Tim Kaine was the only white man in the room.
A young member of the Richmond City Council, Kaine wanted to be mayor. Now a venerable civil rights group, the Richmond Crusade for Voters, was debating a touchy subject: Was it all right, in 1998, for a majority-black city that bore unique scars of the United States’ painful racial past to be led by a white mayor?
Since a court-ordered ward system had been put in place more than two decades earlier, the onetime capital of the Confederacy had elected only one other white mayor, in the 1980s. Members of the group were concerned that supporting a second would be a step backward for racial reconciliation in the city.
Finally, Kaine spoke.
“My stealth campaign to be mayor without anyone figuring out that I’m white has apparently been a failure,” he opened to laughter, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch account from that time.
Kaine went on to explain that race “is a legitimate factor that everybody’s got to kick the tire on and think about.” But he insisted it should not be the only qualification for the job, and he outlined his long commitment to improving education in the city. “Nobody should ask me to hold back from what I think I could do a good job at,” he told the group.
Some Democrats were disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s selection of Kaine, who went on to be Virginia governor and is now a U.S. senator, as her vice-presidential running mate; they were hoping for a more liberal candidate who brought more demographic diversity to the ticket than a middle-aged white man who grew up in Kansas. At last week’s convention, Kaine came off as a slightly goofy symbol of the white suburban dad.
But people who worked with Kaine when he served on the City Council in Richmond — a forum routinely convulsed by racially charged debates about the city’s divisive past — say he brings a nuanced and historically informed approach to race relations that could help soothe a country racked by debates about policing and discrimination.
“Tim was not the kind of guy who would shy away from that kind of discussion,” said Rudy McCollum, a black attorney who served on the council with Kaine, attended the Crusade meeting with him that day 18 years ago and supported his mayoral election. “He could disarm you so easily . . . and he was willing to walk into a room and deal with the issues, however difficult they might be.”
At the time, the mayor’s job in Richmond was largely ceremonial, elected by other members of the nine-member council. But the job was still an important symbol of leadership with a powerful bully pulpit on a council split generally between five black members and four white ones. Kaine was elected by a vote of 8 to 1.
The one vote in opposition came from Sa’ad El-Amin, a black activist who had opposed the election of a white mayor and, in protest, had refused to stand during Kaine’s swearing-in. El-Amin declined to comment for this report.
McCollum, who was elected vice mayor, recalled that Kaine arranged to have his chair moved to an elevated place next to Kaine’s during meetings, a break with tradition.
“He wanted to show he was willing to work with the whole community, and I was, literally, his right-hand man,” he said.
The day after Kaine won the job, he diagnosed the cause of racial strife to a Richmond reporter.
“The main problem with race,” he said, “is whites don’t know what it’s like to be a minority.”
Kaine’s support in Richmond’s black community stemmed in part from his concerted and public efforts to reverse that problem in his own life. As a law student, he spent time as a missionary in Honduras. He later moved with his family to a racially integrated Richmond neighborhood and joined a majority-black Catholic church.
Kaine enjoyed a homecoming of sorts in Richmond on Monday, returning from a three-day, post-convention bus tour with Clinton through Ohio and Pennsylvania. Early in the day, he and his wife, Anne Holton, stopped by a Clinton campaign office to cheer on volunteers and field workers, whom he told, “everybody in the United States is counting on you. Just about everybody in the world is counting on you.” On Monday night, Kaine appeared at a rally at Huguenot High School, where the minority population is 94 percent.
As a lawyer, Kaine represented a housing group that alleged insurance giant Nationwide had discriminated against blacks, filing suit while he was serving on the part-time council. (Shortly after he became mayor, a jury awarded the group more than $100 million in the case, although the Virginia Supreme Court later invalidated the award.)
He also boasted an important character witness in the black community in his father-in-law, former Republican governor Linwood Holton, who had fought to integrate public schools and famously sent his own children, including Kaine’s wife, Anne, to majority-black city schools to set an example for other whites.
“Governor Holton was a hero, not just in the black community, but in the whole country,” said Henry Marsh, a civil rights lawyer who served as Richmond’s first black mayor in 1977. Marsh recalled that when Kaine visited him shortly before the 1998 mayor’s election to seek his endorsement, he brought Holton along to plead his case.
“He was a beneficiary of that trust,” said Marsh, who said he told Kaine he had planned to back his bid even before the meeting.
While mayor, Kaine walked a careful middle ground, trying to appeal to both black and white residents on tricky issues of race.
In 1998, he formally apologized on behalf of the city for its role in slavery. Richmond had been a center of the domestic slave trade, a grim way station on the James River where slaves were auctioned and sold for passage to other parts of the country.
“I offer you, as proxy for the ages, an apology from the city of Richmond,” Kaine said then, noting that then-President Bill Clinton and Congress had considered a similar apology but declined to issue one. “While I feel truly sorry for slavery, I do not feel sorry I’m living in a country that has been sanctified by the journey of slaves,” he added.
But he also supported including an image of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, one of 13 murals about Richmond’s past adorning a flood wall along the river.
Controversy had exploded when an image of Lee in his Confederate uniform was installed as the city dedicated a new River Walk. That image was removed at the request of a black council member, but a citizen panel then recommended returning a different picture of Lee, out of uniform and standing outside his home after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Kaine supported the panel’s recommendation — and later pushed to replace the image after it was destroyed by vandals on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2000.
At the time, Kaine said his goal was to avoid erasing a painful chapter of the city’s past.
“I’m not willing to accept that we’re unable to have a meaningful discussion of the history of this city,” he said.
But his position also put him on the side of a dwindling but still vocal group of activists who revere Confederate symbols and have fought their removal elsewhere in Richmond.
Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke came to Richmond to show support for the mural. He held a news conference in front of a statue of black tennis great and Richmond native Arthur Ashe, at the time only recently installed on Richmond’s Monument Avenue amid statues of Confederate soldiers.
Duke said he didn’t understand why “we’ve got to put up with a sports star on an avenue of Confederate heroes” yet fight for an image of Lee, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“I had urged [Kaine] to do a little more,” said former Richmond council member Henry “Chuck” Richardson. “I told him as a white individual, he should lead his people, and understand [the painting] would be insulting.”
Still, Richardson added, “Tim was a lot more advanced than a lot of other white individuals at that time.”
As a council member, Kaine had supported the installation of the Ashe statue over the objection of the Confederate advocates.
Edward Ayers, former president of the University of Richmond and a historian who has studied the legacy of the Civil War in the South, credited Kaine with helping to show that marking the city’s difficult racial past was a responsibility of whites as well as blacks.
“It gives him a concrete sense of what’s at stake and a concrete understanding of the depths of the wounds that we’re all still trying to heal in this country,” he said.
As mayor, Kaine also helped restore and reopen the historically black Maggie L. Walker school as a premier magnet school for the area.
And he backed a police-led initiative marketed as Project Exile, in which people convicted of gun crimes would be sentenced under federal laws to ensure they served time in federal prisons instead of state facilities closer to home. The goal was to reduce the city’s homicide rate, then one of the highest per capita in the country.
The program was implemented by a black police chief, in cooperation with James B. Comey, now the FBI director but then in charge of the Richmond U.S. attorney’s office.
“He wasn’t easy because he asked a lot of questions,” recalled Jerry Oliver, then Richmond’s police chief. But Oliver said Kaine’s support for Project Exile and other community policing efforts helped defuse tension. “It prevented a lot of the critics from taking root,” he said.
Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor, predicted that Kaine would push for hiring diversity in a Clinton administration, including in the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court.And he would bring a necessary understanding of the problems of the nation’s cities.
Wilder compared Kaine to another white Southerner who was embraced by black voters.
“Bill Clinton knows,” he said of the perspective Kaine also holds.
Jenna Portnoy and John Wagner contributed to this report.