Tim Kaine – Voting Conscience Over Party
By Charles McGuigan
On the whole I do not like politicians and I’ve met my fair share of them. Invariably the first thing I do, having met one, is to wash my hands and scrub at them vigorously. Because virtually all politicians, regardless their party affiliation, will tell you what you want to hear and not what is real nor what they intend to do. They lie readily and easily. So there’s that.
And then there is the power politicians possess. And power will corrupt. It always has and it always will. Professional politicians as a lot are driven more by ego than by representation so it is not surprising that many of them are afflicted with narcissistic personality disorder. You can see it in their faces and their mannerisms, their teeth, their coifs. Everything is too well-orchestrated, each movement and gesture theatrically delivered. For politicians are selling something—themselves—and frequently defer to the highest bidder, like call girls.
In our country’s long history I can think of few national leaders who were utterly committed to principle, who truly believed in the Republic: George Washington because he fought with his men for five full years and would not be king; Abraham Lincoln because he would preserve the Union at all costs and bring his people out of bondage; Theodore Roosevelt because he had the courage to stand his ground against his own party and shatter monopolies and the cruel injustices of unbridled capitalism; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt who raised the country out of Depression and restored human dignity to workers and built a machinery of war that would end up saving most of the world from tyranny.
Now having said all this I have met many local politicians who are accountable for their actions. They can easily be fired by the voters and are watched carefully by their constituents. This, I believe, keeps them honest, yet there are still rapscallions among them. And I’ve met some of them, too.
Of all the politicians I have ever met, and come to know, only one can be called a statesman, a genuine promoter of the public good—Tim Kaine.
The first time we ever talked was over a Yuengling on his back porch in Ginter Park. At that time he was a city councilman in Richmond and would soon win the largest fair housing verdict in American history. The lawsuit was filed against Nationwide by Tim’s client, Housing Opportunity Made Equal. This insurance company had redlined minority neighborhoods. The ultimate settlement was for $26 million, most of which went to HOME and the National Fair Housing Alliance.
I’m sitting with Tim in a booth at the City Diner. It’s only nine in the morning, but Tim insists on decaf. He tells me that redlining case had two significant outcomes.
“After our lawsuit one CEO got fired and they hired a new guy who helped resolve the case,” Tim says. “When the new guy retired he had the plaintiffs in the lawsuit out to his retirement event and he said: ‘Look these were the people who brought a lawsuit against us. They beat us and we learned something. Not only are we doing the right thing now, but we’re making a lot of money doing the right thing.’ So it was a real classic example of there was a conflict but at the end of the day everybody was working on the same team. And Nationwide now does a really good job at this.”
For Tim, an attorney, it was the best year he had ever had. “This enabled me to both run and serve as lieutenant governor,” he says, noting that most lieutenant governors, because their salaries are so small, must work at another profession as well. “That settlement made it possible for me to run for a year and serve for four years without worrying about kids’ college savings or household expenses,” he says.
That first time we talked, Tim had also told me about a man who had helped shape his world view. The man’s named was Jim O’Leary, a Jesuit missionary.
Before receiving his law degree from Harvard Tim took a year off to work with Jim in El Progreso, Honduras. Tim ran a vocational school there that taught kids to become carpenters and welders. “He was an interesting guy,” Tim had told me. “He very much lived his faith. He was all about doing what he could to help the poor in a very direct way. He was a happy and fulfilled person and he really made an impact on me.”
At that time, Tim was stricken by the poverty in Honduras, and how the people there dealt with it. “People dealing with hard circumstances with strong faith lives is the thing that made the most biggest impression on me,” he had told me. “That year in Honduras really helped me go back to law school with a better understanding of myself,” Tim had told me.
Tim’s own strong faith as a Roman Catholic had in the past come under attack, particularly when he ran for governor of Virginia. When I ask him about capital punishment and abortion, Tim stirs his coffee, then looks up and says: “I very much accept my church’s teachings on both those issues. I’ve lived my life that way and continue to.”
He pauses to sip. “On the abortion question,” Tim says. “I don’t think it’s the job of government to make people’s moral decisions for them. Abortion and contraception are issues that are really important moral questions that ought to be talked about from the pulpit. They ought to be talked about friend to friend. But I do not believe it’s the job of government to make people’s moral decisions. So I’ve always said I support Roe versus Wade. I wouldn’t change it if I was in the Senate. I wouldn’t support judges who were going to try and overturn Roe v. Wade. Because government shouldn’t be making people’s moral decisions for them.”
During his term as lieutenant-governor and then as governor, Tim remained true to this position, never wavering. “And on the death penalty I agree with the church’s position there,” he says. “I stated that plainly when I ran for governor. It became a huge issue; it was a point around which people would attack me. But I did say, ‘Look I can uphold the law,’ and I upheld the law when I was governor. When there were efforts to expand the death penalty I would veto it. But I always upheld the law.”
On gay marriage, Tim will uphold the law as well, but he won’t necessarily change the language. “My position is that I think LGBT folks should have the same legal rights I do,” he says. “So they should have all the rights that a relationship would confer. I support relationship equality. Now whether a state legislature says that that’s marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, it doesn’t matter as long as all the legal rights and responsibilities are the same I’m fine with it. The real question is, ‘Are the legal rights and responsibilities exactly the same?’ I think the real issue is a moral principle. People should be treated equally.”
The conversation moves around to voting along party lines. “The way I’ve always looked at it is that you’re a representative of a city or a state. I don’t think you’re just supposed to take a poll and do what the poll says. I think you’re supposed to listen to people and then do what you think is right. I am a Democrat because I agree more with the Democrats than I do the Republicans. I like the Democratic big tent philosophy. I like the Democratic views on education. I like the Democrats’ views on most foreign policy issues. But I have plenty of disagreements with the party. I’ve got disagreements with the president and I don’t hesitate to express them when I do. And I’m going to vote my conscience. I’m going to do what I think is best in my own view for the Commonwealth and the country.”
In the main, Tim believes President Obama has performed well. “I think the president has done a very good job under extremely difficult circumstances,” he says. “Including an opposition that pledged from day one to do everything it could to make him a failure. Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor have said that right from the start. Yet given all that I think he’s done a good job. Now I would also say he’s not perfect. When he took office though our economy was shrinking; now it’s growing. The stock market was in the sevens; now it’s in the thirteens. We were in two wars; now we’re out of Iraq and winding down Afghanistan. Bin Laden was not only on the loose but the trail had gone cold for years. Now we’ve not only wiped out Bin Laden but much of the al-Qaida leadership. The auto industry was in a death spiral; we saved it. Four million more low income kids have health insurance. I think this president has been a person of substantive accomplishment.”
It’s often been said the United States has no foreign policy. In the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union our foreign policy, based on the Truman Doctrine, was pretty straightforward—promote our form of government and check the spread of Communism. And every administration, Republican and Democrat alike, followed the basic tenets of this prescription. But the world has changed and changed utterly.
“My basic belief in terms of foreign policy is this: Defend ourselves and our interests unilaterally,” says Tim. “We don’t need to have anybody’s permission; we don’t need to ask anybody. We always will defend ourselves and our vital interests unilaterally.” Tim orders a short stack of pancakes and another round of decaf. “But when we’re promoting our values,” he continues. “We should always try to do it multilaterally. We should always try to build coalitions, to engage partnerships with other nations. And so for example the U.S. role right now with respect to Iran is stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The right way to do that is to get other nations engaged and to get the EU to participate with us in the sanctions that are really crippling Iran’s economy right now. That’s very important. But we can’t afford to be just the cowboy doing it all on our own. So again defend ourselves unilaterally, but when we’re promoting small ‘d’ democratic values we should always be doing that in tandem with other nations.”
Tim, since leaving office governor, has tried to stay out of the fray of Virginia state politics. But his patience was tried during the past General Assembly session. “Generally when you leave being governor you should not spend too much time looking at what the legislature is doing and commenting, and I generally stay out of it,” Tim says. “But I’ve been very disappointed in a couple things. One is the way the General Assembly has treated women’s health issues, the TRAAP regs passing, the ultrasound bill passing. Very degrading, patronizing, unnecessary, anti-woman. They never should have done it and I was very disappointed. The personhood bill didn’t pass; the senate blocked that, thank goodness.”
This legislation drew his ire for two reasons. “First they’re the wrong policy,” says Tim. “And second they’re called wedge issues for a reason. And when you spend your time on wedge issues, you don’t spend your time on fixing the economy. I can’t think of a time in politics where we’ve more needed to set the wedge issues aside and find some glue issues. You know we’ve got to have some glue issues that will stick us together rather play off the wedge issues that drive us apart. TRAAP, ultrasound, personhood, these are all wedge issues, they’re designed to be wedge issues and they drive us apart and we don’t have time for that right now.”
That’s why first and foremost Tim Kaine will continue to focus on the economy. “I think infrastructure investments and education are the long-term investments that make the economy stronger,” he says.
He notes that Virginia, because it pumped money into education, changed the entire economic profile of the state. “We’ve gone from a low income economy to a high income economy in my lifetime largely because we’ve made the kind of talent investments in education that have transformed our economy,” he says. “Every governor, Democrat and Republican, has done something to advance the ball on the talent front. In the past Virginia didn’t really care about talent. We closed schools down rather than let kids learn together if their skin colors were different. Talent wasn’t our virtue. But once we made talent a priority all of that changed. That is probably the main economic lesson that I’m going to take to the U.S. Senate. If you win the talent race, you win the economic race.”
Though the economy is central to the health of the nation, not all things can be decided with the head. You need always to consult the heart as well.
“Hard decisions have to be made,” says Tim Kaine. “But you can’t just make them with the green eyeshade, looking at numbers on a page. It’s about real lives. If we embrace this sort of all cuts approach to the budget, we’ll devastate the economy and hurt people. And there’s a better way to deal with our fiscal challenges than go in with a meat axe and start slashing away at everything. You have to consider the people.”