Commentary: For VP, Kaine a bold choice

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine greet supporters at a campaign rally at Florida International University in Miami on July 23, 2016.

 

Conventional wisdom already has declared Hillary Clinton's selection of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as a "safe," cautious choice, even an affront to the Democrats' liberal wing.

That narrative, however, is driven more by Clinton's lengthy primary contest with Bernie Sanders than an understanding of who Kaine is or the significance of his career.

Kaine is best understood as a committed social justice advocate who happens to have operated in the terrain of Virginia - in particular the racially divided Richmond region - with an intent on not just being right but being effective.

Kaine's political career began in 1994 with his election to Richmond City Council. Here, context is important: following legal challenges to Richmond's racially motivated annexation of part of Chesterfield County in 1970, a new district-based system for local elections was implemented in 1977, replacing the at-large system. However, Richmond's mayor was still not elected by voters but by council members simply selecting a colleague to the post.

The new system immediately led to African Americans gaining majority control of council for the first time in 1977. It also created a local politics that was almost entirely racialized, as well as a governance structure too fragmented to respond to the city's growing problems.

By the mid-1990s, Richmond had become characterized by declining population, an out-of-control homicide rate, and a crippling poverty rate. The council was perceived as more interested in grandstanding than productive problem-solving. Meaningful interracial political alliances were rare.

This is the environment Kaine stepped into. He worked to develop relationships with African American residents and leaders, and regularly sided with black leaders on symbolic issues. Kaine, together with his wife Anne Holton (daughter of former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton and currently Virginia's secretary of education), earned the trust of residents across racial lines and showed that a less polarized politics could be forged.

This commitment was substantive as well as symbolic. Kaine understood that many of Richmond's problems were (and are) the product of policies and institutional structures that reinforce racial disparities, from the incomplete desegregation of schools to inadequate regional transportation. Kaine in his capacity as a lawyer took on one such major issue - racially discriminatory real estate practices - in a successful landmark lawsuit against Nationwide Mutual Insurance in 1998.

That same year, Kaine become the first white Council member post-1977 to be elected mayor with the support of a majority of African American colleagues. The start of Richmond's long-term crime rate decline, as well as successful neighborhood development initiatives, date from Kaine's three years as mayor (he resigned in 2001 to run for lieutenant governor). Equally important, Kaine added his voice to those advocating for further city-governance reform. In 2003, voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to create a directly elected mayor who acts as the city's chief executive officer.

Richmond's violent crime rate has fallen dramatically from the levels of the mid-1990s, and in the past decade the city's population has grown rapidly. While race is still a major factor, the city's political coalitions no longer are defined by race, and racial identity rarely is a reliable predictor of where a leader will stand on a contested issue.

Richmond still is marked by vast, racialized disparities, but today there is greater commitment and capacity across racial and ethnic lines to address those disparities than at any time since Reconstruction. At the same time, Virginia itself has transitioned from a reliably Republican state to a Southern state that consistently leans Democratic in statewide and presidential elections - a transition with massive implications for the national electoral map.

Kaine's political career has benefitted from these changes - but these are also changes Kaine and Holton played a key, early role in bringing about. Kaine entered public life in 1994 motivated by a desire to support racial justice but also convinced that Richmond local politics did not need to be characterized by racial polarization and dysfunctional governance. In no small measure because of Kaine's own example, he was proven right. At the same time, the furnace of 1990s Richmond forged Kaine's impressive political skills, skills which translated effectively to the statewide arena.

It's one thing to adopt strong populist positions as an elected official from a traditionally Democratic, liberal-leaning state. It's quite another thing to help move, over a period of two decades, a state from one column into another. Judged from that perspective, Hillary Clinton's choice of Kaine reflects less "caution" than a prospective president's due appreciation for actual, hard-won political progress in challenging settings.

Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. twillia9@richmond.edu

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