You’re from Virginia. You live in Richmond. You care about politics. If you can check off all these boxes, there is only one destination: The office of Senator Tim Kaine. Why? Because Kaine has been one of Virginia’s steadiest political voices for over 30 years, and has served at every rung of government, from Richmond City Council to vice presidential candidate. And in an age of unbridled political cynicism, where the complexity can seem overwhelming, assurances from our elected leaders have never been more needed.
Which is why RVA Mag travelled to Kaine’s office in Washington DC to take the vibe on some of the most pressing issues facing the country and the Commonwealth in the age of Trump.
Originally printed in RVA #32 Spring 2018, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
Even for people who have experienced politics at the source, the frantic pace of activity in Washington DC can be relentless. Kaine is at the center of this maelstrom, sitting on the armed services, budget, foreign relations, health, education, labor, and pensions committees in the Senate – confronting some of the most critical challenges of 2018. This particular Valentine’s Day morning was no different, with the Senate trying to move on bipartisan immigration legislation to protect the Dreamers. Still, Kaine was ever present as we sat down in his office to banter about the environment, immigration, foreign policy, and the role of young people in this new political age.
Shroder: Clearly, we live in a very cynical time, how do we keep young people engaged in politics in 2018?
Kaine: It’s a really good question, and one we struggle with, but I tell you what I start with is kind of a hopeful thought is what we saw in November in Virginia in 2017. Youth voting was dramatically greater than the governor’s race four years ago, massively greater if you go eight years before. But it was more than voting. It was volunteering and it was candidates. The fifteen newcomers who won house seats were predominately first time candidates, fairly young on average, eleven or fifteen were women, immigrant, LGBT, people of color, so it was really cool to see. So I think that we’re seeing a real upsurge in activity by young people.
I think the important thing is to not do anything to discourage them. Sometimes parties or leads of institutions [say], ‘You haven’t been here long enough, You haven’t paid your dues yet, we wanna run things’. I think those of us who are in the work kind of have to make space, encourage, campaign with and for young candidates. And I think the more we do that, the more others will see, ‘Oh, I could be running, I could do that’, so I think there isn’t anything magic to it, but I think those of us who are doing it really need to lift up young leaders because their example is going to be what really draws more young people in.
Shroder: Do you think Democrats, whether in Virginia or nationally, are doing enough to meet these young people in the spaces they’re operating in?
Kaine: On the national side, I have to admit I’m so into my job in Virginia, I’m running for re-election, and I’m not spending a lot of time about what the National Party is doing elsewhere. But I can say in Virginia, I feel good about it, especially after the  election. Even before 2017, I’m not necessarily sure that everybody realized this upsurge that we were seeing, but on election day if you look at the results, you’re like, ‘wow, that’s really powerful.’ And since that election with the turnout of young people, I’ve seen a lot more effort paid to celebrate young leaders, we’ve got to give them key roles. I’m putting together my own campaign staff and it is going to very much look like the kind of Virginia today and tomorrow, not the Virginia of yesterday.
Shroder: You have taken a stand against the most recent budget because it seemed like billions were being cut out of Medicaid and Medicare. In Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, Medicaid expansion was part of what ushered in Virginia’s wave election. But with all of the federal cuts though, is health care dead?
Kaine: No, I’m on the health committee and health education, labor, and pension. I think we need to take some steps to stabilize the individual market, guaranteed the cautionary payments that were apart of Obamacare. Also, stop the Trump administration from these nicks and cuts, they’re trying to destabilize and hurt people, we’ve got to stop that. We’ve at least stopped them from repealing the Affordable Care Act, but they could still damage it.
But I want to get to the next step discussion. You know, in fact, the 9:30 meeting I have, I have a group of healthcare experts on the hill today to talk about a proposal that I have with Senator Michael Beck, we call it Medicare Acts. We want to direct Medicare to develop an insurance policy that they would sell in the exchanges in each zip codes to the United States.
It would cover the Obamacare essential health benefits. But because Medicare would have to cover a profit margin, they don’t have to collect state medical taxes to pay for fancy salaries. They can offer that product at a really affordable rate. They could offer it in every zip code, and I think we need to add that element in the system to give people choices. I want people to have more choices, not fewer.
Shroder: I think in Virginia now in some places there is only one choice if you are on the exchanges.
There may be parts of Virginia where you have more than one, but there are many parts where there is only one. So if you were to give everybody a Medicare Acts policy that they could buy, it would be more affordable than other policies. Medicare operates in every zip code and young people move a lot. If you have health insurance here and you move to another state, is that company going to provide health insurance or not? You could move anywhere and Medicare would be available.
This is a policy I think is geared towards affordability and choice, but it’s also really geared toward the way people live today, where people move during their work lives, and they don’t have to worry about what health insurance will be available in a place they move to.
Shroder: The Dreamers are obviously on everyone’s mind. I don’t want to ask a technical question about political horse trading, but how did we get to a point of political brinkmanship where people are comfortable with the idea that families can be torn apart?
Kaine: This is a policy that sharply divides the two parties. There are Republican counter-examples to what I’m going to say. The Republican Party, when I ran for governor, one of the two major attacks against me on TV was ‘Kaine’s soft on immigrants’. That was in 2005, so this has become a real common theme on the Republican side.
I tell a different story. Here’s Virginia: When I was born in 1958, one out of every one hundred Virginians was an immigrant, had been born in another country, we were thirty-eighth in the nation per capita, and we were a poor state. Today, one in every nine Virginians was born in another country, so a lot of immigration. We’re twelfth in the nation per capita income, we’re a better off state. No state has moved farther than Virginia economically. Our economic improvement has coincided with more immigration. Why? Because we’re in a global economy in a global economy. And in a global economy, it’s not just an airport or a port that connects you with the world, it’s people that connect you with the world.
We have become a magnet for talented people from around the country and around the world, that’s been to our advantage. So I tell that story anywhere I go in Virginia, that immigration has been a real net positive for us, and it’s been a net positive for our country.
Shroder: What do young people have to know about the legal immigration debate? There seems to be an intense focus on the Dreamers because everyone can sympathize with their situation. But we keep hearing about chain migration, is this just another way to demonize immigrants?
Kaine: I think that when the president talks about chain migration and then he says, ‘you can come here and then willy-nilly bring anybody you want,’ the way he said in the State of the Union – that’s not what happens. Can you sponsor family members if you’re a US citizen? You can, but it is a long and onerous process. If you’re coming from the Philippines, it could take 18 or 20 years for a sponsorship application acceptance. So this notion that you can just become a citizen and drag everybody with you is just not true.
Shroder: Where does one even begin with the environment? It seems like a lot of climate protections are being systematically deconstructed.
Kaine: We have an administration where the key people don’t even believe in climate science, which is an embarrassment.
Shroder: One of the biggest issues for us in Virginia is the potential licensing of offshore drilling rights. Where does that leave us given that the coastal economy is such a big factor in Virginia’s economy?
Kaine: It’s not a good idea. 10 to 12 years ago I was open to this idea. Before BP Horizon and the spill. VA Beach and Norfolk were [thinking], ‘Well maybe it would be a new pillar to add to our economy,’ but after BP there’s been a serious rethinking of that. I think what people have realized is [that] the second largest metro area in Virginia is Hampton Roads, and that is an economy that has a couple of pillars. DOD [Department of Defense] is a pillar, tourism is a pillar, and things connected to the Chesapeake Bay and the waterman’s industry are pillars too.
And so offshore drilling is still pretty speculative. Oil prices are coming down, and we’re moving more toward wind and solar, which we should. So do you want to bet on a speculative pillar if it’s going to hurt the existing pillars? The DOD has weighted against it. NASA has weighed against it. The tourism industry has weighted against it. And that’s caused cities like Norfolk and Virginia Beach to switch and become opposed. So I think it’s a bad idea, and I’m working with Democrats and Republicans to try to convince the Trump administration, at least about Virginia – it’s a bad idea.”
Shroder: You sit on the foreign relations and armed services committees. What are the most pressing foreign policy challenges today?
Kaine: I’ll put two on, but I could give you ten. Congress needs to claw back from the executive power over war-making and to some degree even over key articles issues. Congress has let a lot of power go to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue on matters of war, peace, and diplomacy under presidents of both parties. It’s been a long-term phenomenon. Congress has to reinvest itself in being deeply involved in making these decisions and checking on an overreaching executive. That’s number one.
And then the second one, I think this refugee issue is huge because we think about refugees like they’re the episodic victims that show up every ten years after something and we think of it as kind of an emergency response. Migration is now not an emergency. It’s an everyday permanent reality.
Tens of millions of people because of war, natural disasters, climate change, and corruption are moving around the world. And when they do, they create all kinds of instabilities. It might be an instability like Syrian refugees in Jordan because they have so little water that puts pressure on them. Or it might be instabilities, like refugees that flow into other countries and then it leads to right-wing movements in other countries, neo-nationalist parties in Western Europe that are getting power because of their anti-refugee position. I think a global commitment toward thinking about migration policies in a different way and coming up with a set of strategies to deal with migration and refugees like a permanent phenomenon rather than episodic emergencies is really important.
Photos by Landon Shroder