News & Features » News and Features

Clean Team

Tim Kaine and Jerry Kilgore campaign for cleaner government.



Lt. Gov. Kaine, a Democrat and former Richmond mayor, has called for changes to the state's anything-goes campaign finance laws and reforms that would strip partisanship from the redrawing of political districts.

Attorney General Kilgore, a Republican, has drawn wide praise for informing law officials in March that a top GOP strategist secretly listened in on conference telephone calls between Democratic lawmakers. Speaking three weeks ago at a Republican fund-raising gala, he criticized his party for failing to strongly condemn the eavesdropping.

At first glance, their actions might seem opportunistic. But both men have been preaching the gospel of good government for years. They say the difference this spring is that people actually may be listening.

"I think it's become a better climate for addressing some of these ethical issues," Kaine says. "... I say let's use the opportunity to get some of these reforms passed that may not have been as high a priority two months ago."

Kilgore says: "We've been fortunate in Virginia that we have not been a scandal-ridden state like Louisiana or some other states, and that's good. But it also causes us to forget that open government and honest government is something you have to work for every day."

Were they not impending rivals, Kaine and Kilgore might be close friends. Each is a lawyer in his early 40s who spends his spare time shuttling his children to sports events. Each says his view of politics was shaped, in large part, by youthful memories of the Watergate scandal.

"It made a huge impression on me in terms of how stupid it was because [Nixon] was going to win a huge landslide anyway," says Kaine, who grew up in a nonpolitical family in Kansas City, Kan. "The reaction you heard in conversations was that everyone does it. The casual acceptance that we really can't expect much out of politicians really bugged me."

Kilgore, who was reared by die-hard Republicans in rural Gate City, came away with a similar impression. "Those of us in the Watergate generation learned that it was really about open government and that, hey, these people work for us," he says. "They're not working for themselves. They're not there to run the government and keep secrets."

Kaine's open approach to government was cemented in 1980 when he was in Honduras and witnessed some of the first elections in the former dictatorship. It carried over to his two recent terms as Richmond mayor, when he pushed through ordinances to televise City Council meetings and moved historically low-turnout municipal elections from May to November, when people are accustomed to voting.

Kilgore's reformist streak is a product of his upbringing as an upstart Republican in the southwest corner of the state long dominated — sometimes corruptly — by Democrats. Some of his earliest political memories are of Democrats passing miniature liquor bottles to voters who came to the polls.

During an unsuccessful 1997 bid for the Republican attorney-general nomination, Kilgore laid out an Honest Government Bill of Rights. He continued the effort during last year's election, calling for campaign finance reform and increased accountability from lawmakers on public money used for office expenses.

Both politicians pushed for measures on ethical government during this year's General Assembly session. Kaine won a commitment from the state Senate to televise its proceedings starting next year, although the House of Delegates opted out of the arrangement. Kilgore steered a successful bill requiring political candidates to appear in their televised campaign ads — an effort to cut down on negative attacks.

The eavesdropping scandal this spring tested Kilgore's clean-government principles. The executive director of the state GOP, Edmund A. Matricardi III, was indicted for clandestinely listening in on two conference calls in which Democratic lawmakers discussed strategy in a lawsuit challenging the Republicans' redistricting plan. (Prosecutors dropped four felony wiretapping charges against Matricardi last week, but said they would widen their probe to investigate others involved.) Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, participated in one of the calls.

Sources say Matricardi offered information from the calls to the attorney general's office, which is defending the redistricting plan. Kilgore's staff informed him of the eavesdropping incident without giving him details about who was involved. He advised them to notify the state police.

"I just feel like I was doing my job, that any person in an elected office should have taken the steps I took to get the state police involved," Kilgore says. "You take an oath to uphold the laws, and that's what I was doing."

The attorney general is unblinking in his condemnation of the incident.

"You just can't sanction their behavior," Kilgore says.

Although Kilgore has captured most of the headlines, Kaine has harnessed the scandal's winds to float his own causes. In early May he called news conferences to promote a nonpartisan redistricting process and to call for random audits of campaign finance reports.

Kaine acknowledges that his proposals face a difficult road in the General Assembly, which has killed similar measures in the past.

"I'm realistic," he says. "I don't see these things being easy no-brainers. But it's a good time. There may be some more receptivity to them than there has been in the past."

The question for the future is whether Kaine and Kilgore can maintain their political edges without betraying their values. The impending rivals now speak with grudging politeness about each other. And no one knows whether ethical issues will still have currency when the next governor's race rolls around in 2005.

"Time will tell," says Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "They may just be two young lions circling each other." S

Add a comment