In a lecture to public policy students and faculty of the College of William and Mary yesterday, current chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former Virginia governor Tim Kaine discussed his career in public service, as well as his beliefs concerning the state of higher education in the United States.
Hosted by the Graduate Policy Association of the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy in the Great Hall of the Wren Building, Kaine explained how he entered politics and gave suggestions to students interested in public service careers. He emphasized that he never dreamed he would enter politics, let alone attain prominent positions such as the governorship of Virginia or chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“I am an accidental politician,” he said, laughing. “If you had told me when I was kid that I would one day be a politician, I would have laughed at you and said you were crazy. If you had told me that I would become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, I would have asked, ‘What have you been smoking?’”
As a freshman at the University of Missouri in 1975, he said he initially wanted to pursue a career in journalism. He had a change of heart and decided to study economics instead. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1983, he practiced civil rights law in Richmond for 17 years. He specialized in representing people who had been denied housing opportunities on account of their race or due to a disability, and was recognized by local, state and national organizations for his fair housing advocacy.
“The most effective people in politics are the ones who can contribute more than just political savvy,” he said. “If you want to pursue a career in politics, it is important to be an expert in something else first.”
For Kaine, that something else was civil rights advocacy in the Richmond area.
After serving two terms on the Richmond City Council from 1994 to 1998, a term as mayor of Richmond from 1998 to 2001, and a term as the lieutenant governor of Virginia from 2001 to 2005, Kaine was elected governor of Virginia. He was one of the first politicians to support then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama’s presidential run in 2008, and Obama asked him to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. It was rumored by major news outlets that Kaine was on the shortlist for Obama’s vice presidential nominees.
The then-president-elect warned Kaine at the time, however, that despite their legislative victories at the moment, the 2010 midterm elections would inevitably be very tough in strained economic times.
When asked about his reaction to the Nov. 2 election, Kaine did not stray far from the message of his Democratic counterparts in recent days: that the party’s heavy losses were a result of mistakes in communication.
“The problem was that the Democrats did not emphasize their legislative accomplishments, and the reasoning behind them, strongly enough,” he said. “There was no crisp, clear message from the White House or from Congress.”
However, Kaine remained optimistic for the 2012 elections.
“No president has ever lost a house of Congress during the midterm elections and not won reelection,” he said. “Plus, the Republican presidential primary in 2012 will be very tough. The candidate will likely be very far to the right, which will alienate independent voters. If independent voters reject the far-right candidate in favor of the Democrats, then it is unlikely that Republicans will win the presidency in 2012.”
Apart from election commentary, Kaine discussed his views on education reform.
“We cannot continue to have a declining number of higher education degrees awarded to adults in this country and still be economically competitive in the global workforce,” he said. “While there is a political desire to have low taxes, low state funding for schools, more in-state students, but with low tuition, it is not sustainable. If we want to have an internationally competitive education system, we have no choice but to increase funding for schools.”
It was Kaine’s passion for education reform and love for higher education that attracted him to the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy to host him for yesterday’s event. The organizers of the event, public policy graduate students Katie Ballard MPP ’11 and Steve Hanson MPP ’11, said that it was very easy to persuade him to speak at the College, especially since he would be addressing a highly receptive audience of public policy students.
“His secretary at his office in Richmond told us that talking with students is what he really loves,” Ballard said.
Despite the difficulties of a career in politics, such as fundraising and the heat of the spotlight, Kaine implored students to pursue public service.
“To this day, when I drive past schools in Richmond that I helped build with legislation I signed into law, I always get a great feeling inside,” he said. “The ability to put your thumbprint on your community is an invaluable experience.”