As an observer of matters political, when I learned of Tim Kaine's interest in running for lieutenant governor, it got my attention. Having been favorably impressed with his performance as mayor of Richmond, I was curious about his plans. To get some answers, and to get a feel for Kaine as a player, I asked him to set aside some time to meet with me and spend a few minutes talking politics.
The busy councilman/attorney was kind enough to agree to get together on what is familiar turf for me - the Baja Bean at Friday happy hour.
Kaine and I sat down at a small table and the waitress took our order; a Rolling Rock for me and a Miller for the mayor. I was glad to see, as a good Democrat, he ordered a beer and not a Slice - the soft drink he has been seen shilling for in local television commercials.
Once we got past the normal exchange of introductory folderol, I asked him why he wanted to be lieutenant governor. He pointed out that he hadn't officially announced his candidacy, but conceded he was looking hard at running. Then he cut to the chase: He admitted that his long-range sights are on the governor's chair.
He went on to say that for a number of reasons, the lieutenant governor's job seemed like the best move for him to make at this time.
Most of us would probably agree that in politics, little - if anything - is more important than timing.
In July, the sudden withdrawal of state Sen. Emily Couric of Charlottesville - the presumed Democrat nominee for lieutenant governor - threw the door open for Kaine, as well as two others who are reportedly testing the waters: Del. Jerrauld Jones of Norfolk and Del. Alan Diamonstein of Newport News.
Essentially, Kaine indicated he likes the looks of the part-time position of lieutenant governor because it would allow him to move on and up, yet stay in Richmond. He said he thinks eight years on City Council will be enough for him. He puts value in being able to remain in his Richmond home, to spend time with his wife and three children, ages 5 through 10.
As far as his agenda is concerned, Kaine pointed to education as his chief interest and what would surely be at the center of any campaign of his for statewide office.
"Virginia is deeply underfunded in education, K through 12," says the mayor with the assurance of a man who can back up what he just said.
He explained that Virginia's Republicans - in order to strike the populist pose of tax-cutters - have shifted a greater portion of the burden of the cost for public education to the localities. They did this by cutting local taxes, such as the car tax, rather than income taxes. So while we are in a time of general prosperity, the cities and counties are hurting for revenue even as the Commonwealth remains flush.
Beyond education, Kaine is already on record as a supporter of tougher controls on access to handguns and other common-sense measures to restrict exotic weapons. As well, he intends to run against the death penalty. In his view, taking what I'd call a progressive stand on these issues will play better across the state than some would argue.
His Republican opponent, should Kaine secure his party's nomination, will likely characterize those positions as liberal. But Kaine doesn't flinch at the prospect. It is his reading that such positions on guns and the death penalty are consistent with mainstream thinking in Virginia today.
Cheerfully, he told me it's his intention to run on what he believes. He hopes to win. If he loses, he'll be happy to go on to live the good life of a successful attorney and family man. I gathered that he wants to be governor one day, but he doesn't need to be governor at all costs.
"I like public service. And I think I'm good at it," Kaine says.
When time permits, he plans to stump for Chuck Robb. He'll put off any official announcement concerning his own running for office until after November's general election.
I do have one bit of free advice for Richmond's savvy and genial mayor: He should make that silly Slice commercial the last of its ilk. Although it may have seemed harmless when the prospect was pitched to him, as it appears on TV, the gesture comes off as bush league (not a whit of reference to anybody named Bush is intended), even if it's not inappropriate.
Maybe an eager police chief, even a small-market mayor, does it for a laugh. But in my view, it's not the sort of thing a Virginia governor does.
Or, maybe I'm being a stick in the mud.
Nonetheless, I suspect Tim Kaine has a bright future in politics. His grasp of the circumstances in which he is operating sounds sure. His natural confidence in his own view of the political landscape strikes me as refreshing. He comes off as a man who does his own thinking, and his sense of purpose seems genuine.
If Tim does get as far as the governor's mansion, I hope he'll still find the time to have a cold beer and talk politics at happy hour.