How Tim Kaine Went From City Council To Vice Presidential Candidate

Jul 27, 2016
Originally published on July 27, 2016 9:00 pm

Most Americans will get their first real look at Tim Kaine when he speaks at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night. Of all the people Hillary Clinton considered as her vice presidential running mate, he has the most experience at all levels of government. But there is an irony in the Virginia senator's career.

In the heart of the Old Confederacy, Kaine's rise has been fueled in part by his personal commitment to racial reconciliation. Politics, race and religion can make for a controversial mix, but for Kaine, they have comprised the core of his public and political life.

"I do what I do for spiritual reasons," he said in a C-SPAN interview.

Raised in Kansas City where he worked in his father's iron welding business, and educated by Jesuit priests in high school, Kaine went to the University of Missouri, then to Harvard Law School. Along the way, he took a year off to do missionary work in Honduras, where he picked up Spanish.

There he found a new kind of Catholic worship.

"Mass was two and a half hours long and it was so vibrant and chaotic and fun," he recalled. "I learned how a strong spiritual life can help you deal with the challenges we all face in life."

Settling down in Richmond

Returning to Harvard, his soon-to-be wife, Anne Holton, persuaded him they should settle down in Richmond, Va., where she had grown up. The lure was the predominantly black Catholic church where the Kaine family has worshipped ever since. Indeed, Kaine sang in the choir every week for ten years, until he had to give it up because his obligations at various levels of government meant he couldn't make the Wednesday night rehearsals.

Kaine practiced law in Richmond for 15 years, focusing on civil rights cases and winning a multi-million-dollar settlement to end housing discrimination in bank lending practices.

His wife Anne, a former judge and state secretary of education, was no stranger to racial conflict. In 1970, her father, Republican Governor Linwood Holton, was frozen out of politics after he lead the way to school desegregation in the Commonwealth. As governor, he not only decided not to appeal a court order to desegregate, he sent his children to the predominantly African-American public schools in the center of Richmond.

Linwood Holton, now 92, has been something of a mentor to his son-in-law, and encouraged him to get involved in public service.

But when Kaine decided to run for the racially divided and dysfunctional Richmond City Council in 1994, Holton couldn't believe his ears.

"You're crazy!" Holton recalls telling Kaine, who replied, "But I thought you encouraged me to get into government."

"I did," Holton agreed, adding, "but the city council is where they bury budding politicians."

It didn't work out that way. Kaine proved such a successful peacemaker that the majority black council voted by acclamation to elect him mayor in 1998 and then to re-elect him for a second term. Only one council member dissented.

According to Kaine's former law partner and friend Thomas Wolf, the councilman wanted to make a "wholly inappropriate" deal in exchange for his support, telling Kaine that the vote would then be "unanimous." Kaine just laughed, Wolf says, informing the councilman," I don't even get unanimous support in my own household. I don't think I need it on the council."

In 2001, Kaine was elected lieutenant governor, and four years later governor.

Balancing faith and politics

Along the way, he had to reconcile two articles of his Catholic faith with his political life: his opposition to abortion and to the death penalty; Kaine viewed both as the taking of a life.

Abortion was the simpler one. Like many other Catholic officials, he said he would not impose his own religious beliefs on women who have contrary beliefs. On the death penalty, he pledged that he would follow Virginia law. It was a pledge that he would carry out, but it was painful.

As a private lawyer, Kaine had twice represented men on death row. But as governor he upheld the death penalty for all but one of the 11 men seeking clemency. He did grant clemency in that one case, persuaded that the man was mentally incapacitated.

Kaine's former chief of staff Wayne Turnage describes execution days as "very emotionally draining" in the governor's office. "During the course of the day he was a different guy, a little more somber."

'Impeccable timing'

Kaine was a popular governor with a 57 per cent approval rating when he left office. But the Republican legislature refused to adopt any of his initiatives. Instead, Kaine's tenure coincided with the worst national recession in generations; he spent much of his time, and skill, making massive budget cuts while at the same time trying to preserve essential public services.

"I think governor Kaine's greatest accomplishment was his stewardship over the state budget during the worst economy in 50 years," Turnage says, adding that other states are still paying the price of less effective leadership back then.

Kaine had planned to return to private life at the end of his term, but when the state's junior senator announced he would not run for re-election, Kaine stepped in to run and win, again. Indeed, Kaine has never lost an election.

Washington Post reporter Steve Hendrix sums up Kaine's career as "the politics of updraft."

"The central feature of Tim Kaine's political career is his impeccable timing," Hendrix says. "He was a liberal social justice candidate for Virginia at the very moment that the state was ready for it."

Among the first high profile officeholders to endorse Barack Obama for President in 2007, Kaine served for two years as chairman of the Democratic National Committee after Obama was elected, a position that for the first time put him on the national stage.

While Kaine's tenure in office has been scandal-free, he did accept $160,000 worth of gifts, during his eight years as governor and lieutenant governor. Though Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has branded Kaine as "corrupt Kaine" for accepting these gifts, records indicate two-thirds of them provided transportation or reimbursement for work-related travel. Of the rest, the largest amount was $45,000 for campaign-related travel when Kaine toured the country campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008.

All the gifts and reimbursements were meticulously disclosed, including personal gifts from friends for less than $100, and all were legal under Virginia's ethics laws at the time. The largest personal gift Kaine disclosed was a week-long stay worth $18,000 at the Carribbean vacation home of Kaine's friend James B. Murray, Jr., a venture capitalist. The value was apparently based on what it would have cost to rent the property. Kaine subsequently recommended that the state legislature tighten the state's lax ethics laws.

The subject has been a hot one in Virginia since the man who succeeded Kaine as governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, was convicted of extortion and bribery for secretly accepting $175,000 in loans, luxury items, and other benefits. The undisclosed gifts came from a single businessman who was seeking help to promote his products with the state government. Even though the conviction was subsequently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, the state legislature enacted a new and somewhat more rigorous ethics law.

Criticism from the left

Few believe that ethics concerns will be a problem for Kaine. What is a problem for some on the left is that they see Kaine as too centrist. That is in part because Kaine has supported trade agreements that have benefited Virginia's export-rich economy, and he signed a letter supporting the easing of regulations on small and mid-size regional banks.

These objections may say more about the current state of the Democratic party than Kaine, suggests Daniel Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond. "I think it suggests just how far the liberal wing of the party has gone, and how aggressive they are about their demands," he says. "They're true believers, and so they're not interested in any deviation."

There are true believers in the U.S. Senate too, but Kaine's sunny, upbeat disposition has served him well there. He's forged relationships, and occasional compromise, with republicans of all ideological stripes. On the day Hillary Clinton picked Kaine as her running mate, conservative Republican Jeff Flake tweeted, "Trying to count the ways I hate Tim Kaine. Drawing a blank. Congrats to a good man and a good friend."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Most Americans will get their first real look at Tim Kaine tonight when he speaks at the Democratic National Convention. Of all the potential running mates Hillary Clinton could have picked, the Virginia senator is the most experienced at all levels of government. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: There's an irony to Tim Kaine's political career in Virginia. In the heart of the old Confederacy, his rise has been fueled in part by his personal commitment to racial reconciliation and to his faith, as he put it in a C-SPAN interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM KAINE: I do what I do for spiritual reasons.

TOTENBERG: Raised in Kansas City where he worked in his father's iron welding business, educated by Jesuit priests in high school, Kaine went to the University of Missouri then to Harvard Law School. Along the way, he took a year off to do missionary work in Honduras. There, he learned...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAINE: How a strong spiritual life can help you deal with the challenges that we all face in life.

TOTENBERG: Returning to Harvard, his soon-to-be wife, Anne Holton, persuaded him they should settle down in Richmond, Va., where she'd grown up. The lure was the predominantly black Catholic Church where the Kaine family has worshipped ever since. Kaine would practice law for the next 15 years, focusing on civil rights cases. He married into a family all too familiar with Virginia's racial conflicts.

In 1970, his father-in-law, Republican Governor Linwood Holton, was frozen out of politics after he led the way on school desegregation and enrolled his children in the predominantly African-American Richmond Public Schools. Holton, now 92, has been something of a mentor to Kaine, encouraging him to get involved in public service.

But when Kaine decided to run for the racially divided and dysfunctional Richmond City Council in 1994, Holton couldn't believe his ears.

LINWOOD HOLTON: So I said you're crazy. He said, but I thought you encouraged me to get into government. And I said I did, but the city council is where they bury budding politicians.

TOTENBERG: It didn't work out that way. Kaine proved such a successful peacemaker that the majority black council voted by acclamation to elect him mayor in 1998 and then to re-elect him for a second term. From there, he was elected lieutenant governor then governor.

Along the way, he had to reconcile two articles of his Catholic faith with his political life - his opposition to abortion and to the death penalty. Abortion was the simpler one. Like many other Catholic officials, he said he would not impose his own religious beliefs on others. On the death penalty, he pledged that he would follow the law of Virginia. It was a pledge that he would carry out, but it was painful.

As a private lawyer, Kaine had twice represented men on death row. As governor, he upheld the death penalty for all but one of the 11 men seeking clemency. Wayne Turnage, his chief of staff back then, says execution days were always emotionally draining.

WAYNE TURNAGE: During the course of the day, you could tell he was a different guy, a little more somber.

TOTENBERG: Kaine was a popular governor, but he failed to get any major initiative through the Republican legislature. Instead, his tenure coincided with the worst national recession in generations. He spent much of his time and skill making massive budget cuts, while at the same time trying to preserve essential public services. Again, Wayne Turnage.

TURNAGE: So I think Governor Kaine's greatest accomplishment was his stewardship of the state budget during the worst economy in 50 years.

TOTENBERG: Kaine had planned to return to private life at the end of his term, but when a Senate seat unexpectedly opened up, he ran and won. Washington Post reporter Steve Hendrix sums up Kaine's career as the politics of updraft.

STEVE HENDRIX: The central feature of Tim Kaine's political career is his impeccable timing. He was a liberal social justice candidate for Virginia at the very moment that the state was ready for that.

TOTENBERG: That said, on the national stage, some on the left see Kaine as too centrist because he supported trade deals. University of Richmond political science professor Daniel Palazzolo.

DANIEL PALAZZOLO: They think it suggests just how far the liberal wing of the party has gone and how aggressive they are about their demands.

TOTENBERG: Still, Kaine's sunny, upbeat disposition has served him well in the Senate. He's forged relationships and occasional compromise with Republicans of all stripes. On the day Hillary Clinton picked Kaine as her running mate, Conservative Republican Jeff Flake tweeted (reading) trying to count the ways I hate Tim Kaine - drawing a blank. Congrats to a good man and a good friend.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.