For those who know Sen. Timothy M. Kaine well in his home state of Virginia, there is rich irony to the blowback from liberal advocacy groups upset that Hillary Clinton did not pick someone more progressive to be her Democratic running mate.
“Throughout his time in politics here, there has always been this question about whether Tim Kaine was too liberal for Virginia,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst. “No one has ever suggested this was a moderate who couldn’t be counted on to support liberal values.”
Before entering politics, Kaine worked as a civil rights lawyer, focusing on housing discrimination affecting African American families and representing inmates on death row. He began his political career in 1994 by winning a seat on Richmond’s City Council, whose majority-black members selected him as mayor four years later.
In the two decades that followed, Kaine rose through the political ranks to serve as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator.
In those positions, he successfully pushed a smoking ban in restaurants in a state where tobacco giant Philip Morris is a major employer. He advocated gun control in a state where the National Rifle Association has its headquarters. He spoke out against the death penalty in a leading state for executions. And he’s remained a close ally of labor groups in a state that prides itself on its right-to-work status.
“I don’t understand it,” said Mo Elleithee, a friend and longtime Democratic operative who once worked for Kaine. “My sense is most of the progressives who’ve been concerned don’t know him and have another candidate they would have preferred.”
The critique in recent days from national progressive groups — some with ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), the runner-up in the Democratic primaries — has focused on a handful of issues, related primarily to trade and banking. And some liberal activists have expressed dismay that Clinton passed over Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), a darling of the party’s left wing whom Clinton had dangled as a possible pick.
On Sunday, Sanders said during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would have preferred Warren. Sanders said Kaine is more conservative than him but praised his Senate colleague for being smart and “a very nice guy.”
Winnie Wong, an Occupy Wall Street veteran who founded the group People for Bernie, said Clinton’s pick of Kaine showed “a woeful disregard to the progressives who fought so hard this year to create conditions for transformational change this country desperately needs.”
Norman Solomon, the coordinator of a group billing itself as the Bernie Delegates Network, called Kaine “a loyal servant of oligarchy.”
“If Clinton has reached out to Bernie supporters, it appears that she has done so to stick triangulating thumbs in their eyes,” said Solomon, whose organization claims to represent hundreds of Sanders delegates attending the convention in Philadelphia but is not coordinating with the campaign.
Kaine’s stance on trade has been at odds with progressive groups, particularly over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pending trade pact being championed by President Obama but opposed by most liberal interest groups and most liberal Democrats in Congress, including Sanders.
Kaine was one of 13 Senate Democrats who voted in June 2015 to grant Obama “fast-track” authority to push the deal through Congress.
“Why would I not give to this president the same tools to negotiate a trade deal that other presidents had?” Kaine told reporters Thursday, the day before he was picked to be Clinton’s running mate. Speaking of the deal itself, Kaine also said, “I see much in it to like.”
During her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton called the pending pact the “gold standard” of multinational trade, but she has since announced her opposition, and Kaine is expected to fall into line, citing some of the same reservations.
Kaine also drew fire from liberal groups for signing a bipartisan letter last week urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to “carefully tailor its rulemaking” regarding community banks and credit unions so as not to “unduly burden” the institutions with regulations aimed at commercial banks.
Kaine said that the letter merely reflected the differing environments under which different kinds of financial institutions operate, but the activist network Democracy for America, which backed Sanders in the primaries, said his action should be “disqualifying” for any potential Democratic vice-presidential pick, calling it an attempt to “help banks dodge consumer protection standards.”
Holsworth, the longtime Virginia political analyst, said that part of the friction between Kaine and these groups can be attributed to an evolving definition of what it means to be a progressive.
Kaine’s progressivism is rooted in a civil rights and social justice tradition, Holsworth said.
But now “there’s a growing emphasis on more adversarial relationships with large institutions,” including Wall Street firms and large corporations, he said. “That’s not the kind of tradition Tim Kaine comes out of.”
Most governors, Holsworth argued, tend to be more sympathetic to businesses, because part of their job is attracting them to their state. And in the case of Virginia, which is home to one of the nation’s larger deep-water ports, it’s also important to understand the benefits of trade.
“There are particular issue areas where Kaine can be vulnerable to the progressive critique, but when you look at his entire career, it’s hard to say he isn’t closer to them than the Blue Dogs or other more moderate factions,” he said.
Kaine is also considered well to the left of Virginia’s senior senator, Mark R. Warner, a venture capitalist and one of the Senate’s wealthiest members. The political distance between the two is often overlooked, given that Kaine served as lieutenant governor during Warner’s tenure as governor, and some cast Kaine’s 2005 bid for governor as an extension of Warner’s service.
Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, one of the liberal groups that have been critical of Kaine, said there’s much to like about him.
“His record on civil rights and guns is unquestionable,” Sroka said, but he argued that doesn’t erase his group’s concerns. “A willingness to take on the corporate establishment is essential to this election,” he said.
Kaine’s boosters say they’ve been puzzled by the progressive groups that have spoken out against his being chosen.
Since winning his Senate seat in 2012, Kaine has won perfect or near-perfect scores from an array of liberal interest groups, reflecting a record that is in line with their positions on abortion rights, gun control, gay rights and labor interests.
In 2013, Kaine also made history with a floor speech entirely in Spanish, an address in support of an immigration law overhaul.
During her introduction of Kaine to a national audience Saturday at a rally in Miami, Clinton repeatedly called Kaine “a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Elleithee and others point to several defining moments in Kaine’s career that speak to his progressive values.
In his race for governor, for example, Kaine was hit hard by his Republican opponent, Jerry W. Kilgore, for his personal opposition to the death penalty. Kilgore ran television ads that featured family members of murdered Virginians denouncing Kaine.
Kaine countered with an ad in which he stared straight into the camera and declared his position a matter of faith — but pledged to carry out the law. As governor, he did allow executions to continue but vetoed bills seeking to expand the application of the death penalty.
Kaine also clashed with Republican legislators early in his term when he sought to appoint an old friend and longtime labor leader to be secretary of the commonwealth, a position responsible for making thousands of appointments to state boards and commissions.
In a rare move, the House of Delegates voted down the nomination of former AFL-CIO state director Daniel G. LeBlanc, citing concerns about his long-standing opposition to “right to work” labor laws.
In an interview, LeBlanc described himself as “one of those guys who was pushing for the Democrats to be more progressive in Virginia” and praised Kaine for what he did next: appoint him to another Cabinet-level position that didn’t require confirmation by the legislature.
In that position, which LeBlanc described as a workforce development “czar,” he was able to work in areas closer to his expertise.
Kaine’s national politics also have showed a progressive bent. During the 2008 presidential cycle, he was the first governor outside of Illinois to endorse Barack Obama.