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Ethics issues badger contenders in Va. governor’s race | TribLIVE.com
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Ethics issues badger contenders in Va. governor’s race

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Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli responds to a reporter's question as he meets backstage with the media following his participation in the Battleground Forum on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, at the Prince William campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Va.
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Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe listens during the Battleground Forum on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, ont the Prince William campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Va.

An ugly contest for the governor’s mansion is being conducted in Virginia, where former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a confidant of Bill and Hillary Clinton, hopes to wrest its control from Republicans.

McAuliffe and his Republican rival, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, have traded accusations of ethical or legal lapses.

The battle is one of two off-year gubernatorial races. Washington insiders think it could be a test run for Hillary Clinton in a 2016 presidential battleground state.

“It’s a classic race of two different philosophies,” said Ken Cuccinelli Sr., a McCandless resident and father of the GOP candidate. He understands that vicious attack ads are part of the game, “but it doesn’t make it easier to hear.”

The elder Cuccinelli left northern Virginia in 1987 to work for Consolidated Natural Gas. His son, then in college, spent a summer in Pittsburgh as an intern for Peoples Natural Gas.

Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc., with coal and gas holdings in Virginia, has given Cuccinelli’s campaign more than $100,000 since 2012, records show. A McAuliffe ad blasted Cuccinelli because his office communicated with Consol lawyers about a dispute with a property owner.

McAuliffe also has a Pittsburgh tie — Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, a California businessman who donated $100,000 to his campaign, records show.

The race is about Virginia’s economy, not personalities or the Clintons, said McAuliffe campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin. He said McAuliffe brings a “mainstream business approach” and would “work to find bipartisan compromises like the transportation bill that passed earlier this year.”

Cuccinelli’s strategist, Chris LaCivita, said the race offers voters a choice between candidates with fundamental philosophical differences. His candidate is “focused on building the middle class and expanding the economic drivers of the commonwealth,” he said.

Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell — under investigation for his relationship with a businessman who gave his family gifts and loans — on Friday began a statewide tour to tout his administration’s successes. McDonnell has said he will repay $120,000 loaned by CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr. of Star Scientific, a nutrition company.

McAuliffe, 56, uses Twitter, Facebook, email and television to portray Cuccinelli, 45, as a conservative fanatic whose positions on traditional marriage and women are “too extreme” for a sophisticated state.

Cuccinelli accuses McAuliffe, a longtime Washington insider, of being “ethically challenged” and lacking business or leadership skills.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating an electric car company that McAuliffe co-founded, as well as a sister firm. An ad released last week, paid for by the Republican Governors Association, accuses McAuliffe of trying to shift scrutiny to Cuccinelli by attacking him on energy.

The 30-second spot says McAuliffe is “desperate to shift attention away from the news about this federal investigation … a possible ‘visa-for-sale scheme,’ with the Chinese financing McAuliffe’s own business.”

The intrigue of the race is attracting attention that the New Jersey non-race between Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and state Sen. Barbara Buono, a Democrat, cannot.

Christie, who dominates in polling and fundraising, appears unstoppable, said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of Purple Strategies in Alexandria.

“For years, Republicans ran the table in Virginia,” McMahon said. “But in the past two presidential campaigns, Virginia was a battleground swing state. This year may tell us if it is still a purple state, or whether it is actually turning blue and moving out of reach for the Republicans.”

Money and friendships

McAuliffe is so entwined with the Clintons that he was nicknamed “First Friend” in Washington. He helped to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns and inaugural celebrations; for Clinton’s legal defense trust; and for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign and 2008 presidential bid.

President Clinton has appeared at many of McAuliffe’s fundraisers and, in March, he gave his campaign $100,000, matching Burkle’s gift, filings with the Virginia Public Access Project show.

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli detest each other, and their conspicuously different positions give their supporters fodder for criticism, said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Cuccinelli is viewed by many as an extremist on social issues, but he’s beloved by many conservatives for his strong stances against abortion and his attacks on ObamaCare and climate change,” Skelley said. “McAuliffe is viewed by many as a party hack who is a Virginian only by way of living in the D.C. suburbs for 20-plus years while working for Democrats in Washington.”

It’s not clear which candidate is more damaged by the McDonnell corruption investigation. State campaign finance laws allow politicians to accept gifts if they report them, and McDonnell is unlikely to resign because “there may be just enough gray in Virginia’s gift laws for him to avoid such a fate,” Skelley said.

If he did resign, Skelley noted, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling could become a factor in the race as a write-in candidate: “Crazier things have happened.”

Cuccinelli acknowledged that he amended campaign finance forms after failing to disclose substantial stock holdings in Star Scientific and gifts from Williams. A state prosecutor who reviewed his actions at Cuccinelli’s request found no evidence that he broke the law.

In a town hall meeting in Staunton last week, Cuccinelli said he disclosed his lapses: “I called a press conference to admit my mistakes, OK? That’s how committed to integrity I am. And I’m embarrassed by those mistakes.”

The GreenTech factor

McAuliffe started his car company, GreenTech Automotive, in Mississippi when his 2009 gubernatorial run failed. He received incentives from a state run by his friend, ex-Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman.

The SEC is reviewing GreenTech’s conduct in soliciting foreign investors. Separately, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is investigating whether a top immigration official improperly helped GreenTech obtain visas for foreign investors.

Also under investigation is Gulf Coast Funds Management, run by Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham, which processed the visas for GreenTech’s foreign backers.

The Cuccinelli campaign attacked McAuliffe for claiming he would bring jobs to Virginia with companies such as GreenTech, then building its plant in Mississippi.

“There are also questions about whether or not jobs and production promises McAuliffe made regarding GreenTech have panned out,” Skelley said.

McAuliffe has said he had no knowledge of the investigations and that he resigned as company chairman last year.

He holds a slim but persistent 4 percentage-point lead over Cuccinelli in recent polls.

Cuccinelli’s father points to McAuliffe’s ability to raise outside money.

“We are trying to beat money with shoe leather,” he said, explaining that the family team has knocked on more than 50,000 doors.

In a state where Democrats and Republicans have won major elections — President Obama twice, and McDonnell by 17 points — the makeup of the electorate and the harsh campaign could determine this race, Skelley said.

“While the 2013 electorate is almost certain to be whiter and older than the 2012 electorate, if Cuccinelli is tagged as a social extremist or as corrupt, he may not be able to capitalize,” Skelley said. “At the same time, if McAuliffe becomes viewed as corrupt and incapable of leading the state, he’ll obviously suffer the consequences.”

Quinnipiac University’s last poll, in July, surveyed voters before much of the GreenTech ethics case became public. The poll found McAuliffe had a 30-19 percent favorability rating, and 50 percent of voters said they didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion. Cuccinelli’s favorability rating was 31-30 percent, with 36 percent offering no opinion. Forty-seven percent of those polled approved of Cuccinelli’s job performance as attorney general.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected].

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