National Commentary

The Cuccinelli Awakening

bentonmugProgressives and gay rights activists in Virginia could almost be thanking the state’s new right-wing attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.

bentonmugProgressives and gay rights activists in Virginia could almost be thanking the state’s new right-wing attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.

Cuccinelli, sworn in with a Republican governor and lieutenant governor less than two months ago, has sparked a firestorm of controversy and strident grassroots mobilizations among progressives, students and equal rights proponents. Cuccinelli lobbed a mean-spirited missive to all state colleges and universities last week telling them to remove lesbians and gays from being a “protected class” against discrimination.

It hit like a sudden wake-up call to millions of Virginians, a jarring alarm with no snooze button.

For reasons that have been analyzed to death, too many Virginians, like many elsewhere in the nation, decided to lay down for a long nap after the historic election of Barack Obama in November 2008. Try as they might, Democrats could not shake much of their base of supporters out of their slumber through 2009.

Despite warnings of the particularly unsavory right-wing extremism that topped the GOP ticket in Virginia’s elections last fall, there was a steep drop off in voter turnout among former Obama supporters, permitting a Republican sweep. Many mumbled in their sleep that Gov. Bob McDonnell and his team wouldn’t really be so bad.

So now, barely two months into his new term, comes Cuccinelli’s egregious call to strip an embattled minority of protections it had enjoyed under two previous Democratic governors in the state, knowingly unleashing a potential escalation of discriminatory acts, hate and violence against a population known to be highly susceptible to such abuses.

But Cuccinelli’s unprovoked, bigoted act has set off a massive reaction against his move with far more potential for damaging Republican chances in upcoming elections than the other way around.

The GOP ticket last year was successful in part because it sidestepped such controversies. After Obama’s sweeping win in Virginia, and after five successive statewide wins for Democrats from 2000 onward (Governors Warner and Kaine, U.S. Senators Webb and Warner, and President Obama), the Republicans consciously avoided social issues to “let the sleeping dogs lie” last fall, and it worked.

Now, however, Cuccinelli’s action has snapped every fair-minded Virginian awake, and that could have huge consequences for this fall’s mid-term election and next year’s state legislative elections.

As I wrote in a statement circulated throughout the region and on my web site this week, it is not only lesbians and gays who are impacted by Cuccinelli’s action, but it represents a threat to the state as a whole in a number of important ways. I articulated them as follows:

First, it represents an effort to remove protections that currently exist for a minority that is well-known for its susceptibility to discrimination, hate and violent attacks, from elementary school playgrounds through adulthood.

Second, it represents a major blow to Virginia’s economic development efforts, including its effort to secure the relocation of major corporations like Northrup-Grumman and other large business entities, because of the chilling effect Cuccinelli’s action will have on the desire and willingness of those businesses and their employees to locate to the state.

Third, it undermines the efforts of communities throughout the Commonwealth to foster a climate of friendship and concord in their populations by the public encouragement and embrace of diversity and affirmation of the equal rights of all their citizens.

Fourth, it fuels a climate of intimidation and hate against minorities of all types in the state in a time when mouthpieces of the far right are causing such negative trends to grow, empowering bigots with a sense of entitlement to act out their hatred with impunity.

As echoed by similar calls, mobilizations, rallies and protests throughout Virginia, my statement urged every fair-minded citizen, every civil libertarian, every elected official of any party, and every proponent of economic growth in Virginia, every advocate of civility, to go on record in strong opposition to the Attorney General’s incendiary action and to affirm that every Virginian enjoys equal protection under the law.

Wherever public resolutions or pronouncements can be enacted to this end by local jurisdictions, political action or religious groups, or business or other organizations, I urged this to be done with the sense of clarity and urgency it deserves.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at