What normally would have been low-key meetings with constituents for Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) turned into an intense Thursday in the spotlight as more than a dozen reporters tracked the politician who has risen to the top of the pack of possible running mates for Hillary Clinton.
As Kaine made two stops in Northern Virginia, he also batted away new criticism from the left wing of his party over his decision earlier in the week to urge federal regulators to soften requirements for regional and community banks and credit unions.
Activists accused Kaine of being too close to the financial industry and of trying to weaken reforms designed to protect consumers.
The senator brushed those suggestions aside.
“People are going to say whatever they want, but I’m strongly for the regulation of the financial industry,” Kaine said. “If you spend a lot of time over regulating credit unions and community banks, you are basically letting a lot of the big guys off easily.”
Kaine added: “It wasn’t credit unions that tanked the economy. It wasn’t local community banks that tanked the economy. Generally, it wasn’t regional banks that did things that tanked the economy.”
Some in the Democratic Party’s liberal base, still reeling from the defeat of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, say that Kaine is not an acceptable choice for vice president.
Kaine, a former governor of Virginia who speaks fluent Spanish, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are the leading contenders to become Clinton’s running mate, according to Democrats familiar with the process. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is also in the mix, while progressive favorites Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are less likely to be selected, according to people familiar with the process.
Clinton is expected to name her running mate before Democrats meet in Philadelphia for their nominating convention, which begins Monday.
Kaine offered few clues about his status in the veepstakes as he attended discussions on immigration at an Arlington church and on discrimination against Muslims in Sterling. The events provided Kaine with an opportunity to underline what he said were stark differences between Republicans and Democrats.
After meeting privately with immigration activists in Arlington, Kaine told a crush of reporters that he heard stories about undocumented immigrants who couldn’t attend family funerals and are facing higher college tuition costs after the Supreme Court delivered a blow to President Obama’s deportation relief program. He vowed to help Clinton advance comprehensive immigration reform in her first 100 days in office.
He showcased his Spanish — describing the “esperando” (waiting) of anxious immigrants hoping for reform and offering his only one-on-one interview to Telemundo after a news conference.
Winning over Latino voters is crucial in presidential races. Democrats offer a starkly different vision for inclusion, while Republicans under their nominee, Donald J. Trump, have alienated the fast-growing segment of the American electorate, Kaine said.
“There’s going to be a mandate that’s going to be sent that will say on this clear difference, the American public has a preference, and the preference isn’t division and isn’t treat Latinos as second class, whether they immigrated yesterday or they are a Latina governor of New Mexico or are a respected federal judge,” said Kaine, referring to Trump’s attacks on New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump said would be biased against him in a lawsuit because of his Mexican heritage.
“We are going to be invigorated and improved by the talents of Latinos,” the senator said.
Although vice presidents often serve as attack dogs, Kaine on Thursday stayed true to his Midwestern roots growing up in Missouri and rising through politics in the genteel, Southern ranks of Virginia’s establishment.
He passed on easy opportunities to tear into Trump or even mention the billionaire by name. He said it was important to pull Americans together in an election season when several candidates have found success by highlighting differences among people and appealing to voter anger and resentment.
Addressing a group of Muslim and other faith leaders at a Muslim center in Sterling, he lamented how Muslims have been targeted by struggling Americans. He said African Americans are forced to disavow police killers in a way white people weren’t forced to condemn Dylann Roof after he shot and killed nine in a historically black South Carolina church.
Clinton would probably enter her inauguration with the most divided electorate since 1976, when voters were disillusioned with Washington after the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, Kaine said. And he said unlimited spending in politics rewards negativity and breeds cynicism to depress voter turnout.
“How do you run and win a campaign without adding to the division?” Kaine remarked. “We have to have leaders who are pulling us together.”
Kaine seemed a bit taken aback by the heightened media interest in his schedule on Thursday.
“I’m in a little momentary bubble of attention, but it will be normal again,” Kaine, 58, told a throng of reporters Thursday afternoon. “I’m glad the waiting game is nearly over, but I don’t have any idea of what will happen.”
Kaine said the vice-presidential selection was less of a mystery this time around; he was passed over by Obama in favor of Joe Biden in 2008. He said a big part of the buzz around him is his connection to Virginia, a crucial swing state with 13 electorate votes in play.
“It’s not necessarily just because of me. It’s because Virginia is really important,” Kaine said. “That’s something that I think all Virginians can feel good about: that in a presidential election, people can’t take Virginia for granted.”
At the discussion in Sterling, Mohsin Alikhan quipped that he’d love to have a Vice President Kaine visit his mosque in McLean.
“I will visit whatever my title is,” the senator responded.