Editor's note: This profile ran as part of a feature on the three-way gubernatorial race between Tim Kaine, Jerry Kilgore and H. Russell Potts in our October 2005 issue.
Virginia hasn’t experienced a three-way governor’s race since 1965, when Conservative Party candidate William Story kept the winner, Democrat Mills E. Godwin, from achieving an election majority against Republican Linwood Holton. “Story got 13 percent of the vote,” explains University of Virginia political pundit Larry Sabato, “and most of it came out of Godwin’s total. The conservative Byrd Democrats thought Godwin had gone too far to the left.”
Fast-forward 40 years, and moderate Republican state Sen. Russ Potts of Winchester is running as an independent candidate for governor on the grounds that the GOP candidate, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, is too far to the right.
But Potts has a long way to go to enter Jesse Ventura territory. Though the Minnesota wrestler won his state’s 1998 gubernatorial race by only 2 percent, he still had 37 percent of the vote, while Potts has been struggling to break out of the single digits in polls. (And GOP candidate Jerry Kilgore has refused to even debate Potts unless the state senator can reach 15 percent in the polls, the standard for participation in presidential debates.)
With many observers saying that — despite the rhetoric — nice guys Kaine and Kilgore are too alike in their views, Potts’ quixotic campaign, with barbs shot both right and left, at least livens things up.
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As Richmond mayor, Kaine leads Tour de Richmond, a bike ride through the city sponsored by the mayor and City Hall. (Jay Paul photo)
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Kaine as missionary principal of a Honduran trade school (courtesy Tim Kaine)
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Kaine talks to supporters at Dumbarton Elementary. (Richard Foster photo)
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Kaine with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama at a July 20 Kaine fundraiser in Arlington (Courtesy Tim Kaine)
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At the Richmond County Fair (Ryan Powell photo)
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Prepping a truck at the Lively Mud Bog (Ryan Powell photo)
Has this Democrat been destined for the job?
Fate’s been pushing Tim Kaine toward Virginia’s Executive Mansion for a long time.
While a Harvard Law student, the Kansas native fell in love with his future wife, Anne Holton, daughter of former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, and became acquainted with fellow law student and future Gov. Mark Warner.
After winning a City Council seat in 1994, the ambitious Kaine wanted to be mayor, but it was considered virtually impossible for a white man to be chosen mayor by the black-majority council. Then the vice mayor, widely expected to be the next mayor, lost his seat by a heartbreaking seven votes, and Kaine became mayor.
It was not the only time strange fate would intervene in Kaine’s favor.
As Kaine made his appointed mayor position into a full-time job, Virginia Democrats eyed him as a possible candidate for statewide office, perhaps in a decade or so. But in 2000, state Sen. Emily Couric of Charlottesville, who had been a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, announced she was dying of cancer and dropped out of the race. Kaine got the nomination and was elected lieutenant governor by a 2 percent margin in 2001.
“It’s hard to imagine someone rising from a City Council position to statewide office. That’s not a usual career path,” says Bank of Richmond chairman and Kaine confidante Ernie Brown — and it took only seven years to do it to boot.
But even if a mixture of predestination, perspiration and political aspiration has taken him this far, Kaine, 47, still has no easy road to the Executive Mansion in November. A July Mason-Dixon poll had the incumbent lieutenant governor in a statistical dead heat with his Republican opponent, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. But a September Washington Post poll had Kilgore leading by a significant 7 percent among those most likely to vote.
So Kaine’s working hard to ride the coattails of the insanely popular Democratic Gov. Mark Warner (who enjoys a 74 percent approval rating), focusing on home-and-hearth issues like education and transportation, while Kilgore has spent more time focusing on social issues. Kaine’s also pulled in Democratic stars like U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and 2000 vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman to stump for him.
Like he did as mayor, Kaine made the lieutenant governor’s post into a full-time job, quitting his law firm. Though the lieutenant governor’s only required duties are to preside over the state Senate two months a year, he sat in on Cabinet meetings, participated in budget decisions, helped with Homeland Security and chaired the Virginians with Disabilities panel.
“I wanted to maximize my chances and minimize my regrets,” Kaine says, “and I was willing to go through four years of a crummy salary to do it.” (What he doesn’t state, though, is that he cut his own salary from $54,521 to $36,321 during a budget crisis.)
Kaine made education the major focus of his job, promising to visit all 134 Virginia school systems. (So far he’s visited 118.) What he learned shaped his education platform, which includes items like mandatory evaluations for teachers and optional pre-K classes.
Education became most important to Kaine when he took a year off law school in 1980 to teach carpentry to poor teens as a Catholic missionary at a Honduran vocational school. It showed him how education could transform lives.
Education is so important to him now, he says, that he’ll fully fund the state’s school systems by making school funding the first item in his state budget every year. (The state only funds about 55 percent of school costs on average, leaving localities to fund the rest.) It may force some tough budget decisions, he acknowledges.
Kaine insiders say they expect the Kilgore campaign, however, to try to make the campaign less about education and budgetary issues than about social issues like capital punishment.
Kaine served as a court-appointed lawyer for two death-row clients, including infamous Mecklenberg escapee Lem Tuggle Jr., whom Kaine walked into the death chamber. Kaine has said repeatedly that though he is personally pro-life, meaning he opposes capital punishment and abortion as matters of faith, he’ll uphold state law. “I’m not going to substitute my own thoughts about the death penalty for the law of Virginia, and I will use clemency very narrowly,” Kaine says.
Still, Kaine’s campaign staff predicts Kilgore will unleash a late attack reminiscent of the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad employed against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, claiming that Kaine will imitate Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who emptied his state’s death row in 2003, commuting most sentences to life and setting four death row prisoners free.
Kaine recognizes the death penalty is not an easy issue. When he hears about murderers like Dennis Rader, the recently convicted BTK serial killer from Kansas, Kaine says, “Hey, I want to strangle the guy myself, but I feel like … life is for God to make decisions about and not us, and that’s just a profound faith belief I have. … I’m not a pacifist, but I believe if you can avoid taking a life you should.”
The Executive Mansion: A Familiar Haunt
Kaine’s wife of 21 years, Anne Holton, may experience the biggest change — along with a healthy dose of déjà vu — if her husband wins.
A juvenile and domestic-relations judge, Holton says she’ll quit her job if Kaine wins so that she can focus on being first lady and working as a statewide advocate for foster children.
But she would also be leaving their Laburnum Park home to return to her girlhood home, the Executive Mansion, where she lived from ages 12 to 16.
She’s talked with their three kids about the possible move, and eldest son Nat, 15, an avid bicyclist and outdoorsman like his dad, is a little worried about the restrictions. “We’ve joked, [asking] are the security guys going to be kayaking through the lower James rapids and, if so, where are they going to wear their weapons?” she recalls, laughing.
Gov. Holton served from 1970 to 1974 and is a close adviser to his son-in-law. Holton describes himself as a Republican in the John Warner mold, socially moderate and fiscally conservative, but says he and a lot of his Republican friends have supported Gov. Warner and Kaine. “The word is the Republican Party has left us temporarily,” Holton says. “They’re spending without paying the bills.”
Holton is most remembered for forcing racial integration of Virginia’s public schools and for enrolling his own children in majority-black Richmond Public Schools, marked by a famous photo of him escorting Anne’s older sister, Tayloe, to Kennedy High.
Anne Holton says her husband is driven by many of the same goals. Kaine wanted to be mayor, she says, to further racial reconciliation. The Kaine family attends a majority-black church, and the three Kaine children attend Richmond Public Schools. The same philosophy extended to Kaine’s law practice, where Kaine won a landmark housing-discrimination verdict against Nationwide Insurance.
The Disarming ‘Guy-Next-Door’
Though his hair has thinned quite a bit since the late ’90s when Style Weekly readers named him best-looking local politician, Kaine retains his boyish Irish-Catholic charm while campaigning.
Brown lauds Kaine for being bright and articulate and down-to-earth, but adds, “There’s no harder campaigner than Tim, and I think often he’s underestimated, and that has endured to his benefit. Tim is also lots more aggressive than people realize. He has sort of an ‘aw shucks’ guy-next-door personality … [and] people tend to dismiss him because he’s this nice, regular guy and then he cuts ’em to shreds with his intellect.”
City Councilman Bill Pantele says, “Tim has a great gift in charisma and brains. … I’ve seen Tim many times go to meetings where people are angry or where they disagreed with him, and Tim has the ability to look them right in the eye and tell them what he thinks, and most every time the reaction afterwards would be, ‘Gosh, what a smart young man! He’s really got some great ideas!’ ”
And therein lies the rub — Richmonders are aware of Kaine, but statewide voters are still getting to know him. And often they may be learning about him through the opposition. Kilgore has slammed Richmond Public Schools’ low scores as reflective of Kaine’s leadership, and one of Kilgore’s favorite refrains is to label Kaine a “mediocre mayor.” Retired U.S. Rep. Thomas Bliley, a former Richmond mayor himself, repeated that charge verbatim in the press this past August. However this was at direct odds with the fact that after Kaine resigned as mayor to run for lieutenant governor in September 2001, Bliley told Richmond magazine that Kaine “represented the city very well. … I think [Kaine] held it together very nicely.”
Gov. Holton says, “They’ve tried to beat him by calling him a liberal, they’ve tried to beat him by attacking his job as mayor when everybody in Richmond knows he did an astounding job as mayor. For Kilgore to come along and try to tear that down, it just reflects desperation.”
Kaine and his supporters point to the city’s many successes.
“Those of us in Richmond are not at all strangers to people outside bashing Richmond,” Kaine says. “You know, the guys sitting at the country club out where Jerry lives and railing against Richmond. We know what that means ... the kind of lackadaisical sitting back and criticizing. OK, what have you gotten in to do? What have you done about it?
“I wasn’t afraid to sign up for a tough tour of duty in 1994. When I was running for City Council in 1994, people weren’t running for City Council. That was not what you did. And we had real problems in education. That’s why I ran. We had the second-highest homicide rate in the nation. That’s why I ran. We had a lot of challenges. And I’m proud to have run and I’m proud to have made a difference.”
During Kaine’s administration homicides fell by 55 percent, he notes proudly, and he was instrumental in implementing Project Exile, the innovative local/federal partnership that cracked down on illegal guns. Business taxes were lowered, and new tax incentives were created, spurring on a colossal downtown building boom, as well as the erection of the city’s only mall, Stony Point Fashion Park.
“When I got elected, we were losing population and we were losing jobs” — trends that were reversed, Kaine says. The city had a bond rating restored. Money Magazine named Richmond the best midsized city in the South to live and Forbes Magazine tapped Richmond as one of the 10 most business-friendly cities in the United States. Kaine also aided in bringing rail service back to downtown, restoring the George Washington-designed canal system and expanding the convention center.
As for schools, SOL scores rose about 85 percent, dropout rates decreased by a third and teacher salaries went up by at least 25 percent, Kaine notes, adding that the number of impoverished Richmond families has more to do with the city’s education problems than the teachers or the school system.
“There are a lot of problems and challenges still to be solved,” Kaine says. “[Kilgore will] throw around what he wants to, and he’s going to run a negative campaign, but look — what I talk about I did, you can actually go out and touch it! It’s not spin! Go to Maggie Walker High School! Go to the four brand-new schools I built! Go to the train station! Go to the convention center!”
Kaine gets passionate about having his mayoral record slammed. And just for a second, his Mr. Nice Guy veneer drops just a little.
“I don’t know that Jerry’s ever signed up for a tough challenge in his life,” Kaine says, raising his voice. Ignoring Gov. Warner’s own failed Northern Virginia transportation-tax referendums, Kaine says Kilgore “wants to duck everything by handing everything over to referendums. During the Warner Administration, Jerry and I governed at the same time, faced the same challenges, the same realities. Mark and I were making spending cuts and working on all kinds of hard budget-reform decisions, and Jerry was always AWOL, saying, ‘Let’s do a referendum,’ or ‘We don’t need to reform the budget.’ He wouldn’t know a hard leadership challenge if he saw one because he likes to duck.”
And then Kaine is all smiles again.