February 25, 2009 News & Features » Cover Story


What's a Nice Guy Like Tim Kaine Doing in a Job Like This? 

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Twenty-four hours after Barack Obama repeats the oath to become president, Gov. Tim Kaine takes the reins of the Democrat party's national fundraising arm. He ascends the dais of a hotel ballroom in Washington, and displays what he's become famous for: that eyebrow.

There it is. Heading north.

He doesn't mean to project incredulity. His earnest message to the Democratic National Committee is full of sincerity about his Democratic values. He talks about the greater good and public policy and the future of the party. But the bottom line of his new job remains: Beat Republicans.

Had things been different, had Russia not invaded Georgia, perhaps, Kaine, might have stood as vice president beside Obama rather than Joe “Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee” Biden. Instead, Kaine stands here to be installed as hack-in-chief for a group that's signaled its embrace of bipartisan good feeling by withdrawing a resolution seeking to rename Reagan National Airport.

Kaine, 50, has been frank about his misgivings. In early January he told reporters that he'd initially refused the party job and suggested other candidates. After being approached a second time he took more than a week to wrestle with the offer. He finally agreed. Early in his acceptance speech he thanks his wife, Anne Holton, for supporting him on “yet another unexpected venture.”

If the journey's been unexpected for Kaine and his family, it's been a shock to the people who've known him as a public figure the longest: Richmonders who first met him as a civil rights lawyer, a nonprofiteer and a cheerful policy wonk at City Hall.

Just how did Mr. Nice Guy wind up so deeply entrenched in partisan politics?

Kaine's career has been graced by good timing and good fortune, gusts of history and celebrity that have crowded out his own story. Paired with a murky record in the Executive Mansion — so far staked on responding to disaster and running a tight ship in the absence of a signature legislative victory — it's difficult to separate the course Kaine has set from the wave he's riding. Despite Kaine's prominence, even his good-buddy status with Obama, his ascent remains an eyebrow-raiser.
With a little more than nine months to go before Virginians elect their next governor, Kaine's legacy is being weighed. Some fond supporters who were hopeful about his term, which started in 2006, are wrestling with disappointment.

One of them is John Moeser, longtime observer of the Richmond political scene and senior fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Institute for Civic Engagement.

“He doesn't have a lot to show for these four years,” Moeser says. “It's tragic because he had so many roadblocks not of his making. There was huge optimism about what could happen. …There really were no breakthroughs. None.”

Moeser had hoped to see policies informed by Kaine's term as Richmond mayor — someone who had seen the inside of a public housing unit and understood how the system could perpetuate poverty and racism. When Kaine left City Hall for the state Capitol in 2002 to become lieutenant governor, he had to cross only Broad Street, but he's seemed much farther away.

Moeser partly blames Kaine's truncated brag sheet on the uncooperative Republicans who control the House of Delegates, still bitter over handing Kaine's predecessor, former Gov. Mark Warner, a $1.5 billion tax hike in 2004 to plug the state budget. Moeser says this curtails what Kaine saw as worth fighting for.

 “People understood the politics,” Moeser says, “but that still doesn't lessen the disappointment.” The new gig with the DNC seems an even more definitive shift away from good government as Kaine's primary allegiance.

“Tim Kaine has been a conciliator,” Moeser says. “He has tried to bring people to the table. He has been very inclusive. This position calls for a win-lose [mentality]. … It's the one time when it kind of contradicts the Tim Kaine that I've always known.”

Kaine's civil rights roots run deep. The Executive Mansion where the Kaine family lives sits at 203 Governor St. — the same address from which, one morning 40 years ago, Republican Gov. Linwood Holton sent his daughter, Anne, to attend a majority black school, supporting desegregation in a very personal way.

Kaine and Anne Holton met at Harvard Law School and married in 1984. After moving back to Virginia, Holton became a Legal Aid lawyer and then a juvenile court judge, presiding over a docket of heart-rending cases of child abuse and neglect. Kaine joined a small law firm and started doing death penalty work. He attended the execution of the first case he lost, former law partner Tom Wolf recalls. The couple attended St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Highland Park, a mostly African-American congregation.

For years the City Council chamber had been an arena for racial arm-wrestling matches over power and prestige. When he was elected to represent the 2nd District in 1994, Kaine's class of council members took a turn for the policy-savvy. Elected that same year was Viola Baskerville, who now serves in his cabinet as secretary of administration.

When the majority black City Council selected Kaine as mayor in 1998, he became the first white mayor of Richmond in a decade. (Until L. Douglas Wilder's popular election in 2004, council members selected the mayor.) The achievement signaled a shift in political power in the city, and perhaps racial reconciliation. That same year Kaine won a landmark civil rights case against Nationwide Insurance, which had systematically refused to sell homeowners' insurance to minority customers.

During Kaine's tenure at City Hall a number of initiatives helped start the city's slow turnaround. Some of them have had lasting power. Kaine helped usher in tax incentives for businesses and tax abatement programs for homeowners, encouraging reinvestment in the city. He built new schools and helped open the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, a magnet program and a rare example of regional cooperation.

Scandal flared up in 2000 when Kaine spent $9,000 of discretionary city funds to send eight busloads of supporters to the Million Mom March in Washington. Though he maintained the spending was legitimate, he paid it back with private money. The decision has lingered as a permanent benchmark for his anti-gun stance.

Among his friends, though, Kaine's reputation for moral rectitude extended into his professional life. Because he was mayor, technically a part-time job, he cut his pay at his law firm, Mezzullo, McCandlish and Framme, to $30,000. But he wasn't so serious he couldn't have fun, recalls his former law partner Wolf. When preparing for trial Kaine would work late nights rocking out to the Clash's “Death or Glory.” Wolf praises his friend's even keel, pragmatism and sense of fairness. While on campaign trips with Kaine this fall, Wolf was introduced to Obama. “You know who you are?” Wolf asked him. “You're the black Tim Kaine.”

Comparisons between the two men come frequently, temperamentally and biographically. Both men's grandmothers lived in the same small town in Kansas for a time. Both had transformational experiences overseas — Obama in Indonesia, Kaine as a missionary in Honduras, an experience he shares with the January DNC gathering using fluent Spanish. Both men attended Harvard Law School, met their wives there and have grounded their own stories in their spouses' biographies.

The first event of Obama's general election campaign was held in Bristol. “When you're in the political business,” Obama told a gathering of supporters. “There are a lot of people who are your allies, there are a lot of people who you've got to do business with, but you don't always have a lot of friends. The governor of the commonwealth of Virginia is my friend.”

Obama has cultivated a reputation for speaking past the media to citizens directly. Asked to comment for this story, Kaine declines, explaining that says he's “not that into the cult of personality thing.” (As this story was going to press, a Kaine representative extended an offer for an interview.)

Until the time Kaine left City Hall, the substantive change that resulted from his legal career and role as an elected official seemed to vastly outweigh the politicking that got him there. It took only 1,520 voters from the 2nd District to put him on City Council for the first time in 1994. Four years later he became mayor, when the seat was selected by a majority of Council members.

Kaine's transition to state government started tragically when State Sen. Emily Couric, younger sister of broadcaster Katie Couric, was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2000. The popular Charlottesville legislator had been considered a shoe-in as the Democratic nominee for the lieutenant governor's race, the running mate to the popular Mark Warner.

After Couric was forced to drop out, Kaine stepped in quickly and won the nomination. But early on Warner attempted to distance himself from Kaine, with his more liberal views on gun control and capital punishment.

The lieutenant governorship is a largely ceremonial role, but Kaine used his term to visit every school district in the state. The four-year span also put some time between his gun control and anti-death penalty past.

In 2005, Kaine became the heir apparent to Warner, but concerns remained that the former civil rights attorney was too liberal. Warner had cultivated a pro-gun, downhome appeal that helped him win over more rural, Republican-leaning corners of the state. He left office as one of the popular governors in Virginia history, polling a remarkable 80-percent approval rating.

Kaine's victory, some observers say, had as much to do with Warner's approval ratings as it did a national backlash against President George Bush and the Republican Party. Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, the Republican nominee, held a 10-point lead in the polls early in the campaign, but a split within his own party and a string of negative television advertisements backfired. One Kilgore ad included the father of a murder victim saying that Kaine, staunchly against capital punishment, wouldn't even carry out the execution of Adolf Hitler. Kaine responded by explaining that he was against capital punishment because of his deep religious convictions but he'd carry out the death penalty as governor, largely neutralizing the Kilgore attack ads.

Kaine's response, and his ability to win Republican strongholds in the exurbs of Northern Virginia and other suburban areas of the state, became a blueprint for the national Democratic Party. His team noticed that while Warner had won the state in 2001, John Kerry lost Virginia to Bush and still managed to secure half a million more votes than Warner. Kaine's team went after those “federal Democrats” — people who voted blue in presidential elections but didn't regularly participate in state politics.

Though he didn't achieve the regional diversity of support as Warner had, Kaine's success paved the way for Jim Webb to defeat U.S. Sen. George Allen in 2006, and Obama's securing the state last year. Warner may have reinvented the Democratic brand in Virginia, but Kaine's election strategy gave it staying power.

Kaine's policy objectives as governor weren't as successful.

“There were several of us who felt that now that Tim Kaine's the governor, since he had been mayor of Richmond, this was an opportunity to put urban areas that had been so fiscally stressed on the radar screen,” UR's Moeser says. “I think some people were a bit surprised that the top priority for his administration was transportation as opposed to education or even housing.”

Kaine's campaign pledge to fix roads veered into the ditch as soon as he took office. He promised to expand a statewide pre-kindergarten initiative, getting young, impressionable children into school a year earlier. But the results have been significantly smaller than he hoped. While Kaine's success in creating land-use policies will indirectly benefit cities, the impact is expected to be minimal.

Kaine's made some advances on gun control, but largely targeted to intersect with the mental-health reforms pushed through after the mass murders on Virginia Tech's campus in April 2007. More controversial gun control measures, such as requiring background checks at gun shows, have failed. He's commuted only one death sentence during his term. Last week Kaine declined for the ninth time to intervene in an execution, and Edward Bell was put to death for shooting Sgt. Ricky Timbrook, an police officer in Winchester. Timbrook's wife had appeared in the Kilgore ad questioning Kaine's credentials on the death penalty.

Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor at UR, says Kaine largely has failed to make significant policy strides. His ability to win a scaled-down smoking ban in restaurants has won headlines recently, but it's hardly a legacy-defining accomplishment.

“It is unrealistic to expect any governor to achieve all of his major policy goals, but recent Virginia governors have left a legacy of one or more major policy achievements,” Palazzolo says. “Warner's budget, Gilmore's car-tax cut, Allen's SOLs, Wilder's fiscal discipline, Baliles' transportation-economic development, Robb's education spending. Unless something emerges in the 2009 session, Kaine's major legacy, on the other hand, will be defined largely by Democratic political gains.”

The political ground that the party has made up since Kaine took the oath as governor is indisputable.

After a drought of more than a dozen statewide losses for the Democrats, on Kaine's watch the Democratic streak includes winning the Executive Mansion in 2005, knocking U.S. Sen. George Allen out in favor of Jim Webb in 2006, and winning the majority in the state Senate in 2007 and handing valuable committee chairmanships to the Democrats. In early 2007, Kaine became the first big political name outside Obama's home state to endorse his run for president.

The next year, Kaine helped send a Congressional delegation to Washington that was majority Democratic. That same election sent Mark Warner to the Senate with a huge margin, and after campaigning with Obama across the country and being vetted for the vice presidency, Kaine helped deliver Virginia to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 44 years.

How much of the glory should be credited to Kaine is open to debate. Privately, some Warner insiders say their candidate's mile-long coattails had more to do with the Democratic wave in Virginia. Webb sympathizers say that if their guy hadn't won, Allen would have been a credible surrogate in Virginia, if not the Republican presidential nominee himself.

Did Kaine make the difference in Virginia for Obama? It's difficult to say, considering Obama's historic fundraising draw and mammoth voter registration drive with 50 campaign offices in Virginia alone.

Now that Kaine is DNC chairman, Virginia's election schedule will bear closer scrutiny. The competitive gubernatorial race shaping up for the fall could prove an early black eye for the president's party if Kaine fails to deliver a Democratic successor.

As for the statehouse, winning back the House this fall is a favorite, if unlikely, fantasy among Virginia Democrats. House Minority Leader and Delegate Ward Armstrong, D-Martinsville, says he's certain it's a priority for the governor.

“I think he's been denied the opportunity to properly govern and [the Republicans] need to be eradicated,” Armstrong says.


“That's a little strong,” he says. “Say that they need to go.”

If there's some debate whether Kaine is a kingmaker in his state, it's equally questionable that he'll make an effective DNC chairman.

He certainly had the Democrats' attention after becoming governor in January 2006. Seventeen days after taking the oath in historic Jamestown, Kaine was asked to be the face of the country's Democratic Party. He landed the job delivering the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address on national television. The broadcast, live from the Virginia's Executive Mansion, was a stiff performance upstaged by his wandering eyebrow, which caught the attention of the howling blogosphere and even “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

As Kaine became a national spokesman for his ability to win over a red state, he ran into roadblocks at the statehouse. Republicans immediately pooh-poohed his transportation package.

Delegate Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has in many ways been an architect of the House opposition. The Republicans' majority whip — his office sports a red T-shirt tacked to the wall with “Whip it Good” printed in white — says that despite the perceived closeness of Warner and Kaine, Kaine reminds him of a different governor: Gilmore. He was known for his staunch commitment to his principles, he helped win back the state Senate for his party and took a gig as chair of his national party at the end of his term as governor. Gilmore ended his governorship widely regarded as ineffective on the policy front.

Cox says the initial transportation plan in Kaine's first year included $1 billion in new taxes and signaled a tone deafness on the part of Kaine's administration. After Warner won bipartisan support for more taxes to fix the state budget, Cox says, “we're just not going to give another tax increase as a conservative party.”

Even if Kaine couldn't get the increase to pay for roads, some people say he lost an opportunity for compromise by not reaching out to GOP legislators more effectively. 

“The thing you hear over and over and over again is that Warner worked it harder,” Cox says. “He would call you for a one-on-one. He would go play basketball. He talked to [Senate Finance Committee Chair John] Chichester. Warner knew where his votes were. Kaine is a lot different.”

After an acrimonious special session last summer in which lawmakers made their third attempt on a transportation fix, Kaine still hadn't done the groundwork with the opposition for which Warner was famous.

Kaine's had difficulty with his own party too. A transportation plan his office supported this year didn't get a single vote in the House and was not introduced by any Democratic member of the Senate. Meanwhile, an alternative plan based on raising gas taxes, unbelievably unpopular with gas prices spiking to $4 a gallon, was batted around with next to no chance of passing.

Although the legislature has been an unpredictable partner, other governors have had success cutting deals with the opposition. Both houses were Republican-controlled for Warner's term and Allen and Gilmore faced legislatures controlled by the opposition.

Privately, advisers to Kaine say a decision made in the first year — to run an election-caliber campaign putting pressure on targeted members of the House of Delegates — may have permanently soured relations. In the spring of his first year, Kaine targeted 26 Republican lawmakers with radio ads pressuring them to support his transportation package.

That move has reinforced the Republican mistrust of the governor, particularly in his new role as head of the DNC. “Here's a guy who has only one goal, go out and beat Republicans,” Cox says.

Preston Bryant, Kaine's secretary of natural resources, disputes the idea that his boss can't act in a bipartisan fashion to craft good policy. He's living proof, he says. Bryant was a Republican delegate when the House helped Warner push through the tax increase and now serves in the cabinet.

Bryant says Kaine hasn't always had a partner in the legislature, so with many administrative successes, “a lot of it was sort of back-office stuff, streamlining and Medicaid, executive branch initiatives.”

Among his administrative achievements: Kaine has excelled in land conservation and keeping the state's AAA bond-rating in the midst of a national recession. The $3.7 billion shortfall is painful, but compared with other states — California is staring down a $42 billion shortfall — it's relatively manageable.

Bryant says things aren't so bad, considering Kaine faced not only opposition in the House, but also a historic economic storm.

“From a budget perspective, Kaine is the first governor that anyone can remember that has not had one good budget year,” he says. “Allen ended good. Gilmore, three of four [years] were cup-runneth-over. Warner had bad years but by the end he had a full treasury. With Kaine, it quickly went downhill with the national economy and has gotten steadily worse over the last four years.”

This means Kaine has had to be a crisis manager for four years running, Bryant says. “It would have been very easy for him to do 10-, 12-, 15-percent cut across the board and called it done, but he did not do that,” he says. “He took a very surgical approach to budget reductions.”

Besides, the time was right for Kaine to focus on political gains in the statehouse, Bryant says.

“Warner governed under a very different set of circumstances where he did not have the possibility of narrowing the political gap,” he says, and reversing the large Republican majorities in both houses. “Kaine has come into office later in the decade meaning he's bumping up against a set of elections that would have a direct bearing on redistricting,” political line-drawing that can help ensure party supremacy.

Perhaps Kaine's most significant political contributions have come behind the scenes. Traditionally, paid political operatives move from race to race and state to state as elections come up. In the months after he was elected governor, Kaine personally appealed to his top campaign staffers, asking them to stick around Virginia and work for the party or his political action committee.

Matt Felan, Kaine's campaign finance director, stayed on as executive director of the new political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward — Kaine's PAC.

“We were just getting started with our political goals and the governor still had a ton that he wanted to get accomplished,” Felan says.

With Congressional races during even years, state House races odd years and Virginia's off-year gubernatorial races, Kaine used the state's constant election calendar as a foundation to build a permanent class of Democratic political professionals.

“We've built ourselves, on the Democratic side, to be a permanent campaign machine because there's an election every year,” Felan says.

Warner's charm offensive was in line with his particular challenge of picking off moderate members in the House. Bryant says Kaine spends a lot of time hiking and it's not at all unusual for him to take staff along. He spends more time building personal relationships that translate into party commitments than working the other side of the aisle to win over moderate Republicans.

Harris Miller, who lost in a bruising primary to Webb, recalls that Kaine called him afterward, and “besides congratulating me on a good race said he assumed I would work with Jim and encouraged me to do it as soon as possible.” It was another example of Kaine working to manage egos, to keep the party focused on a common goal.

Now he'll be helping to focus the machine of the powerful party, with Obama at the helm, Rep. Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House of Representatives and Sen. Harry Reid as majority leader in the U.S. Senate trying to hang onto their majorities. And in the midst of it all will be Mr. Nice Guy, the man Richmonders remember as an idealistic civil rights lawyer, facing off on cable TV shows, making deals, raising money and cranking up the heat.

In August, Bob Holsworth, the Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor, appraised Kaine for The New York Times.

“He's not a person who seems to be driven by politics,” he said.

Perhaps, but that raises an eyebrow. S



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