Editor's note: This article appeared in our April 2008 issue.
Gov. Tim Kaine (Photo by Jay Paul)
Gov. Tim Kaine has a hug, a pat on the back for everyone in his path as he makes his rounds through the gymnasium at the Boys and Girls Club in Richmond. It’s National Children’s Dental Access Day, and a couple hundred kids are lined up for free checkups.
The children, most of whom are kindergarten-age or younger, don’t know who the dark-suited, grinning man crouching down in front of them is, only that he has a lot of grown-ups following him around.
Kaine, 50, turns a corner and takes off his coat, handing it to one of his young staffers. “I feel bad cutting in line,” he says, then plops down in a chair, facing Dr. Martha Dawson. She’s poking his gums, shining a light in his mouth. Next she examines his neck glands and checks for cavities.
A second staffer raises his arm and dramatically points downward toward Kaine’s head. It’s a photo-op moment, but all too brief; the governor keeps moving on. It’s time for a picture with a lady in a mouth-germ costume.
Despite the serious business of his office, Kaine often brings out a little bit of the showman — the part of his personality that draws him to sing karaoke or play a harmonica on a Floyd County stage with a bluegrass group called the Jugbusters. He is a cheerleader for the commonwealth, as well as a budget negotiator, a Spanish speaker, a family man, a campaigner for Sen. Barack Obama and, after the shootings last April at Virginia Tech, a healer.
Halfway through his four-year term, Kaine has gained a national profile, partially due to his Democratic Party response to the State of the Union address in 2006 and his speech after the Tech tragedy last April, but he has suffered setbacks with his state goals.
Although Virginia’s 70th governor says he plans to finish out his time in office, which is limited by law to a single term, his name keeps popping up on lists of potential vice presidents if Obama wins the Democratic presidential nomination. Kaine was the first governor outside of Obama’s home state of Illinois to endorse his campaign.
The veep questions keep coming, but Kaine’s ready with two answers, depending on mood. The serious one: As a national co-chairman for Obama’s campaign, he has “other ideas” of who the VP should be. The funny one: His wife says any governor who can fog a mirror is on some shortlist somewhere. He never says no flat-out, but the grin becomes a bit pinched when actor Tom Hanks, another Obama supporter, teases him about it on a red carpet at the Byrd Theatre before the local premiere of John Adams, an HBO miniseries.
“That guy right there?” Hanks says incredulously, pointing at Kaine a few feet away. The actor relents: “He’s OK. I’d vote for him. He looks like a good guy. Vice president, you say? John Adams points out — vice president is a lousy job.”
Tom Hanks and Gov. Tim Kaine walk the red carpet at the opening of HBO’s John Adams at the Byrd Theatre on March 9. (Photo by Isaac Harrell)
‘Glutton for Punishment’
Growing up on the Kansas side of Kansas City with two younger brothers, Kaine never had dreams of entering politics as an adult. His Catholic family was mostly nonpolitical.
In fact, he was a failed candidate several times over for school office. Looking back now, Kaine wonders why he kept trying. He ran for class president in the sixth, ninth and 11th grades — and lost.
“When I look back on it, I can’t believe I was this persistent. I was a glutton for punishment,” he says. Finally, in 12th grade at his all-boys Catholic high school, Kaine won office as school president.
“After I won that, I thought, I’m never running again. I just had to get one win. I’m going to retire now. I never thought I would be in politics.”
Kaine went on to finish his bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri in three years, working campus jobs to pay for his college tuition. He didn’t have time to participate in student government or much else.
In the fall of 1979, Kaine arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard Law School. At 21, he was among the youngest students in his class. After his first year, Kaine decided to take a year off and go to Honduras as a missionary.
The Jesuit order that ran Kaine’s high school sponsored mission trips in Honduras, so he had already been to the Central American country situated between Guatemala and Nicaragua when he decided to spend a year working there.
“The average age for a student [at Harvard Law School] was 27 or 28, and everybody around me seemed to be very sure about what they wanted to do,” he remembers. “I wasn’t very sure, and I thought maybe I should take some time to figure this out.”
The Jesuits had started a very small school in a village, to teach kids how to be carpenters. Public education was limited to sixth grade for most youths, so the school represented significant progress in local education.
During the General Assembly session, Kaine takes a call from a legislator in his office, which is filled with framed photographs of his children and wife. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“I came right as the principal was about to leave,” Kaine recalls, and he was put in charge of the school because he had spent some time in his father’s iron-working shop. “They said, well, you know a little bit about this.” He had one carpentry teacher, and Kaine started a welding class, in addition to recruiting more students and raising money. He also set up night school for adults.
The Paper Chase
When Kaine returned to Harvard in 1981, he was the subject of some talk among fellow students for his Honduras sabbatical. Anne Holton, the daughter of former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, had heard about “this cute, curly-haired fellow” — who was just a few weeks younger than she was — and was asked to approach him to rejoin a student organization he’d belonged to before leaving school.
Before long, their college romance took root. They were similar in temperament — good students but not hyperactive note-takers. In fact, Holton was known for pulling out her needlepoint during class; Kaine wasn’t quite as casual, but he says she was probably the better student. She claims he was better.
The late 1970s to early 1980s at Harvard Law School could be considered a breeding ground for some of today’s top politicians — aside from Kaine, Gov. Mark Warner, homeland-security chief Michael Chertoff and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer were at Harvard in that time span. Kaine had dinner with Spitzer, Chertoff and their wives in Washington, D.C., less than two weeks before the New York governor resigned.
The year after Kaine and Holton graduated from law school, Kaine headed to Macon, Georgia, to clerk for a federal appellate judge, while Holton clerked in Richmond for U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. She traveled to Georgia for a weekend visit, and they went to an Italian restaurant for dinner.
“I was kind of wandering in, asking, ‘Can we afford this? Should we be doing this?’ So I was always forever after a little embarrassed that my poor husband was trying to take me out on a fancy date to propose to me, and I’m complaining that it’s too expensive,” she says, laughing. “He’s got more of the romantic in him than I do.”
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Kaine and Holton met at Harvard in 1981 and married in 1984. Holton says Kaine is far more romantic than she is. (Photo by Sarah Walor)
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Kaine celebrated his 50th birthday by bowling with staffers and his children, Woody, 15; Annella, 12; and Nat, 18. (Photo Courtesy Governor’s Office)
They married in November 1984 at their current house of worship, St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church on Richmond’s North Side, with the reception held in the basement. Their honeymoon was in the mountains in western Virginia, but Holton remembers a significant error in timing — the opening of hunting season, which put a crimp in their hiking plans. “There was all this blaze orange and alcohol everywhere we went.”
The couple’s home base was Richmond, their house — now rented by family friends who suffered a fire — on Laburnum Park’s Confederate Avenue, not far from the elementary school now named for Gov. Holton. For the first time since those efforts at achieving high-school office, politics again entered Kaine’s life.
A civil-rights attorney who took civic issues seriously through his work with nonprofits, Kaine ran for City Council’s District 2 seat in 1993, beginning a four-term run that concluded in his appointment as mayor of Richmond for his last two terms. According to family lore, his father-in-law asked Kaine “why the hell” he’d want to run for local office, that it was a thankless job that wouldn’t lead to higher office, but the 35-year-old Kaine — by then the father of two sons, Nat and Woody — went ahead and filed his candidacy.
Calvin Jamison, then city manager, remembers late nights at City Hall with Mayor Kaine. It was supposed to be a part-time job, but Kaine made it full time, says Jamison, now vice president for business affairs at the University of Texas at Dallas. The one exception was Wednesday afternoons, when Kaine would cut out early to spend the rest of the day with his children.
Jamison says Kaine’s main strength was in building coalitions.“He had that ability to bring people to the table, listen to all perspectives and then get them to buy into the vision of the greater good.”
In between his duties as mayor, in 2000 Kaine began considering a run for lieutenant governor. State Sen. Emily Couric bowed out of the Democratic race because of the pancreatic cancer that soon claimed her life, opening the door for several potential candidates, including delegates Alan Diamonstein and Jerrauld C. Jones, who at the time were better known in the state.
Kaine’s wife, by then a juvenile and domestic-relations judge, didn’t think he was serious about the idea of shooting for lieutenant governor — after all, running for statewide office requires a lot more money and time spent fundraising than Kaine had ever encountered in his council campaigns.
But there were just as many reasons to try, not the least of which was a lunch date at La Grotta with Mark Warner, around the time he was running his first U.S. Senate campaign. Warner, who knew Kaine slightly at Harvard Law, strongly suggested the then-City Council member consider aiming for higher office.
“On City Council, you’re never off. You get talked to at the grocery store, at the post office, and he was clearly committed to Richmond and the community,” Warner says. “Even then you could tell this guy was going to be a star.”
By then the father of three children — in addition to two sons, he has a daughter, Anella — Kaine began floating the notion of running for lieutenant governor among his family and close friends in late summer 2000, his wife recalls. And just as she predicted, he didn’t do much fundraising — until January 2001, when it was do-or-die time. As the daughter of a former governor (Linwood Holton served from 1970 to 1974, when Anne was in her teen years), she knew if he became lieutenant governor, it meant a run for the top job in 2005.
One of Kaine’s goals during his 2002-2006 term as lieutenant governor was to visit a school in every state school district. And of course, his eye was on the 2005 gubernatorial race against Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.
Kilgore’s to Lose
Ten points ahead early in the campaign, Kilgore says it was his election to win or lose. Yes, Virginia had a Democratic governor, but by and large, the state was still considered very conservative, having last voted for a Democratic president in 1964.
“What I didn’t see, and what I’m sure he didn’t even see, was the effect the White House would have, the war in Iraq would have, [Hurricane] Katrina would have on a state election in Virginia,” Kilgore says. “I think all those national issues plagued [my] campaign and moved him into the governor’s office.”
The campaigns were going along pretty calmly, until the issue of capital punishment arose. As a Catholic, Kaine is opposed to state executions and had defended men on death row. He said in stump speeches that, if elected governor, he would maintain the law and allow executions to take place (barring constitutional reasons for clemency), but some in the state doubted him.
A Times-Dispatch story came out about Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty, and then the notorious “Hitler” TV ad was released by the Kilgore campaign, featuring the father of a murder victim whose killer was represented by Kaine. The elderly man, citing the T-D story, says, “Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty.” In fact, Kaine said the opposite, that Hitler may have deserved execution.
Kilgore stands by all his ads, saying they were fair and brought out an important issue. He notes that Kaine has granted clemency during his term and vetoed a measure that could put to death someone other than the triggerman in a killing — for instance, a planner of a terrorist attack.
If the Virginia gubernatorial race had been operating quietly up until the airing of the ad, it no longer was. Kaine started fielding calls from nationally known Democrats, hoping to lend a hand.
“It was a turning point of the campaign,” says Jeff Kraus, who was deputy director of communications in the campaign and later the governor’s speechwriter. “[Kaine] was calm. He just picked apart the claims, point by point. That was the point I knew we wouldn’t lose.”
Kaine won with 52 percent of the vote against Kilgore’s 46 percent (independent candidate Russ Potts grabbed 2 percent), becoming Virginia’s second Democratic governor in a row. His first month in office, January 2006, was hectic by any measure — preparing for his rainy inauguration in Williamsburg, the State of the Commonwealth address and being unexpectedly invited to give the Democratic Party response to President Bush’s State of the Union speech.
Kaine has had his ups and downs regarding policy — new businesses have come to the state during his term, notably Rolls Royce in the Petersburg area and Com.40 Ltd., a Polish mattress maker that will bring 800 jobs to Danville.
And even in tight budgetary times, Kaine’s signature issue, pre-kindergarten, received a $22 million expansion. Del. Kirk Cox, the House of Delegates’ Republican whip, calls this a “pretty hollow victory,” considering Kaine asked for $56.3 million in extra pre-K funding this session — in itself a significant scaling back of a universal pre-K program he proposed.
Cox says the governor is “an easy guy to deal with one-on-one,” but is often too willing to sit back and let others fight out negotiations and deals. He and his staff “tend to be very cautious,” and wait until late in the day to make decisions, says Cox, who represents Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights. A group of Republican delegates calling themselves the “sensitivity caucus” sent Kaine a white rocking chair this session, calling it the “porch-sitter” award for his perceived inaction on transportation. Cox adds that Kaine could have gotten a stronger payday-lending bill passed had he been more proactive.
Cox’s remarks are exaggerated, Kaine staffers say. “[The governor] has been leading this fight to get something in the budget to fix the transportation problems in this state since day one, since he came into office,” Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey says. “And as for payday lending, the only reason that’s on the table is because he brought it up.”
But transportation remains the hot potato, with a recent state Supreme Court ruling that the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority does not have the right to raise taxes to fund roads. This means the General Assembly will reconvene April 23 to take care of a “$600 million hole” as Kaine calls it.
Coping with Tragedy
What Kaine may be most remembered for is his response to the tragedy that occurred April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech, leaving 33 students (including the shooter) dead.
He and his wife were in Tokyo, having settled into bed after a 14-hour flight, when the call came at about 2 a.m. local time. Still adjusting to the time difference, Holton was awake and asked if it was truly necessary to wake the governor. She soon was made aware how important this call was.
The next flight available was nine hours later, but Holton recalls that there was no shortage of news about the shooting on CNN International. The flight, which cut them off from hearing further news, allowed Kaine to consider what to say when he came back to the Tech campus. “From times as mayor with crime victims’ families, I knew there was nothing magic to say,” Kaine says. “The strength in the community needed to be rallied.”
The aftermath of the shooting has led to new priorities for Kaine — changes in dealing with the mentally ill, campus security and gun laws. The mental-health bills sailed through the session, but a measure that would require background checks at gun shows failed.
Kaine has taken on a second job in the past year — campaigning for Barack Obama. This February’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner brought enormous notice to Richmond, with both Democratic candidates — Obama and Clinton — speaking to a screaming crowd of 6,000 Dems at VCU’s Siegel Center.
Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton, greet Barack Obama supporters outside The Camel on Broad Street. The Camel served as Obama central in the days leading up to the Virginia presidential primary on Feb. 12. (Photo by Steve Hedberg)
The governor made his entrance on stage after 10 p.m., after Clinton left the building, shouting at the top of his lungs: “I had a feeling, folks, I had a feeling! I had a feeling that after two Bush administrations, America wanted excellence again!”
He shared a quick hug with Obama — who in 2005 did Kaine the favor of campaigning for his gubernatorial run — and departed the stage. But for how long? Even if he’s not offered a place on the ticket — at this time, no one’s even sure Obama will get the nomination — perhaps Kaine could be attorney general or hold another Cabinet post.
Kaine says he plans to complete his term, which ends in January 2010, although he hopes to be in public service in some way after leaving office. His wife notes their attachment to their North Side neighborhood, which they plan to return to, she says firmly.
Kaine makes a point of keeping up with his friends outside of politics. “There’s kind of a loose bunch of us who have breakfast [weekly] at Karen’s on Broad Street. I’m a very irregular attender. I may go every two months or so.” But Kaine notes that it’s good for him to hear from people who are not in public office, especially when getting perspectives on issues.
“If you have to be in politics for your income, or all your social circles are in politics, I think it can make it harder to make decisions,” Kaine says. “I’ve had to make decisions that have made people very close to me unhappy. I never want to not do what I think is right because, ‘Oh, you’re my friend.’ I always try to do what I think is right, so that means you’re going to make people mad.”