Clinton picks Tim Kaine, devout Catholic and bridge-builder

The Virginia senator, who previously served as mayor of Richmond, talks with the Monitor about how his faith shapes his politics – and motivates him to address social and racial injustice.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton test drove Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia as a possible VP pick at a rally in Annandale, Va., on Thursday, July 14, 2016.

In announcing Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate on Friday, Hillary Clinton put forward exactly what she wants – someone with deep governing experience and national security expertise. Someone who could, as she has put it, “literally get up one day and be president” if the need arose.

But in this former mayor, governor, and now senator from Virginia, Mrs. Clinton also gets a bridge-builder – a man deeply motivated by his Catholic faith to seek social and racial justice as well as political common ground. That’s a quality that Clinton will need to unite her party and appeal to a deeply divided country as she heads into next week’s Democratic convention and a bruising general election.

And he’s optimistic, contrasting strikingly with the dark tone of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night.

"The Kaine message would be far more hopeful than the message of negativity that you heard from the Republicans this week, and perhaps more optimistic than the somewhat battle-scarred rhetoric of Hillary Clinton," says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

Some progressives, however, are disappointed with the choice of Kaine, saying he's not liberal enough.

In a May interview, with sun streaming through his Senate office windows and Celtic music cheerily piping from his computer, Senator Kaine emphasized the need to give Americans “a pep talk.” He also spoke at length about the role of faith in his public life.

Religion permeates his private and official life, and his political accommodation of it is itself a middle position, he explains – not something he tries to legislate or enforce on others, nor something that he completely walls off, he says.

Rather, he decided early on in his political career, when he was on the Richmond, Va., city council and then as mayor, “to kind of split the difference and just be authentically who I am.” And so he openly references his faith and its influence on him, just like he tells people that he’s married, has three children, likes to play the harmonica, and loves camping.

“I share my faith story a lot because it’s what motivates me in public service,” and voters want to know what motivates candidates, says Kaine, who co-chairs a weekly bipartisan Senate prayer breakfast with Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas.

Working for justice

Kaine’s commitment to social and racial justice was forged in a foundational experience as a young missionary in Honduras. He was “racing through” his studies at Harvard Law School with no real idea of what to do, he wrote in an op-ed last year. “A still small voice” urged him to take a year off to find his way. He decided to teach at a Jesuit-run technical school in the impoverished town of El Progreso, which he knew from his years at a Catholic prep school in Kansas City, Mo.

When he returned from Honduras, he finished his law degree and dedicated himself to public service, helping the disadvantaged as a civil rights lawyer who specialized in housing discrimination. 

He and his wife, Anne Holton, whom he met at Harvard, settled in Richmond, Va. They joined St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, a mostly black church in a poor neighborhood in a city that what was once the heart of the Confederacy. Decades later, the couple still attend.

“Anne and I both decided early on that reconciliation would be the mission of our lives,” Kaine told The Washington Post in 2012, the year he ran for the Senate.

Interest in healing racial tension was part of his wife’s background. Her father, Linwood Holton, was the first Republican governor of Virginia since Reconstruction, and he integrated its schools. Per a federally mandated plan, he enrolled Anne and her siblings in the mostly black, urban schools. She is now Virginia's secretary of education.

It was tension in Richmond’s racially divided city council that prompted Kaine to run for the council in 1994, according to The Associated Press. In the Monitor interview, he says the council was “dysfunctional.”

Four years later his fellow council members elected him mayor, a post in which he distinguished himself as a bridge-builder. “He was credited with reaching across racial and political lines to improve the city's business and social climate and reduce its high crime rate,” the Associated Press wrote.

Compassion for the afflicted

Honduras accentuated in him a desire to help the downtrodden and an affinity with Latin Americans. He returned a fluent Spanish speaker – which he is bound to put to good use as he and Clinton set off on a Florida campaign swing this weekend. In 2013, he delivered a Senate floor speech entirely in Spanish in support of bipartisan immigration reform. At a “test run” campaign event with Clinton in northern Virginia last week, he revved up the crowd by teaching them “Ready for Hillary!” in Español.

The world needs more “islands of mercy” – in the poorest barrio, in churches, and in government – Kaine wrote in his 2015 op-ed, reflecting on a return trip to his school in Honduras and on waves of migrant children flooding America’s southern border the year before. The phrase quotes a pastoral letter by Pope Francis that calls for “islands of mercy in the midst of a sea of indifference.”

That humanitarian concern and other faith-infused ideas profoundly influence Kaine’s approach to national security, which is a specialty he has developed as a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees.

Speaking to American and international audiences, the senator has related the plight of Syrian refugees to the biblical book of Job, whose story of intense and unjust suffering is common to Christian, Judaic, and Muslim teachings. Like Job, the world is being tested to be faithful to its principles, he says.

That means being faithful to treating the exodus of Syrian refugees as a humanitarian crisis. That’s an idea that sits well with Democrats but not necessarily Republicans, certainly not the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who advocates temporarily banning all Muslims from entry to the US as a security precaution.

Tough on ISIS

But Kaine also believes in taking on the self-proclaimed Islamic State with a specific, congressional authorization for use of military force – something that many Republicans support but which Democrats have balked at. Congress has yet to agree on a use of force authorization, despite Kaine’s efforts to forge one that has bipartisan approval. The White House maintains it has authority under old authorizations.

“There is evil in the world and part of what we must do is call it out and stand against it,” the senator said in a speech on the refugee crisis in December.

Kaine’s more robust stand against the Islamic State could be useful to Clinton, says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.

Typically a secretary of State would not need to shore up national-security credentials, says Ms. Bystrom. But with Mr. Trump emphasizing law and order, she says, Clinton can "double down on security" with Kaine at her side. “Plus,” Bystrom adds, Kaine has a “squeaky clean image that might help divert some of the criticism she’ll get over Benghazi and emails.” Others say, however, that even former altar boy Kaine can’t accomplish that.

“I think the public is going to judge Clinton on her own merits,” says Kyle Kondik,  a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville.


Persuading swing voters

But Professor Farnsworth believes that the Virginia senator’s faith can be useful to Clinton in helping her solidify the Hispanic vote and win over swing voters, particularly more conservative Catholics.

“What’s important when you talk about Kaine’s religiosity is the extent to which it offers an opening to swing voters,” he says. “There’s been an argument among Republicans for some time that they are the religious party and Democrats are the secular party.”

Kaine is unabashedly anti-abortion, a result of his Catholic faith. For the same reason, he’s also against the death penalty, and as an attorney he defended prisoners on death row.

And yet he describes these convictions as personal beliefs. In accord with the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion, he doesn’t think the government has the right to dictate such an intimate decision for women. And in accord with Virginia’s state law, he allowed 11 executions to proceed when he was governor.

When he was running for that job in 2005, his Republican opponent ran attack ads against him, claiming he was so anti-death penalty that he would have spared even Adolf Hitler from execution.

The attack, however, was an opening for him to talk about his religious convictions, and he beat his opponent 52 to 46 percent. That did not mean he had an easy time of it as governor. He faced an ever more rigid Republican legislature, and was able to make little headway with his initiatives in the face of GOP resistance while combating the greatest recession since the Depression.

What he did do, however, was spend a lot of time with the state House speaker, Republican William Howell, Kaine said in the interview. By talking with and listening to his opponent, he learned they both shared an interest in open-space preservation as well as concerns about the health dangers of smoking. Working together, they passed a law banning smoking in bars and restaurants, which, as Kaine points out, wasn’t easy to do in “tobacco central” Virginia.

“What I learned was if I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Bill, really listening to him and him with me, we wouldn’t have found those overlaps,” he said.

Venn Diagram politics

Those overlaps are what Kaine refers to as his political approach to the Venn Diagram, for which he thanks his second grade teacher, Sister Perpetuate. Only through listening, which he calls a lost art, can areas of agreement be found, he says.

Listening to Bernie Sanders supporters, for instance, tells him that voters weren’t happy about the Democratic nominating process – including so-called “superdelegates,” an idea which Kaine is “not so wild about,” and wasn’t wild about even when he was chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011, before being elected to the Senate. Will he hear what they say about the perils of free trade? He helped push President Obama's "fast track" trade negotiating authority through the Senate last year.

He acknowledged voter concerns that big money in politics is taking people “away from representing everybody to representing the few.” 

There’s a hunger for “authenticity” he says, for lawmakers who “tell it like it is.”

Still, that telling cannot be in the Trump style, evoking “darker emotions,” says Kaine, whose streak of optimism goes back to his days as a cheerleader at his all-boys Catholic high school.

Name one great American leader who took advantage of negative emotions, he challenges. From Presidents Washington and Lincoln to Truman, FDR, and Reagan, “they were fundamentally optimistic, positive. That’s always the best leadership trait.”

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