Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli answers questions… (Matt McClain/The Washington…)
Two weeks after he was sworn in as Virginia attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II went to court one last time as a private-practice lawyer.
Fellow lawyers viewed the appearance at the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in January 2010 as unusual because attorneys general almost never handle private cases. At the time, Cuccinelli’s deputy told The Washington Post that the case involved “some sensitive issues and some child witnesses, and the client wanted some sensitivity, and he wanted Ken Cuccinelli, so he finished out that matter.”
Cuccinelli’s office didn’t say so then, but the client was Ron M. Grignol Jr., a former House of Delegates candidate embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife.
Grignol is also the former leader of Fathers for Virginia, which seeks to “empower divorced fathers as equal partners in parenting,” and of a second group that contends that men are frequently victimized by false allegations of domestic abuse. Grignol did not respond to requests for comment about the groups, which some women’s rights organizations have accused of distorting the facts about domestic violence.
Cuccinelli’s legal work for Grignol, whom he also knew from Virginia political circles, is one facet of his relationship with the fathers’ rights movement, a loose national network of activists who think the legal system is stacked against men in divorce and custody cases. As a state senator, Cuccinelli introduced legislation on divorce law backed by national fathers’ rights groups, which have urged members to get out the vote for him.
Cuccinelli’s support for aspects of the groups’ agenda illustrates how his personal and religious views have helped shape his political career and continue to affect it as he runs for governor against businessman Terry McAuliffe (D).
His ties to the groups could spill over to the governor’s race as Democrats have seized on Cuccinelli’s stances on women’s health and abortion. In a state with a stark gender gap on such issues, the McAuliffe campaign could target Cuccinelli’s advocacy of fathers’ rights to further depress his support among women. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed McAuliffe with a 12-point lead over Cuccinelli among female voters.
Fathers’ rights groups have urged states to revise their laws to grant men more time with their children in joint custody proceedings. They have been criticized by some women’s groups for seeking to reduce child support payments.
“We support candidates who support the idea that children should have a full relationship with both of their parents, regardless of their present marital status,” said Michael McCormick, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. “I would say Ken Cuccinelli is a strong supporter of that particular premise.”
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) have both vetoed “equal parenting” bills this year that would, among other things, increase the minimum amount of time fathers get with their children in joint custody agreements. Critics of such measures say they remove too much discretion from family court judges.
McCormick said his group hopes to pass similar legislation across the country and “were Ken Cuccinelli to become the governor of Virginia, we believe he might well be receptive to signing it.”
Bills on fathers’ rights
Cuccinelli does not have a position on the fathers’ rights movement and does not think divorce and custody laws discriminate against men, campaign spokeswoman Anna Nix said.
“Study after study clearly demonstrates that children are better off with two parents and that children who do not live with both parents are next best off with regular, healthy contact with both parents,” Nix said. “Like millions of Virginians, Ken’s commitment to these values and principles are steadfast.”
The campaign might largely avoid the topic now. But Cuccinelli, a Catholic and father of seven, has been outspoken in his views on divorce.
“If you are sued for divorce in Virginia, there’s virtually nothing you can do to stop it,” Cuccinelli said in 2008 to the Family Foundation, a socially conservative Richmond-based advocacy group. “This law has everything to do with the breakdown of the family. The state says marriage is so unimportant that if you just separate for a few months, you can basically nullify the marriage. What we’re trying to do is essentially repeal no-fault divorce when there are children involved.”
As a state senator in 2005, Cuccinelli offered a bill that would have made it so parents initiating a no-fault divorce could have that action counted against them “when deciding custody and visitation.” The measure never came to a vote, but Cuccinelli won praise from Stephen Baskerville, then-president of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, for fighting against the no-fault divorce “epidemic.”