chuckle at meandering answer] The reality is, you can laugh, but there are 357 pedophiles right now who are using computers in Virginia to trade child pornography. We know who these people are, we know how to get them, but we don’t devote sufficient resources to them.
But what does Ken want to talk about? He wants to talk about arcane questions. He wants to talk about details of the bureaucracy. You know what? The reality – the reality is that kids are being abused in Virginia right now, and if you want to focus on the bureaucracy you’re clearly going to vote for Ken. But if you want somebody who’s been a prosecutor, who’s going to go after those pedophiles, who’s going to go after those gang leaders, who’s going to go after drug dealers, who doesn’t need on-the-job experience, those are the people who I want to vote for me.”
I asked Cuccinelli, “Is it safe to assume that given the opportunity, you might ask about some of the specifics of Virginia governance, and that you may, perhaps, have some doubts about Terry McAuliffe’s familiarity with all that?”
For the first time in my presence, Cuccinelli really smiles. “Perhaps.”
Cuccinelli and his team expect McAuliffe to try to shift the debate to social issues, early and often.
McAuliffe and his campaign appear to believe that in order to win the governor’s race, they need Virginians to believe that his rival is really Todd Akin. Cuccinelli and his campaign appears to believe that in order to win, they need Virginians to believe that his rival is really Terry McAuliffe.
Finally, in news you can use, Holly, Woods and Vines features Biker Chick Garden Gnomes.