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The Va. Vote: The Cuccinelli-Oleszek Showdown

Night after night, Ken Cuccinelli and Janet Oleszek knock on doors in Fairfax County, and night after night, hardly a soul asks either candidate for state Senate about abortion, same-sex marriage, guns or global warming.

"Tell me about that tax, the abuser fees," says Jeanne Loeffler when Cuccinelli, her Republican state senator, comes calling. "It's fine to go after dangerous drivers, but it's got to be the same for everybody."

"Are you going to extend the Metro?" Joel Hutchison asks the Democratic challenger, Oleszek, when she hits him up for a vote in next month's election. "I'm a big proponent of that tunnel through Tysons. Tell me that's not a dead idea."

The issues politicians use to inflame emotions and gin up support from the easily polarized have little to do with the daily lives of voters, most of whom tend to focus on problems government can actually solve.

Cuccinelli's strident opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage never comes up as he goes door to door in Fair Lakes, but many voters know that he voted for the transportation bill that included the infamous, widely loathed fees to penalize reckless drivers. The senator defends that vote as an anomaly: "I'm an anti-tax guy, but I decided I had to go along with this to get us the money we need for our roads."

Cuccinelli is a charmer, a lean, earnest, polite fellow who manages in the evening I spend with him to win over several voters who were steamed about those abusive-driver fees. Yes, he compromised this time, he says, but that's not what you're buying when you pick Ken Cuccinelli.

"I don't back off my positions," he says. "I play a role in the Senate and in my own caucus: I act as a restraint." Cuccinelli is a throwback to a time when Republicans meant it when they said they were for smaller government. Deeply religious, he and his wife home-school four of their five daughters. And even as his district grows more Democratic, Cuccinelli makes no effort to shy from his hard-line conservative positions.

"Some of my colleagues" -- he mentions fellow Republican and next-district neighbor Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis -- "are more the representative model of government, changing as the voters do. I stand in one place and try to sell people on my philosophy."

So Cuccinelli hopes voters will set aside their antipathy toward President Bush and the war in Iraq and see their state senator's advocacy for school vouchers and tighter restrictions on abortion as evidence that he is a principled, predictable voice.

Oleszek's strategy is to point to those same positions and paint Cuccinelli as a wacko. Okay, she doesn't use that word. She uses these: "Kooky." "Extreme." Or, as her latest piece of literature puts it, "our state Senator lost his marbles."

At each door, Oleszek, a member of the Fairfax School Board since 2004, repeats her dedication to "kids, schools and education," voices dismay over the impact of the No Child Left Behind testing regimen, and sums up her differences with the incumbent like this: "I'm more like you. I look more like the people of this district."

She has a point. Cuccinelli is the first to admit his district is, as he says, "trending left." In 2004, voters in the southwestern Fairfax district went for John F. Kerry over Bush, and in 2006 they chose James Webb over then-Sen. George Allen. In fast-growing parts of the district, voters broke with most of Virginia and said no to a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Anything but slick, Oleszek seems to be counting on those demographic changes to carry her campaign. In a cable TV debate and at the doors, she points voters toward Cuccinelli's ideological passions and away from specifics about what she would do in Richmond.

She shies from questions about raising taxes. Asked how she would pay for road improvements, she criticizes abusive-driver fees but won't talk about taxes. "I'm not going to identify one particular solution," she says. "It's disingenuous to say I won't or will raise taxes to solve all your ills. Absolutes are disingenuous. I'm not so rigid that I won't compromise. That's a really big difference between Ken and me."

She deflects questions about illegal immigration. Voters keep bringing up the issue, she says, because "people are confused. People hear about things immigrants are supposedly doing and they believe it."

During the TV debate, she froze on some questions, stammering and halting. How did the debate go, I ask her a couple of days later.

"It went," she says. "Ken is very politically adept. He's a very articulate lawyer, a practiced politician. I think it's pretty clear that I'm not."

Rather than answer a debate question about transportation, she slams the state's noisy political blogs. "If I absolutely believed blogs were factual, I would be reading them," she says. "But in fact they are not. They are hearsay. They are speculative."

Making amends a couple of days later, Oleszek appears on a liberal blog, Raising Kaine, to heap praise on "the progressive blog community." Later, she tells me that "I have a concern about stream of consciousness on the Internet. I still write letters by hand. There's value in reflection."

There's not much reflection in this campaign, an aggressive, expensive showdown between a reserved, awkward liberal challenger and a smooth, hard-line conservative senator. Nobody's tacking to the center here. If any race will reveal Northern Virginia's political direction, this is it.

By Marc Fisher |  October 11, 2007; 7:14 AM ET
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Cuccinelli is a wimp on driver fees, and Oleszek is a wimp on illegal immigration. Neither one is out front articulating a bold vision for transportation. Basically, both of them are pretty weak-kneed on the issues that matter most to the voters. In the end, Cuccy has demonstrated a greater willingness to be clear about his positions so that voters can make an informed choice about him, as opposed to Oleszek who seems to regularly be searching for generic answers to specific issue questions. I've just never had much respect for that approach to campaigning.

Posted by: vajent | October 11, 2007 9:02 AM

"Cuccinelli...has demonstrated a greater willingness to be clear about his positions so that voters can make an informed choice about him..."

While I do not get a warm, fuzzy feeling from Janet Oleszek, I can't think of any situation where Ken Cuccinelli would get my vote. I am a lifetime Republican, but the party in Virginia hardly represents my views, especially on social issues. I respect Cuccinelli's faith and personal beliefs, but they have no place in the state house. Spending the limited legislative session arguing about social issues while the Commonwealth is falling apart needs to stop NOW! Focus on transportation, education, and quality of life issues which separate us from places like Arkansas. Abusive driver fees as the key issue? God help us! Obey the traffic laws and you won't have an issue.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | October 11, 2007 9:39 AM

Classic campaign its all about GOTV

Posted by: Textbook | October 11, 2007 10:04 AM

I respect "Cooch" for sticking to his principles, but it's time for him to go.

Posted by: Loudoun Voter | October 11, 2007 12:52 PM

GO KEN!!!! He's competent - she's so in over her head. Watch one debate and that's pretty clear.

Posted by: LA | October 11, 2007 2:32 PM

It's time for Cooch to go home and spend more time home-schooling his kids.

Posted by: CallMeSkeptical | October 11, 2007 4:58 PM

Oh and way to throw your fellow Republican JMDD under the bus, Cooch. I'm sure she appreciates the shoutout.

Posted by: CallMeSkeptical | October 11, 2007 4:59 PM

What a bunch of pathetic choices for NOVA-no wonder VA looks dysfunctional to the rest of the country with our McMissle cases, etc. I swear I am moving back to Montgomery County MD. As a life long democrat I have to say "none of the above" on this election. As a member of The FCPS School Board for 4 years, Janet could have made a difference and she didn't. Same old crap we have gotten from those members all these years. MO MONEY, MO MONEY, MO MONEY year after year and lower quality end product. The drop out rates are horrendous, the minority achievement gaps are a disgrace, FCPS is YEARS behind all the other school districts on the ESL challenges. Janet's Legacy- defying NCLB and blindly following Jack Dale and his misguided path of not testing the kids who NEED THE MOST HELP in our school system. She FAILED our kids miserably as a SB member and hardly deserves another chance. ZERO INTEGRITY and lacks leadership.

Posted by: takebackourschools | October 12, 2007 11:46 AM

From the comments from some of the other folks in this blog, it is clear that they have either not attended their debates and/or spoken with the candidates directly.

Mainstream Issues - first Ken has made clear his position on illegal immigration and helped fix some problems with the Fairfax County Zoning Office and their inspectors that will enable the county to determine when illegal immigrants are breaking zoning laws...this seems to be positive action.

Second - as to the issue of taxes and traffic- again - he helped bring $400 million to NVA - again - how is this not important?

Third- he has been working to change the formula used by the state to determine the amount of money returned to counties for education - NVA generates about 25% of the funds used by the state to fund education - but we receive back something less than 10% - he is trying to change that formula so NVA receives more of the money we generate...Janet is for keeping the formula as it is...and she is FOR education?

And how would anyone vote for ANY candidate that says that she has to "waffle" on an answer - yes - this is what she said in a live debate with Ken at Springfield - I know - I saw it - and then she tried to deny making the waffle comment in their next televised debate.

This has nothing to do with being "smooth" or "refined" - this has to do with the basic credibility and character of the candidate...this is what you want to have representing you in Richmond?

No matter how smooth or raw the "presentation" is - Janet has no competent answers on any issue that I can think of that has real impact on us here in NVA.

Plus - Janet stated recently in a public session that she is really a "Californian" - really? I thought she was running for office in this the type of person you want representing you in Richmond?!

As to the social issues - neither candidate will have much of an impact on these national issues - except for the issue of the 2nd Amendment. Any real conservative understand that the police may or may not be there to help you when confronted by a criminal. Janet would see all law-abiding citizens left unarmed - her own quote "I don't see how more guns make for a safe society"...really? So it is important to disarm the good guys so only the criminals will have them...this is an issue that she is vocal on and would likely push for action to further control guns (by law abiding citizens)...DC is the perfect example of a criminal paradise of firearms...and there is guns everywhere there - schools, libraries, etc, because the criminals don't obey the gun ban...go figure.

While I am a republican, I voted for Jim Moran while I lived in Alexandria - and I have voted for democrats when I thought they were superior to their republican counterpart - and I regret voting for President Bush in the last election...however, after witnessing Janet's use of "spies" against Ken's campaign (and getting caught!), using negative ads with no substance as a primary tool against her opponent, and her comments about not wanting to believe information from blogs then the very next week using a blog herself, I have no faith in her character and even less in her abilities to identify, establish positions and take action on key issues that do impact us every day; she is not someone I want representing me or my interests. I believe, if elected, she will be a harbinger of incompetent government and higher taxes.

Posted by: Tony | October 19, 2007 11:36 PM

The candidates in this district are both pretty poor. However, Oleszek has seperated herself from the incumbent with her campaign's incredible zest for going negative and nasty. I receive flyers from her campaign on an almost daily basis and rarely do they have anything positive to say. Cucinelli is a little too slick for my tastes and his position against the smoking ban is nonsensical.
The kicker though for me was listening to Oleszek on WMAL discussing the GMU sexstravaganza. It is easy for her to take shots at people but she will not answer a tough question. I wish Chap Peterson was running in my district, I would vote for him in a heartbeat.

Posted by: fairfaxgoper | October 26, 2007 8:48 AM

go janet :)

Posted by: mhmm. | November 5, 2007 10:28 PM

Oleszek may have been a clumsy campaigner, but one thing is absolutely clear: she's not going to try to force her religious beliefs into my doctor's office. She's not going to try to force my partner and I to have children if our birth control method fails.

She's not going to try to deny safe and legal abortion to all families except for those who can afford to fly their wives or daughters to states where abortion will remain legal.

If Cuccinelli ever got his way, what would happen to a woman caught seeking abortions? Would she be imprisoned until delivery? Would the birth take place with the woman shackled to the delivery table, as many prison systems require? Where else can his plans take us?

How can Cuccinelli claim to be a proponent of "less government" when he's trying to put the government in our beds, our underwear, and our physicians' offices?

Posted by: Ankhorite | November 10, 2007 2:42 AM

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