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.
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