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Right Hook

Gov. Bob McDonnell's national ambitions could hinge on his ability to reign in his renegade running mate.





Gov. Bob McDonnell, seen on a screen during his inaugural ball at the Greater Richmond Convention Center Jan. 16, seeks to re-brand himself as a moderate.

What do you do when there's a rogue elephant on the loose?

Run? Shoot? Drop a net?

You better decide quickly or you'll get trampled.

Gov. Bob McDonnell spent an agonizing six days deciding what to do earlier this month after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, his Republican ticket mate, dropped a bombshell legal opinion that Virginia colleges and universities should remove homosexuals from their anti-discrimination policies. In the interim, McDonnell's image and Virginia's took a pummeling.

McDonnell finally issued a directive barring discrimination based on sexual orientation from state workplaces and a warning that he'll discipline or fire anyone who doesn't comply. It lacked the legal authority of an executive order or a new state anti-discrimination law for which many had hoped, but at least it stopped a stampede of protests and satire on late-night television.

The incident tells us tons about a crucial relationship between McDonnell and Cuccinelli, which may define Virginia for the next four years. The two conservatives agree on social and state's rights issues but they have different political styles and goals. Cuccinelli is a go-for-broke opponent of centralized government whose indifference to political consequences plays to the right wing. McDonnell knows he must be pragmatic if he is to have any hope of fulfilling campaign promises to forge the bipartisan coalitions necessary to dent Virginia's economic and transportation woes.

Who will command the spotlight, McDonnell or Cuccinelli? Time will tell. Keep in mind that while they ran on the same ticket, they were elected by separate votes and that the governor has no control over the attorney general. Also remember that new governors and attorneys general face brutal learning curves that often lead to early mistakes and adjustments. Perhaps McDonnell and Cuccinelli will get in sync.

What's amazing is that Cuccinelli didn't give McDonnell a heads-up that his explosive opinion was in the works. McDonnell, according to numerous sources, was clued in when a reporter from The Washington Post asked for his reaction to it. The surprise no doubt contributed to McDonnell's slow response.

It's a mystery why the opinion was written in the first place. Cuccinelli says it was requested by clients — broadly defined as officials or agencies of state government. But he declines to specifically identify who asked for it, citing lawyer-client privilege. Letters bearing an attorney general's opinion are usually addressed to the person seeking it. Cuccinelli's missive was addressed to “Presidents, Rectors, and Visitors of Virginia's Public Colleges and Universities.”



At a celebration on the night of his swearing-in, Cuccinelli poses with the 18th-century “Don't Tread on Me” flag, which has been adopted by the Tea Party movement.

The timing was horrendous. The opinion came out during the final week of the General Assembly session, when lawmakers and McDonnell were focusing on the final details of budgets and bills. It came in the midst of intense competition between Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia to become the new corporate headquarters of defense giant Northrop Grumman. A Maryland state senator and several gay activists wrote letters apprising the Fortune 100 corporation of Virginia's of tough stance on homosexuality. So did many college students through an organized online protest.

These issues pivot on Cuccinelli's clunky political mechanics, however, which the governor may want to tune up. But don't expect McDonnell to tinker with Cuccinelli's political philosophy, because the governor likes it just the way it is.

McDonnell agrees with Cuccinelli that state laws do not bar discrimination based on sexual preference. McDonnell opined that himself when he was attorney general from 2006 to 2009. On his first day as governor, he broke precedent by refusing include one's sexual orientation in a traditional executive order banning discrimination in Virginia government. An executive order, he said, carries the weight of law. With no law on the books protecting sexual preference, he explained, there can be no executive order establishing it.

Once Cuccinelli's opinion came out, McDonnell could have doused the flames by sending emergency legislation to the General Assembly banning discrimination on sexual preference. But a spokesman for the governor said it would have been a futile effort because the House already had defeated a similar bill, introduced by Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico. The measure was rejected by McDonnell's Republican brethren in the House.

Would McDonnell have signed such a bill if it reached his desk? “The governor would consider it at that time,” replies his spokesman, Tucker Martin.

Clearly, McDonnell saw no moral imperative.

McDonnell instead saw a political boil that needed lancing and eventually threaded the needle. His directive banning bias on sexual preference is a statement of policy that claims no legal basis. Gay-rights supporters denounced the governor's action as meaningless. Several Christian right activists, who had counted McDonnell in their fold, voiced alarm that the governor would offer any solace to homosexuals.

Many in the middle, however, give McDonnell kudos for being pragmatic and keeping promises to focus on jobs and the economy — not social issues. In an odd way, the governor may have allayed some concerns about his balance raised last year with the disclosure of his graduate thesis — written at religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's Regent University — asserting that working women are detrimental to families and that government policies should give preference to married families over “cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators.” McDonnell last fall renounced the conclusions of his 21-year-old paper.

“The governor is trying to be all things to all people,” says Delegate Ken Alexander, D-Norfolk. “He's having a very difficult time balancing all the different constituencies. I pray for him.”

Cuccinelli elicits no such sympathies. He vows to sue if Congress passes a law requiring all people to have health insurance. He's asking the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its findings that global warming is a threat. And his taped comments saying it's not “beyond the range of possibility” that President Obama was born in Kenya is a sensation on YouTube. The attorney general now explains that he was ill-advisedly trying to answer a hypothetical question and that he doesn't believe the president was born abroad.

McDonnell quietly agrees with Cuccinelli when it comes to health care and global warming.

So how does the governor hope to control this storming elephant?

Very likely, with soft words and a smile.

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