GOP drags Virginia backwards

On September 29, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli served a subpoena demanding documents about the work of a previous employee to the University of Virginia’s administration. The attempt, the second this year (an earlier one was thrown out by a state judge) is shocking not only for its irresponsibility but also for what it portends for the future of intellectual endeavors here.

Cuccinelli, a Republican who was elected in 2009, is demanding that the university turn over a huge amount of documentation concerning the research work of a former faculty member, Dr. Michael Mann, who is now teaching at Pennsylvania State University. The subpoena suggests that in obtaining a state research grant to study African climate and ecology, Mann committed fraud against the taxpayers of Virginia because he listed two papers he had previously written about climate change that subsequently became the focus of a controversy on the methods of climate research.

The articles in question relate to a major flap about climate research methods that were used by the enemies of the Kyoto Protocol to discredit the idea of manmade global warming. The Wikipedia article on the ensuing “hockey stick” controversy summarizes it pretty well. Very briefly, Mann used a simplified graph to show that from 1,000 A.D. to now temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere have been going up, correlating with increasing industrialization and use of fossil fuels. Because there was debate about this among scientists, political allies of the energy industries jumped into the fray, suggesting skullduggery. But most scientists have tended to support Mann and his colleagues.

But whether Mann was right or wrong in the analytical methods he used is not even the point. Whenever a university-based scholar or scientist applies for a state, federal or private grant, it is generally expected that he or she will list all relevant past publications, whether someone at some point has taken issue with them or not. And it is also worth noting that there is debate and controversy on virtually all scientific questions.

But Cuccinelli, with no known scientific training, has a political purpose. He wants to fight Kyoto, cap and trade, and restrictions on the U.S. energy industries, from where a large portion of his contributions come. The attorney general wants to chill discussion of these topics on Virginia campuses.

The message is clear: those interested in getting Virginia state grants to pursue research which might fall afoul of Cuccinelli and his corporate contributers’ interests, beware! You could be accused of perpetrating a fraud on the taxpayers of Virginia, and your institution could be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending itself in court.

Cuccinelli has been attorney general of Virginia for less than a year, but already has made a big splash. He was the first state attorney general to announce that he was suing to overturn the Obama health care reform. He has also supported the move to strip citizenship from the children of undocumented immigrants. He has even flirted with the “birther” movement.

It was only recently that Virginia took such a big step backwards. It is a state that went from being prepared to close all its public schools in the 1950s rather than accept their desegregation to going for Obama in 2008, and regularly electing Democrats to the Senate and to high state offices. This change has been due to a number of factors: Ideological mellowing certainly, but also demographic change as more minorities, immigrants and transplanted Northerners enter the stream of voters.

Why the backsliding? Voter turnout dropped sharply between the 2008 national election and the 2009 state elections, specifically in the categories of people who made the difference in the earlier year: youth, minority communities, the poor. The people who had turned out in 2008 for Obama stayed home in 2009, and the results were disastrous, including the election of Cuccinelli as attorney general and Bob McDonnell as governor.

It is now a midterm election year, and it remains to be seen whether, in terms of turnout, the 2008 or 2009 pattern will prevail. Many suggest that progressive Virginians would do best not to wait for the Democratic Party organization to mobilize them, but to mobilize themselves. It is a month to the election, and not a moment to lose.

Image: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli CC BY 2.0


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.