By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 28, 2005
RICHMOND -- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine had a passionate rebuttal for his Republican opponent's statements about his "mediocre" service as a council member for and mayor of Richmond during the 1990s.
"I can see my fingerprints all over this city," Kaine said during an August news conference as he discussed the future of Richmond with its mayor, L. Douglas Wilder. "I can drive by schools that wouldn't have been built had I not been in office and look at homicide rates that would have been a lot different had I not been in office."
Pressed about whether he could take credit for specific achievements even though he was either one among nine council members or a mayor whose duties were largely ceremonial, Kaine gave a less definitive answer.
"I haven't said I'm solely responsible" for the city's achievements, he said after being asked whether he should be held "solely" responsible for city problems, such as higher unemployment rates, during his tenure. "I mean, what I'm saying is that I played a key leadership role."
The contrasting comments about his record in city government illustrate the complex role that Kaine played as a local official of a troubled but improving city during his seven years of service.
The city of 200,000, where 1 person in 5 lives in poverty, has increased its bond rating, cut its violent crime rate and improved its education system over the past 10 years.
On one hand, Kaine has taken credit for many of the city's improvements. On the other, he and his supporters say he was part of a diverse governing body and should not be held responsible for some of the city's stumbles.
Kaine was first elected to the council in 1994, then selected mayor by his fellow council members in 1998. He stepped down to make his successful run for lieutenant governor in 2001.
Although he was one of nine members on the council, and as mayor lacked broad authority to hire and fire and set the city budget, many who were in city government at the time say he can be credited with substantial achievements that he either spearheaded or supported.
As a council member, he helped redevelop a historic black school and turn it into a magnet school for students from the Richmond region, according to interviews, press reports and city records.
In spring 1995, Kaine began a crusade to refurbish the old Maggie Walker High School, which had been vacant for years, in the city's historic black neighborhood of Jackson Ward. City activists and school board members said it was Kaine who found the financing -- including historic preservation tax credits -- to reopen the school and persuade surrounding jurisdictions to move a regional magnet school into the building.
"He really took that on himself," said Raymond H. Boone, publisher of the Richmond Free Press, the city's black-owned newspaper.
Kaine also worked with the school board and city manager to figure out how the city could begin to build schools, according to several people who were school board members at the time. He cajoled and pushed council members to develop a loan package that would allow for the first school construction in 20 years, they said.
"He was the go-to guy on the City Council for education issues . . . that's just the truth," said Mark Emblidge, who served as a school board member from 1994 to 2002 and is now a member of the state Board of Education. "He created a new role on the Richmond City Council. We didn't have someone who was so dedicated to the nuts and bolts of how to creatively finance school issues and take on issues like he did."
Educational achievement in Richmond, while still lower than in other jurisdictions, generally improved during Kaine's time on the council, although some indicators decreased.
Kaine's work on a tax abatement program has been credited with helping attract and keep businesses and middle-class residents in the city.
Interviews with more than a dozen colleagues, friends and co-workers indicate Kaine was a generally well-respected presence on the council who made special personal efforts to help heal a racially divided city.
As majority-black Richmond's first white mayor in nearly 20 years, Kaine was often seen -- and saw himself -- as someone who could mend divisions between the poor black sections and the more affluent white neighborhoods that spanned his council district.
"One of the main things that impelled me to run was that I felt the city needed more bridge builders," said Kaine, 47, a former civil rights lawyer. "I always approached my job that way."
He also had to navigate the city's uneasy relationship with its history. Kaine angered many black residents in 1999 when he supported the placement of a rendering of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the city's flood wall.
His critics say he must share responsibility with others in government by facing accusations that the city failed to keep city schools up to the standards set by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"He wants to take credit for everything that went right in the city of Richmond, but when it comes to public school compliance with ADA regulations, he says he wasn't involved," said Tim Murtaugh, press secretary for Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore, a former state attorney general.
Kaine, who was chairman of the City Council's education committee, said he was not directly responsible for violations alleged in a federal lawsuit filed June 14 by plaintiffs that include two disabled people and an advocacy organization. The suit alleges that since 1992, dozens of public schools have failed to meet the act's requirements for adequate handicapped-accessible elevators and ramps.
"Improvements to school building always begin by a request from the school board to the City Council," Kaine said. "We didn't repair school buildings willy-nilly. We repaired them with requests."
Murtaugh pointed out that the city of Richmond was given a C+ rating by Governing Magazine in 2000. The grade assesses the effectiveness of the Richmond City Council.
Other longtime leaders who closely watched the city under Kaine's tenure said Kaine was hamstrung by his limited powers and difficult colleagues on the City Council.
"He was like a salmon swimming upstream," said Wilder, who became Richmond's first popularly elected mayor in November, after the city's charter was changed to a "strong mayor" form of government. Wilder called Richmond a "cesspool of ineffiency" last year and forced out the city manager whom Kaine strongly supported in 1998. But Wilder has said that he did not think Kaine was part of the problem.
"He did pretty much all he could do with what he had in terms of the authority under that form of government," Wilder said.
On issues such as reducing the city's crime rate, colleagues say Kaine was more of a supporter and an advocate who worked as part of a team.
Kaine's role in other successful projects was indirect, even though he has noted his involvement with them, according to people who were city officials at the time. For instance, opponents challenge his role in Project Exile, a tough program to fight illegal guns that has been credited with helping Richmond reduce its violent crime rate.
During the campaign's first debate in July, Kaine said he "was a leader in a very significant proposal: Project Exile, which has been copied by cities and states around the country." Kaine has suggested that it was his leadership that helped the city cut its homicide rate over seven years by 55 percent.
Some close to the development of Project Exile say that he was not at the table when the initiative was developed and that he had a limited role in its implementation.
"Many people . . . contributed to Project Exile's success, but I am certainly not aware of anything Tim did," James B. Comey, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time who helped design the program, wrote to Kilgore last month.
Several Kaine colleagues said in interviews that he played an important part of the selling of the program to City Council leaders -- and later articulating its benefits -- even if he wasn't a part of the actual creation of the program.
"He gave us cover on the City Council to get things . . . done," said Jerry Oliver, Richmond's police chief at the time, who is now a state official in Arizona. He added that Project Exile was created by law enforcement officials. "While he couldn't have been at the table [in creating Project Exile], I do believe he helped set a tone that caused us to be quite successful."
Kaine said overall Richmond was a better city -- while not a perfect one -- when he left.
"I don't mind getting judged. In fact, I hope I'm being judged, he said in a final explanation during the August news conference with Wilder. "I hope I'm being judged by my time in service. To ask not to be judged for that would be a horrible thing."