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2016 Richmonder of the Year: Tim Kaine 

A hometown guy enters the vortex of 2016's biggest story.

click to enlarge cover01_roy_no_headlines.jpg

Tim Kaine’s adventure started in the back room of a marina in Rhode Island, near stacks of water bottles and boxes of adding-machine tape.

It lurched forward to a 90-degree day in Miami and back to a humid high-school gymnasium in Richmond, through 40 states and more than 140 cities.

The journey lasted 109 days, a swirl of once-in-a-lifetime moments seared into memory and blurry recollections of rope lines and rallies, handshakes and speeches, diner stops and hotel stays — and nearly 1,000 political events in all.

It ended on a stage at the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, as abruptly as it began. Like he’d done through the campaign, Kaine stood behind his candidate, Hillary Clinton, and beside his wife, Anne Holton.

The chapter closed.

click to enlarge A week before Hillary Clinton officially names Tim Kaine as her running mate, she invites the senator to help rev up the crowd during a July 14 rally in Annandale. - CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS
  • Carlos Barria/Reuters
  • A week before Hillary Clinton officially names Tim Kaine as her running mate, she invites the senator to help rev up the crowd during a July 14 rally in Annandale.

Kaine, 58, moved to Richmond with Holton when they were in their mid-20s. It was 1984. “How come there’re no bumper stickers for Walter Mondale?” he says they wondered, looking around. “There must be no Democrats in this state.”

Ronald Reagan won Virginia with 62 percent of the vote.

A little more than three decades later, Clinton won Virginia with 50 percent.

During the years in between, Kaine filled his résumé with work as a civil rights lawyer, and starting in 1994 filled terms as city councilman, mayor, lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator. He won every race.

In some ways, it prepared him. In other ways, how could anyone be ready for what was to come in 2016?

Kaine stepped into presidential politics during an election season unlike any in memory, marked by jaw-dropping moments, insider upheaval, attacks on the establishment and unpopular, larger-than-life candidates at the tops of the tickets.

He came the closest to the presidency as any Virginian in modern history — at least since Woodrow Wilson left the White House in 1921. Even then, the Staunton-born president ascended from his term as governor of New Jersey.

Mother of Presidents nitpicking aside, Kaine offered an inside connection to the uproariously strange, unpredictable, historic race. He fought his fight while taking his hometown along for the ride.

He traveled inside the biggest story of the year, the guy we knew from his first days at 900 E. Broad St., from the aisles of the grocery store, from the pews of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church and from the house down the street in the North Side.

For those reasons, and for giving Richmond someone to cheer for, whether or not you wanted his party to claim victory, Style Weekly names U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, as the 2016 Richmonder of the Year.

click to enlarge Gathered in the cold the night before Election Day, Clinton-Kaine supporters wait for the vice-presidential candidate to leave his plane at Richmond International Airport. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gathered in the cold the night before Election Day, Clinton-Kaine supporters wait for the vice-presidential candidate to leave his plane at Richmond International Airport.

Green boughs and red bows hover on the lampposts along MacArthur Avenue last week, but the rush of Christmas has given way to post-holiday peace. Traffic is minimal. The bitter cold has disappeared, though a morning breeze comes and goes.

Kaine turns onto the sidewalk from the parking lot, waving, offering a cheerful remark about the weather. He arrives at his neighborhood coffee shop in a V-neck sweater with an entourage of one. The Secret Service is long gone.

Inside Stir Crazy Café, a woman at one table chats about a potato and cheese recipe she took to a holiday dinner. A couple of customers open laptops. The whir of the espresso machine roars into the stillness. Time meanders toward New Year’s weekend.

Kaine takes his coffee black, with a bagel on the side.

Stir Crazy opened in 2002, the year Kaine took his oath as lieutenant governor. He refers to his time in state politics as the second chapter of his life in elected office, following terms in City Hall and preceding his third chapter, Congress.

click to enlarge Local politics helped him in the national campaign, says Kaine, pictured in 1997 during his term on Richmond City Council. - STEPHEN SALPUKAS
  • Stephen Salpukas
  • Local politics helped him in the national campaign, says Kaine, pictured in 1997 during his term on Richmond City Council.

Waiting at the counter, he shares what became a sort of Saturday ritual — running morning errands, picking up coffee at Stir Crazy, driving to Washington for his Senate work.

He’s back to that work now. In his first post-election return to the Senate floor, he delivered a speech about war powers Nov. 30 — three weeks to the day that Clinton publicly conceded the race.

Then there was some unfinished campaign business, an exclusive thank-you party with Clinton for high-end donors at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

There, Kaine says, he made the point that there is disappointment among the nearly 66 million people who voted for Clinton. Of that group, he says, a subset is afraid — of being deported, of losing civil rights, of being persecuted for religious beliefs.

“So the job of those of us who are disappointed is to take our disappointments and channel it into positive energy to have the back of the people who are afraid,” Kaine says. “That’s one of the things we’ve got to do. But you always have to keep looking for common ground.”

Kaine wants to remain a senator as long as voters will let him, he says. Indeed, campaign emails for his race two years from now landed in boxes days before Christmas.

“Are You on Team Kaine?” one asks: “Tim’s upcoming reelection campaign is going to be a tough one. 2018 will be a challenging year for Democrats, and Tim’s seat will be an exceptionally difficult and expensive race.”

Don’t dismiss that as fundraising hyperbole.

Kaine can’t afford to let his guard down to campaign for his seat, longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth says: “Republicans are lining up for it.”

Holsworth mentions a few names as potential opponents, including U.S. Reps. Barbara Comstock and Dave Brat, former Rep. Tom Davis, state Delegate Jimmie Massie and former Gov. Jim Gilmore.

Then there’s Rep. Rob Wittman, who decided against running for Virginia governor, adds Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

click to enlarge The steamy gymnasium of Huguenot High School becomes an energizing kickoff location for local supporters gathered Aug. 1, after Kaine joins the Clinton campaign. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The steamy gymnasium of Huguenot High School becomes an energizing kickoff location for local supporters gathered Aug. 1, after Kaine joins the Clinton campaign.

If Kaine maintains his seat, Farnsworth says, then his most likely scenario is sticking right where he is, “to develop an even more extensive career in terms of lawmaking.”

With the Democratic Party scrambling to regroup, it’s unclear how Kaine’s political perspective will fit into the new power structure. But he doesn’t return to the Senate battered, bruised or embarrassed. His vice-presidential run, while unsuccessful, was a risk worth taking.

“When you are offered the chance,” Farnsworth says, “nearly every politician will accept. It comes at relatively little cost to their own careers, and offers them not only the opportunity to be vice president, perhaps, but at a minimum to be a national figure moving forward.”

So perhaps what Kaine calls the third chapter of his political life, the one on Capitol Hill, has taken a twist. Or perhaps it’s a new one altogether, a chapter four: the senator who survived a run for vice president.

“Maybe my highest and best use in the Senate is as a patriotic, loyal but strong member of the Senate minority,” he says. “Trying to find common cause where we can but also being fierce in defending people and values that need to have somebody advocating for.”

He has a motto in place for what’s next, he says: “Advance everywhere you can and defend everything you must.”

click to enlarge Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton — who resigned her post as Virginia’s secretary of education to campaign for her husband, find friends and neighbors gathered outside their house July 23, upon returning to Richmond after Kaine’s vice-presidential selection. - MIKE VALERO/NBC12
  • Mike Valero/NBC12
  • Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton — who resigned her post as Virginia’s secretary of education to campaign for her husband, find friends and neighbors gathered outside their house July 23, upon returning to Richmond after Kaine’s vice-presidential selection.

Before Kaine got the call from Clinton at 7:32 p.m. Friday, July 22, the running mate guessing-game was in full swing. With Kaine a strong candidate, Richmonders were honed in on someone they knew well. Now that would be something, an inside line to a national campaign, a potential position of monumental scope. And already they knew the back story, the political path, the family ties, the harmonica, the eyebrow.

Members of his party had their doubts.

Was Kaine progressive enough? Too vanilla? Could he point to a political career of definitive, significant achievements? Would he convincingly serve as an attack dog in such a harsh campaign environment? How would Bernie Sanders supporters take to him?

“He’s No One’s Idea of a Liberal Hero,” a headline blared in Mother Jones leading up to the pick, but acknowledging that Kaine was a potential fit with Clinton.

When the call came, Kaine was at an event for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed in Rhode Island. He had about 15 minutes before the news became public, so he slipped away in a car to a nearby hotel where his wife was staying. He wanted to tell her in person. They shared the news with their children — who soon discovered how other people came to appreciate Kaine as Dad (see sidebar).

“Going back to the hotel and telling Anne — that’s when it really felt real,” Kaine says. The next day, Clinton introduced Kaine at a rally in Miami. He shined.

“Hey guys, thank you!” he started, and connected with the crowd in Spanish within the first 60 seconds. He ended by quoting President Harry Truman: “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and on an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

The speech “really was absolutely stellar,” analyst Holsworth says. “And it just seemed that that epitomized the Tim Kaine that we had come to know in Virginia: smart, warm, connecting a compelling personal story to his political views.”

When Kaine and Holton returned to their Laburnum Park house later that night, neighbors and supporters had gathered with signs of support and champagne.

It remains one of the campaign’s most touching moments for them, Kaine says — “and then going to church the next morning.”

“Me being on the ticket was very much because of the importance of Virginia,” Kaine says, which made Richmond events all the more powerful and poignant.

“All the good things are really the intangibles,” says Kaine, who also thinks back on projects he’s touched through the years in his hometown, working with others.

He carefully navigated the racial makeup of City Council, serving as the first white mayor in nearly a decade, chosen by fellow council members in the years before a popularly elected mayor. There was work to help Maggie Walker Governor’s School come to fruition, finishing Main Street Station, opening the tax-abatement program to encourage renovations and solidifying city support for Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Engineering. There was Project Exile and the flood wall, and getting rid of dams in the James to promote the migration of shad.


ON THE AIR: Style Weekly editor Jason Roop discusses the 2016 Richmonder of the Year on 1140 WRVA.

ELECTION MEMES: Tim Kaine, America's Dad-in-Chief


Kaine drew on his experience in local politics in the national campaign, he says, working the rope lines, connecting with voters, having issues at his grasp.

He held a raucous kickoff rally at Huguenot High School, and a final stop at Richmond International Airport the night before the election. In between there were highs, lows and grueling days. He fielded criticism for his performance in the vice-presidential debate at Longwood University — “the one event that really didn’t seem like the Tim Kaine Virginia knew,” analyst Farnsworth says.

Disappointment in how things ended? Of course, Kaine says. Regrets?

“There’s a lot of what-ifs,” he says. But there’s no interest in a postmortem. He’s looking ahead. There’s a role for the Senate minority, he says, and it isn’t to block everything. He’ll watch for opportunities to do good and serve as a brake on what isn’t.

“And I have been given this magnificent new committee assignment,” he says, “which I’m thrilled about. The HELP committee [Health, Education, Labor and Pensions] was the committee I first tried to get on when I got in the Senate.”

Along with Kaine’s other committee assignments, and the specialties he’s trying to cultivate, he says there’s plenty to fight for. He cites threats to repealing the Affordable Care Act, concerns about rolling back lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, and interests in armed services, career and technical education and climate change.

And his Nov. 30 speech, the first one he gave on his return from the campaign, brought him back to a concern he’s voiced, breaking from President Barack Obama, that Congress must debate and take a vote on military force against the Islamic State.

“I think the battles that are going to be in the Senate are going to be battles about fundamental, moral values,” he says. “The kind of battles that I first came to Richmond to get engaged in when I was a civil rights lawyer.”

He quotes Henry David Thoreau, which he’s taken to do in other interviews recently: “I love my fate to the very core and rind.”

“It’s not all fruit,” Kaine says. “There’s core and rind too. Everybody learns that early, and you experience that throughout your life.” S

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