Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, came out with a new ad this week touting the efforts he made as a University of Virginia undergraduate to combat campus sexual assault. In the video, Cuccinelli and his wife, Teiro, relate a story told in a Washington Post profile of the attorney general four years ago: One night, he was doing calculus homework when he heard his female roommate’s piercing scream. He rushed to her room, where the burglar trying to sexually assault her was already fleeing out the window. “It became a call to action,” the Post recounted. “He transformed himself into a self-taught campus expert and agitator on the problem of sexual assault.”
On its face, something feels very rich about college Cuccinelli defending the rights of sexual assault victims, when Attorney General Cuccinelli has been accused, probably fairly, of approaching rape with all the sophistication of former Rep. Todd Akin. You can see writers struggling to find something wrong with it. Elspeth Reeve, writing for The Atlantic Wire, says “his narrative simplifies the problem of sexual assault on campus—most assaults aren't perpetrated by random intruders, but by friends or dates.” But that’s being unfair to Cuccinelli. After all, he didn’t choose the “narrative” that brought him to the issue of campus sexual assault—his friend was brutally attacked (“Cuccinelli had never heard a cry so loud and long, so pained and panicked”) and he reacted. And in the wake of his friend’s near-assault—regardless of whether it was representative of most attacks—Cuccinelli’s efforts to prevent rape at the UVA were pretty exemplary. He educated himself about sexual assault statistics. He learned what kinds of resources the university lacked—a sexual assault education coordinator; a student group to raise awareness about the issue—and raised a lot of hackles in order to bring those resources to campus. He spoke and grieved with other survivors. One organization he helped create still exists today to educate students on consent and prevention (ironically, with programming aimed at LGBT students). It’s about the most one could ask of any college student—let alone an undergrad who exemplified the “preppy, careerist, gung-ho U-Va. male,” in the Post’s telling.
But that careerist college student grew up to be the careerist public servant who is now angling to be Virginia’s governor, and Reeve wants to know, essentially, what has Cuccinelli done for women lately? It’s an entirely fair question with a roundly damning answer. Cuccinelli does not support a rape and incest exception to abortion bans. He does not see the need for the state to fund Planned Parenthood—which provides services as wide-ranging as HIV testing, prenatal care, and adoption referrals for thousands of women living in the Commonwealth. He has supported legislation that would allow pharmacists to refuse to provide emergency contraception if it violates their conscience, and feels employers should be able to dictate whether the health insurance plans they offer cover contraception. He pushed legislation that would have banned third-trimester abortions in Virginia, even in emergencies that endangered the life of the mother. Four years ago, he had the opportunity to help amend Virginia law in a way that would make sex with minors a more serious offense; he opted instead to defend the statute lawmakers were trying to replace, an unconstitutional state ban on sodomy. He is silent on whether he supports equal pay legislation.
So what is really bothersome about Cuccinelli’s brush with sexual assault activism is that it highlights how narrow Cuccinelli’s view of the world really is. In broad strokes, it resembles Rob Portman’s announcement that he had changed his view of same-sex marriage sometime after his son, William, came out to him. It was good to be able to count the Republican senator from Ohio as an ally. But it was unfortunate that there had been no room in the elder Portman’s worldview for the perspectives of gay people before he learned that someone he loved was gay. Likewise, it’s admirable that when the people closest to Cuccinelli are in crisis, he responds by being a fierce and unremitting friend. But a politicians’ responsibility is to address the problems that plague all of his constituents—not just the issues that impress themselves on the people he cares about personally. Besides, the menu of problems that are likely to affect the friends of a modern American politician is quite short. No one in Cuccinelli’s social circles is likely to ever want for affordable prenatal care, or to find themselves pregnant with no clue as to how she can support a child. Men like Cuccinelli—and men like Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent—don’t have poor friends.
That wouldn’t be an issue if Cuccinelli had a more generous moral imagination. But there is nothing in Cuccinelli’s record as a legislator or attorney general to suggest that he thinks about the causes he takes up from the perspective of the women he serves. That Cuccinelli is an empathetic friend I have no doubt. But he is not running for Virginia’s friend. He is running for its highest office, without very much to recommend him.
Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.