By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine will become chairman of the Democratic National Committee later this month, serving as the top political messenger for Barack Obama's administration even while finishing his final year in the governor's mansion, several sources said.
Kaine, 50, who emerged as a finalist for the job of Obama's running mate last summer, will operate from Richmond in a part-time capacity until January 2010, when he will become the full-time DNC chairman. Kaine is constitutionally barred from running for reelection.
Kaine, a friend of the president-elect's, is a gregarious chief executive who is known to relish political combat and helped put Virginia in the Democratic presidential election column for the first time in almost 50 years.
Obama transition officials declined to comment yesterday, and aides to Kaine did not return calls seeking comment. Two sources said Obama will announce his choice of Kaine for the DNC post later this week.
The decision will make Kaine a regular face on Sunday-morning talk shows and cable news programs during his final year in office. Democratic sources said Obama has chosen Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, who ran John Edwards's campaign in Iowa and then moved to Obama's campaign to oversee his efforts in battleground states, to serve as the executive director of the DNC, running the party's day-to-day operations, including fundraising.
But it will be Kaine's job to defend Obama against the Republicans, who are struggling to find their voice after losing the White House and control of Congress.
Taking the DNC job will make Kaine an irresistible target in his home state, where critics have long accused him of putting partisan politics ahead of governing. State GOP leaders are sure to accuse the governor of doing what he said he would not: shift his attention from the state during a budget crisis that demands swift action.
Also this year, Virginians will choose Kaine's successor in a race that has become contentious for Democrats. Former DNC chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, announced in an Internet video Saturday that he intends to run for governor, pitting him against two Democratic state lawmakers in a June primary.
Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer, was thought to be a strong contender for a number of positions in Obama's Cabinet, including attorney general. But the governor effectively removed himself from consideration by telling the president-elect that he intended to finish his four-year term.
Obama raised the idea of Kaine leading the Democratic Party before the election, sources said. Kaine rejected the overtures, telling reporters after Obama's victory: "That's not something I'm going to do."
"I don't view that, frankly, as consistent with being governor, so I'm going to be governor," Kaine said at a Richmond news conference about the state's finances. "I would view it as taking my eye too much off the ball about things that need to happen here."
But sources said Obama returned to the idea late last month, pressuring Kaine to take the job.
For Obama, Kaine will be a true loyalist who carries out the new president's political agenda amid upcoming battles over the economy, foreign policy, health care and the environment. Kaine became one of the first governors to endorse Obama after the two men forged a close relationship during the Virginian's 2005 gubernatorial race.
Kaine traveled frequently for Obama during the presidential campaign, serving as a willing attack dog for his candidate. On one cable news program, Kaine memorably said of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): "He couldn't count high enough, apparently, to even know how many houses he owned."
After being called "able but undistinguished" by Bush strategist Karl Rove, Kaine scathingly responded that "maybe to Karl Rove and his friends, government performance, competent administration, being able to respond to an emergency isn't important. To Virginians, it's important."
But Kaine's decision to become the national party chairman is fraught with political risks for him. Previous Virginia governors have often seen their popularity plummet after appearing to be more interested in Washington than in the job in Richmond.
James S. Gilmore III was criticized for becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee in his final year as governor. Gilmore feuded with Rove and left the job after a year.
And L. Douglas Wilder left office as governor with an approval rating of 39 percent after running unsuccessfully for president.
Kaine was elected to the commonwealth's top job in 2005, succeeding Mark R. Warner, who began the process of reinvigorating the Virginia Democratic Party in 2001. Kaine, a Roman Catholic who is personally opposed to the death penalty, won the governorship by targeting growing suburban communities.
His energetic approach to governing was recognized early, when national Democratic leaders picked him to give the response to President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address. Kaine remains popular, with a majority of voters approving of his job performance, though a lower percentage than in his first year.
His campaign promises of universal preschool, common-sense land-use policies and improved funding for roads have largely fizzled. The expensive preschool program has been put off, the land-use changes ran into opposition from home builders, and the road-funding bill was declared unconstitutional.
But as the leader of the Virginia Democratic Party, he has been a huge success. During his governorship, the party seized control of the state Senate, added members to the House of Delegates and won two U.S. Senate seats.
Perhaps the most stunning political achievement was Obama's victory in Virginia -- the first time a Democratic presidential candidate won the commonwealth since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.