POLITICS

Slavery, Holocaust never OK as political fodder

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Politics,Local,Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Ken Cuccinelli learned last week that it's foolhardy to invoke slavery to make a political point.

The presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee set off a furor when Democratic Party video surfaced of him comparing the 19th century abolition struggle that triggered the nation's deadliest war with today's anti-abortion movement.

In remarks made in June 2012 to a Family Foundation gathering of Christian conservatives in Williamsburg, Cuccinelli connected the dots between the role of churches in the early 19th century played in fomenting the movement to contain and eradicate slavery to that of evangelicals in today's moral crusade against abortion.

A Democratic Party operative with a video camera rolling in the back of the room recorded the activist conservative attorney general's rallying cry that took on tones of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"Over time, the truth demonstrates its own rightness, and its own righteousness. Our experience as a country has demonstrated that on one issue after another. Start right at the beginning -- slavery. Today, abortion," Cuccinelli said without notes and without hesitation.

"History has shown us what the right position was, and those were issues that were attacked by people of faith aggressively to change the course of this country," he said. "We need to fight for the respect for life, not just for life but for respect for life. One leads to the other."

The Democratic Party of Virginia held the video until the head of anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List created ripples at the Conservative Political Action Convention in Washington equating slavery and abortion, making Cuccinelli's comments relevant to the national narrative.

Cuccinelli, a Roman Catholic, not only knows his message; he lives it unabashedly. His charisma and his consistent conservatism make him the perfect messenger for disaffected religious and social conservatives who have come to view the Republican establishment with suspicion. Among Virginia's far-flung local tea party organizations, the ideologically uncompromised Cuccinelli has seen his popularity soar among conservatives in the past three years.

So to the smattering of people who heard them in Williamsburg last June, Cuccinelli's words were as familiar and comforting as gravy over mashed potatoes. But to many in the broader audience that saw them last week in grainy Democratic Party video, they stung, particularly among the descendants of slaves.

"It's hurtful to me, but it's a reminder that it's ignorance. And this isn't just relegated to white people. Any number of persons of African descent have no idea about slavery and its effects," said L. Douglas Wilder, a Virginia grandson of slaves who became America's first elected black governor in 1989.

Never mind that Cuccinelli had a point, particularly on the history of abolition.

In the 1830s and 1840s, anti-slavery sentiment took root in the white denominations of the North -- the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and particularly the Quakers. The movement incubated among evangelicals, and from their ranks came fiery abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. Faith even inspired Angelina Grimke, a daughter of slaveholding South Carolina aristocrats, to renounce her homeland, her family and its wealth, move north, become a Quaker and take a leadership role in the abolition movement that helped bring about the Civil War.

The point Cuccinelli missed was the casual use of history's horrors -- slavery, racial intolerance and the Holocaust -- by a politician.

"What he said is not new. What he said is what the pro-life movement has been saying for decades. They consider it a moral crusade, not dissimilar to slavery, and they also say that to impress upon people in the movement that it's a long haul," said retired Virginia Commonwealth University political professor Robert D. Holsworth of Richmond.

"So while people in the movement are not offended at all, suggesting moral equivalence between something as horrible and brutal as slavery and abortion, it antagonizes many people outside the movement," Holsworth said. "And the Democrats are going to use that to their advantage because they want people to find (Cuccinelli) an extremist from another planet."

It inflames emotions and can doom candidates in close elections.

In late autumn of 2005, just the mention of Adolf Hitler in a television ad that Republican Jerry Kilgore never even aired signaled a floundering final gasps of his gubernatorial campaign.

More than seven months remain in Cuccinelli's race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe -- enough time to relegate last week's video clip nothing more than an asterisk by the time the votes are cast. But future missteps would be more politically costly, and the damage from them becomes cumulative.

And Ken Cuccinelli is not a guy to be muzzled, not if he's convinced he's on the side of the angels.

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Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.

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