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Most Americans will get their first real look at Tim Kaine tonight when he speaks at the Democratic National Convention. Of all the potential running mates Hillary Clinton could have picked, the Virginia senator is the most experienced at all levels of government. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: There's an irony to Tim Kaine's political career in Virginia. In the heart of the old Confederacy, his rise has been fueled in part by his personal commitment to racial reconciliation and to his faith, as he put it in a C-SPAN interview.
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TIM KAINE: I do what I do for spiritual reasons.
TOTENBERG: Raised in Kansas City where he worked in his father's iron welding business, educated by Jesuit priests in high school, Kaine went to the University of Missouri then to Harvard Law School. Along the way, he took a year off to do missionary work in Honduras. There, he learned...
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KAINE: How a strong spiritual life can help you deal with the challenges that we all face in life.
TOTENBERG: Returning to Harvard, his soon-to-be wife, Anne Holton, persuaded him they should settle down in Richmond, Va., where she'd grown up. The lure was the predominantly black Catholic Church where the Kaine family has worshipped ever since. Kaine would practice law for the next 15 years, focusing on civil rights cases. He married into a family all too familiar with Virginia's racial conflicts.
In 1970, his father-in-law, Republican Governor Linwood Holton, was frozen out of politics after he led the way on school desegregation and enrolled his children in the predominantly African-American Richmond Public Schools. Holton, now 92, has been something of a mentor to Kaine, encouraging him to get involved in public service.
But when Kaine decided to run for the racially divided and dysfunctional Richmond City Council in 1994, Holton couldn't believe his ears.
LINWOOD HOLTON: So I said you're crazy. He said, but I thought you encouraged me to get into government. And I said I did, but the city council is where they bury budding politicians.
TOTENBERG: It didn't work out that way. Kaine proved such a successful peacemaker that the majority black council voted by acclamation to elect him mayor in 1998 and then to re-elect him for a second term. From there, he was elected lieutenant governor then governor.
Along the way, he had to reconcile two articles of his Catholic faith with his political life - his opposition to abortion and to the death penalty. Abortion was the simpler one. Like many other Catholic officials, he said he would not impose his own religious beliefs on others. On the death penalty, he pledged that he would follow the law of Virginia. It was a pledge that he would carry out, but it was painful.
As a private lawyer, Kaine had twice represented men on death row. As governor, he upheld the death penalty for all but one of the 11 men seeking clemency. Wayne Turnage, his chief of staff back then, says execution days were always emotionally draining.
WAYNE TURNAGE: During the course of the day, you could tell he was a different guy, a little more somber.
TOTENBERG: Kaine was a popular governor, but he failed to get any major initiative through the Republican legislature. Instead, his tenure coincided with the worst national recession in generations. He spent much of his time and skill making massive budget cuts, while at the same time trying to preserve essential public services. Again, Wayne Turnage.
TURNAGE: So I think Governor Kaine's greatest accomplishment was his stewardship of the state budget during the worst economy in 50 years.
TOTENBERG: Kaine had planned to return to private life at the end of his term, but when a Senate seat unexpectedly opened up, he ran and won. Washington Post reporter Steve Hendrix sums up Kaine's career as the politics of updraft.
STEVE HENDRIX: The central feature of Tim Kaine's political career is his impeccable timing. He was a liberal social justice candidate for Virginia at the very moment that the state was ready for that.
TOTENBERG: That said, on the national stage, some on the left see Kaine as too centrist because he supported trade deals. University of Richmond political science professor Daniel Palazzolo.
DANIEL PALAZZOLO: They think it suggests just how far the liberal wing of the party has gone and how aggressive they are about their demands.
TOTENBERG: Still, Kaine's sunny, upbeat disposition has served him well in the Senate. He's forged relationships and occasional compromise with Republicans of all stripes. On the day Hillary Clinton picked Kaine as her running mate, Conservative Republican Jeff Flake tweeted (reading) trying to count the ways I hate Tim Kaine - drawing a blank. Congrats to a good man and a good friend.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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