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Kaine's next Move

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine is trying to build a legacy in the toughest year on record.

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"I think it will be interesting," Kaine says. "The Pharisees had a very technical, rigorous view of the law, but completely missed the spirit."

The lieutenant governor is a lawyer who insists on the importance of morality. He is a politician who insists that government can do good. He is a devout Catholic, a Richmonder, a former mayor and the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the state.

He also is a longtime local government official who is trying to make his mark in the often provincial, clubby world of state politics.

This year, he has a chance to prove that these qualities can make a difference — to the state, to his party and to his political future. He has proposed an ambitious list of 26 bills in the House of Delegates and the Senate. Last year he offered two.

Unfortunately for him, Kaine is trapped in a situation not of his making. The state is $1.5 billion in the red, making it hard to fund ambitious new agendas. The General Assembly is dominated by Republicans, making it difficult for him to get legislation passed.

Meanwhile, every move Kaine makes is analyzed for signs of his ambition. He has made it no secret that he plans to run for governor in 2005.

"Being lieutenant governor is a lot like being vice president," says Larry Sabato, the ubiquitous political scientist from the University of Virginia. "Your job is to inquire after the health of the governor and position yourself to run for his job. His future depends greatly on how Warner does, and conditions couldn't be worse for Warner. … I can't imagine a worse time to be a governor or a lieutenant governor. …"

Kaine's future is tied to the governor's, Sabato adds. "His best chance for re-election will be if the citizens want to give Warner a second term," something that can't happen in Virginia, where governors are prohibited from succeeding themselves.

At the same time, Kaine is trying to make his own way, apart from party politics and labels. When the governor asked him to help run the state's volunteerism effort, for example, Kaine said no. He sometimes observes that in his seven years on Richmond's City Council and as its mayor, he never had to mention his party affiliation. When observers call him liberal, he patiently, repeatedly makes the case that he is a lot more complex than that.

To win a chance in 2005, Kaine will have to make his voice heard. But that will prove difficult for a lieutenant governor in the minority party — especially one with just one year spent making allies in the General Assembly.

"The question before Tim Kaine is, 'What can I point to now to show that I can make a difference?'" says former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat who successfully made the leap from lieutenant governor. "That's hard when you've got no money. When you've got politics with no money, you can't promise anything to anybody."

Meanwhile, Sabato observes, "The Republicans aren't going to do him any favors."

Indeed, the Republicans have their own front-runner in Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who received more votes than the governor did.

And some members of both parties say Kaine may be too liberal to win a race for governor in Virginia. Early in the last campaign, Mark Warner expressed doubts — Kaine, he told some people, was too far to the left to become lieutenant governor. Others predicted that Kaine couldn't win if he kept talking about his "deep moral reservations" about capital punishment.

Kaine proved them wrong with a hard-fought win over far-right candidate Jay Katzen.

So Kaine will have to steer a complex course to Election Day 2005. He will have to avoid controversy while not seeming timid. He will have to propose agendas while avoiding spending money. He will have to rally the Democrats while not aggravating the Republicans. And he will need to establish himself as his own man while not undercutting the current governor or riling the attorney general.

As Patrick McSweeney, a lawyer and political columnist, observed late last year: "There are no models for Kaine. Watching him over the next few years should be a political education in itself."

"Carey, I have something very important to tell you," Lisa McMurray, Kaine's chief of staff, tells Carey M. Friedman, Kaine's policy director. "The coffee maker's broken."

"You know, it was on the fritz yesterday," Friedman says.

"I'm sorry," McMurray says.

Friedman just shakes his head.

It's Tuesday morning, the second week of the General Assembly session, and McMurray, Friedman and a couple of assistants are in the lieutenant governor's war room. It's a small workroom on the first floor of the Capitol, stuffed with a conference table, a love seat, a desk used by three people, a minifridge (featuring a newspaper photo of a grim-looking Vance Wilkins, the now-ousted Republican speaker of the house, next to a newspaper headline: "It's Safe to Come Out Now, Jerry"), two laptop computers and one desktop computer, all three of which apparently are working, and the coffee machine, which is not. The brass plate on the outside of office door says only "Senate," and underneath, in smaller letters, "Please Knock."

On one wall is a dry-erase board marked off with string. Each line features a handwritten summary of a bill Kaine is trying to get passed — "Hungry Hunters," "Covenant Marriage," and so on — and the bill's official sponsors. As lieutenant governor, Kaine oversees the Senate but cannot sponsor legislation on his own.

Kaine is sitting at the oval conference table with John Garrett, deputy clerk of the Senate, getting a rundown on the day's schedule of bills in the Senate. Kaine administers the state Senate's daily sessions, breaking tie votes and making procedural rulings when necessary.

Kaine, who is 44, often leans back in his chair while listening, squinting his eyes even narrower than they usually are. He has a habit of interjecting regularly — "Mm-hmm. Right. OK." — so every conversation becomes a sort of Mamet play.

Garrett: "Senator Stosch may bring a resolution about the Henrico policeman who drowned to the floor —"

Kaine: "In memoriam."

Garrett: "Yes. And may request —"

Kaine: "Mm-hmm."

Garrett: " — that we stand."

Kaine: "In silence."

Garrett: "Yes."

Kaine: "OK."

Kaine's day began at 6:30 with the sunrise caucus, followed by an 8 a.m. committee meeting to discuss Kaine's proposal to force the state to find money to pay for "unfunded mandates" — the things it makes local governments do. That meeting went well; the subcommittee voted unanimously to approve the measure and send it to the main committee.

Already, the staff has been at work for hours. "I sat bolt up in bed at 4:30 this morning," McMurray says. "And I went to bed at 1."

Kaine's staff will be running on a few hours' sleep for the remainder of the General Assembly session until Feb. 22, working to get Kaine's bills passed.

Kaine is tackling an enormous number of bills for a lieutenant governor — too many, some Democrats say privately.

"I'm a big believer that good governing is ultimately good politics," Kaine says. "And hey, I want to do good things in the time I have here. I may be hit by a bus before I can run for governor three years from now."

Kaine divides his bills into four main themes: education, accountability, government reform and family.

On the theme of education, for example, Kaine is pushing to change the Virginia Constitution to force the state to cough up $600 million in school funds he says it owes (the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee of the General Assembly agrees, according to a JLARC study released last year). He also is trying to raise teacher salaries to the national average, which he says would cost $100 million a year, and is working to mandate annual personnel evaluations of teachers.

On the issue of accountability, Kaine is proposing to put General Assembly sessions on public television. He also is calling for the legislators to revamp the way they pay themselves for office expenses — the current system, he says, is simply a pay raise in disguise. And, most distinctly, he's proposing to make it illegal for the state to force localities to take on expenses without the state paying for them.

The most recent addition to Kaine's arsenal of legislation is his package of bills on the family. He has a press conference scheduled on this workday, in which he plans to detail those proposals, including making it a felony to be seriously behind on child-support payments.

In some ways, it seems Kaine's agenda is almost designed to alienate the General Assembly. His calls for accountability in the General Assembly, for more power to local governments, are unlikely to meet with much favor in the Capitol. But they do strike a chord among local officials around the state.

Indeed, many of Kaine's pronouncements have met with some skepticism from the political establishment.

Take school funding, which Kaine says is a bedrock principle of his political agenda. Kaine has been lambasted for declining to say where the $600 million the state owes local school districts will come from. He maintains that if lawmakers make funding schools the state's first priority, the money will be found; if it's not, the localities will gain a "legal recourse" — the ability to sue.

"I would re-prioritize the budget and spend it on schools first," Kaine says. "This is a priority statement. It will force us to make a hard choice." After all, Kaine points out, when he was mayor, cash-strapped Richmond found enough money to build three new schools — the first schools built in the city in decades.

Some, like Wilder, say that Kaine's proposal, by allowing localities to sue the state for funding, will "open a floodgate of lawsuits … when we're already $1 billion short."

Sabato is equally dismissive of Kaine's bill to spend $100 million to raise teacher salaries, calling it a naked bid for the votes of the teachers' lobby. "Hey, who isn't in favor of education?" he asks rhetorically. "But the real question is, how are you going to do it? Where's the money? This is the only state in the union that won't raise sin taxes when it's facing a budget crisis! No, I'm sorry — no one takes that idea seriously. No one."

Still, Sabato adds of Kaine's bills, "They're politically savvy."

The first time Kaine hears of this, he says: "I guess I'm not as cynical as Larry Sabato. … I'm going to go to the Capitol, and I'm anxious to hear Virginia legislators say why Virginia teachers don't deserve to get paid as much as the national average."

The next time it comes up, in an interview a few days later, Kaine says: "I'll just say this — Larry Sabato is an expert in politics. I'm an expert in public service."

Kaine is no novice. He was highly successful in his law practice, at one point winning the largest fine awarded in a housing-discrimination case in U.S. history. In his seven years on Richmond City Council, he faced some bitter fights with equanimity. He managed to pull together a fractious Council with his tireless discussions, often working out compromises others thought were impossible. When he became mayor, he took a ceremonial job that is essentially meaningless and turned it into the most potent position in City Hall. Many who know him say Kaine became a de-facto city manager — cutting business deals and running many key aspects of the city.

In the General Assembly, though, Kaine faces challenges of a different sort — a partisan world of insiders and backroom deals.

On this morning, Kaine has an hour before the press conference on his family bills. "You haven't spent much time with the Democratic Caucus lately," McMurray suggests. "You should visit them."

"OK," Kaine says. "Will do."

The House Democratic Caucus is meeting in a conference room down the hall in the Capitol. Kaine makes a quick stop to run over some highlights of his political agenda. "It's going pretty well," he tells the Democrats.

The meeting has a bit of a whistling-past-the-graveyard tone. "Our esteemed Republican colleagues," says one legislator dryly, "are marching all our bills into committee and performing mass executions."

Kaine and his staff are working to make sure that doesn't happen to his bills. But Kaine acknowledges that some of his more aggressive proposals, such as his call to end unfunded mandates from the state, probably face a similar fate.

The biggest part of political success comes from alliances, and Kaine has made a point of building ties with many different groups. "One of the things I appreciate about the Senate," he says more than once, "is that it tends to be relatively nonpartisan." He is especially pleased, for example, that Ken Cuccinelli II, a freshman Republican senator from Centreville, has recently told him he will "carry" Kaine's bill to change the way the Assembly pays for office expenses. Other bills are being carried by other legislators including Richmond's Viola Baskerville and Delegate Chapman Petersen of Alexandria, a fellow former mayor.

One potential ally would seem to be the governor. Like Kaine, Warner is a Democrat in the midst of his first elected term in the Capitol. And Warner has made a point of giving Kaine a seat in his Cabinet, something Warner's predecessor denied his lieutenant governor. In Cabinet meetings, Kaine sits next to the governor.

"The governor works very well with Kaine," says Ellen Qualls, Warner's press secretary. "They campaigned together. He has a lot of respect for him."

But some say the relationship between the two remains distant. Warner, by some accounts, is quietly backing L.F. Payne, a conservative Democrat and former U.S. congressman, to be the party's next candidate for governor.

Warner and Kaine are poles apart in personality. Kaine likes to tell a story about going on the campaign trail with Warner: "We would be driving all night and all day, going from a parade in Buena Vista to one in another town. ... And, of course, I would be asleep in the back and Mark would be up in the front, telling the driver when to use the turn signal."

The hard-charging governor and his laid-back lieutenant governor aren't just different in styles. They have yet to join forces on any major project. Kaine says that last year he wrote Warner a "lengthy memo" detailing his constitutional amendment to make the state pay its full share of the costs of K-12 education. "They just decided they had enough fish to fry," Kaine says.

More recently, Warner asked Kaine to lead his Virginia Citizen Corps, which organizes local volunteers to prepare for emergencies or terrorist attack. Kaine declined. "There are other commitments I've made," he says. "And there are other things I want to do for the governor."

By saying no, Kaine bucked tradition. Historically, part of the role of lieutenant governor is to do whatever the governor asks. While lieutenant governor, for example, Wilder was asked by Gov. Jerry Baliles to chair a military-affairs committee. "I didn't think much of it," Wilder recalls. "But I had to take it. He asked me. So I had to do it."

Some people close to the governor say he does not take kindly to being turned down. "Mark does not like to hear that," says one. "That was not a smart move."

Warner has given Kaine work to do. Kaine serves on a work group on school-accountability issues and is a member of a subcommittee for the Governor's Higher Education Summit. Kaine is also a member of the anti-terrorism task force the Secure Virginia Panel, and he chairs the Citizens and Communities subcommittee.

But Kaine makes it clear that he would be glad to take on a project for the governor that is more visible than organizing local volunteer groups. He says he's been holding some talks with Warner that seem promising, and is hopeful that he will get a chance to do just that.

About 30 people are gathered here in front of the curtain of Virginia blue to hear Kaine speak. Perhaps 18 are reporters. Two are Democratic legislators who are sponsoring Kaine's bills. The others are young Capitol pages or Kaine staffers.

Kaine starts off his press conference by talking about his wife, Anne Holton, a judge in a Richmond family court. He has learned from her, he says, how families are torn apart by divorce, by fights over custody and child support.

Kaine then unveils his package of social legislation. One bill makes it a felony if someone doesn't pay child support for six months; another orders clergy to report suspected child abuse or neglect, unless that information was gained through religious practice; another would make couples with children attend counseling before a divorce.

The proposal that generates the most discussion is Kaine's proposal for a "covenant marriage," which would require eight hours of counseling before marriage and another eight hours before divorce. "I hope that at the least it would make couples think twice," Kaine says.

Typically, this is an idea suggested by conservative Republicans. But Kaine's bill is much less severe than other versions. For example, Delegate Robert McDonnell of Virginia Beach tried and failed three times to get a more conservative version of covenant marriage through the General Assembly.

The journalists sound skeptical. "This seems like a move to the right," says Times-Dispatch political reporter Tyler Whitley.

"Everything I do, because of the position I'm in, people will talk about the politics of it," Kaine says. "But people who know me well know that none of these issues are new to me or a surprise."

Another reporter says, "You're offering a government remedy to divorce. Is government responsible for the divorce statistics going up?"

Kaine, looking a bit taken aback, says, "In some ways it's not a government remedy. I know covenant marriages aren't going to solve the issue of divorce. … But looking at the picture overall, in many ways the answer [to the question] has been yes."

Another asks, "Why have a requirement for counseling before a marriage but not … before conceiving a child?"

"Because marriage is a civil regulation," Kaine replies. "You don't have to go to a clerk's office to apply for a license to have a child. You do for a marriage."

After the press conference, Kaine reflects on why he is doing all this. He talks about his father- in-law, Republican former Gov. Linwood Holton, who opposed the "massive resistance" his party preached about desegregation. He doesn't mention — he doesn't have to — that, as a child, his wife was famously taken to the desegregated public school to which she was assigned.

"My father-in-law did what he thought was right, and he did amazing things," Kaine says. "A Republican governor who turned his back on the past, who turned his back on massive resistance! … He did a lot of good. He created the Cabinet system governors use today. It took him a long time, but he did it. In fact, Senator Wilder cast the key vote on that. … Lin is my model politically."

Kaine knows full well that Holton, a maverick who followed his conscience more than his party, never got elected to another political office. But Kaine says he's trying to work within the system.

"I have been successful in getting things done in every avenue of my life — in my academic life, in my professional life, in my family life, in my political life," Kaine says. "Yes, now I have to operate in a world of political parties. Now I have to get things done in a party world. I understand that."

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