The man who put the first dent in the president’s health care law, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, is a newcomer to the national stage, but he’s long been a crusader against the expansion of federal powers — winning his share of friends and foes along the way.
Mr. Cuccinelli, a Republican, says anybody who has followed his political career — including eight years in the state Senate — shouldn’t be surprised that he’s challenging the health care act, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency,against which he is also leading the charge in a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit.
“There is no question I’m one of the people on point fighting against government overreach when they get outside their legal boundaries, and they seem to be very inclined to come up very close to them and sometimes cross those lines,” he said. “The EPA has done it, the Congress and the president have done it.”
A virtual unknown outside Virginia before this week, Mr. Cuccinelli rounded out a strong Republican ticket that swept into office last year, with Robert F. McDonnell grabbing most of the attention for winning the governor’s mansion and Bill Bolling securing a second term as lieutenant governor.
“I’m on dartboards all over the country,” he said proudly.
In the ruling, Judge Henry Hudson said that forcing all Americans to buy health insurance “exceeds the constitutional boundaries of congressional power.”
Judge Hudson also accepted Mr. Cuccinelli’s argument that the administration was improperly trying to use taxing power, rather than the less robust powers under the commerce and general welfare clauses of the Constitution.
The ruling followed oral arguments this year in which Mr. Cuccinelli’s office defended a Virginia law enacted by the General Assembly that challenged the federal mandate requiring individuals to buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a fine.
Throughout his time in office, Mr. Cuccinelli hasn’t been shy about sharing his political beliefs and being confident about his arguments.
“I’ve been called plenty of things, especially in the last 24 hours; well, 25.5 hours to be exact,” he said. “But one thing nobody has said is that what we’re doing here is not something we said we would do during the campaign. No one is saying I pulled a fast one on them.”
In fact, after his election in November 2009, he started building a legal team with the skills to take on the health care package and what he saw as other questionable laws.
“When I was hiring during the transition, I was hiring with an eye toward federalism contests,” he said. “So I have people in house who have the talent to do this.”
As part of that effort, he has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Virginia and with Alabama that challenges the EPA decision that it can regulate emissions because they cause climate change and endanger human health. Mr. Cuccinelli says the regulation of carbon dioxide would hurt Virginia’s business community and cause energy prices to rise for the people who can least afford it.
The fallout from the health care ruling continued Tuesday asthe Justice Department announced it would appeal the ruling, likely ensuring that Mr. Cuccinelli’s profile continues to grow as the case winds its way through the appeals courts and toward an eventual Supreme Court showdown.
Political observers say that could help him if he runs for higher office in 2012, when Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, is up for re-election, or 2013, when the state governor’s mansion opens again.
“This ruling puts him on the political fast track, because he will get much of the credit for scoring a kill shot into the heart of Obama’s health care plan,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist.
But Mr. Cuccinelli’s Democratic opponents predict that his political star will fizzle when people become more familiar with his “extreme” political philosophy.
They accuse him of using the attorney general’s office as a political springboard to a higher political post, saying his office is too concerned with ideological battles aimed at giving the administration a bloody nose.
“He says he’s for less government, yet he’s utilizing his office to pursue every political issue that he perceives important to his constituency,” said C. Richard Cranwell, who recently stepped down as chairman of the state Democratic Party. “My assessment is that he is not worried about the citizens of the commonwealth of Virginia; he is worried about jockeying himself into position for president of the United States or governor of Virginia.”
Mr. Cranwell said the national political atmosphere eventually will come “back to the middle and when it does, he is going to get gobbled up in the electoral process, just like Democrats did a month ago.”
“I’ve been around for a long time, and let me tell you the dragon is after him,” he said. “He just doesn’t know it.”
The kind of criticism has followed Mr. Cuccinelli during his career in the state legislature, where he became a poster boy of sorts for the conservative movement, pushing legislation to curb abortion access, to crack down on illegal immigrants, to defend property rights and to fight what he has described as “the homosexual agenda.” He also played a prominent role in changing the state’s mental health laws after gunman Seung-hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty on the campus of Virginia Tech.
His political achievements made him a good fit for the “tea party” movement, which shared many of his anti-government views and rallied behind his candidacy.
But his decisions also have irked some members of the conservative base.
He recently released an opinion that said a proposal from Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican, that would require police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest was redundant and unconstitutional.
While the decision and ensuing political spat turned heads, it provided some evidence that his constitutional reads are nonpartisan in nature.
“I have been a defender of the Constitution as it was written for my entire political life,” he said.