Tim Kaine: The 3 Lessons I Learned From Local Government

Hillary Clinton's running mate is one of the few people in American history to serve as a mayor, governor and U.S. senator. (Oh yeah, he was also a city council member.)
by | July 25, 2016
(David Kidd)

When U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine introduced himself as the Democratic vice presidential candidate on Saturday, he touted his experience at many levels of government. He is one of only 20 people in U.S. history, he said, to serve as a mayor, governor and U.S. senator. (The actual number is at least 31.)

"I've been able to see how government works -- and how sometimes it doesn't -- from just about every perspective," Kaine told a crowd in Miami. 

That experience also makes him an anomaly as a vice presidential pick. Before this year, only one governor or former governor (Sarah Palin of Alaska) had been picked as a running mate since Richard Nixon tapped Spiro Agnew in 1972. Mayors on the national ticket are even more rare. Palin, who had served as mayor of Wasilla, is the only other former mayor picked as a running mate in recent history.

Kaine first won election to the Richmond City Council by knocking off an incumbent by fewer than 100 votes in 1994. During his second term, he was elected mayor by the city council. He served as mayor from 1998 until 2001, when he resigned to campaign for lieutenant governor of Virginia.

In an interview with C-SPAN last month, Kaine said "being in local office is the best training for being in any office." The experience taught him three lessons that have helped him throughout his political career.

First, he said, partisanship wasn't important. Although Kaine has always known he was a Democrat, the city positions were nonpartisan. "People knew who was a Dem and who was an R, but it didn't make any difference. It was about results," he said.

"Second," he continued, "words weren't important; results were important. You could say anything, but if people didn't see the tangible effects of what you did, you weren't getting re-elected. That was really good training."

"The third thing is, in local office, you're accessible. People will stop you in the grocery store to talk about an issue," said Kaine. In fact, he said, when he was mayor, a woman rear-ended his pickup truck. While the police officer was writing her a ticket, he addressed Kaine as "mayor." The woman then started talking to Kaine about a local zoning issue she was concerned about. "It's government by, of and for the people, and you get up close and personal." 

"You can make people happier or madder in local office than in any other office," he said. "I would say starting in that place where partisanship wasn't important, results were important and accessibility was important, that, to me, has been the basis of everything I've done in politics since."

The full interview is below. 

Update: This story has been updated to include a count of the number of officials who have served as mayor, governor and senator.