Today, Democratic vice-presidential pick Tim Kaine is in Michigan. Earlier in the week he appeared in Florida and his home state of Virginia. Tomorrow he’ll show up in Massachusetts. Next week he has seven more events in Texas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
While Virginia and Michigan and Florida all make electoral sense, it may seem unusual for the number two on the Democratic ticket to spend so much time before the general election in non-battleground states. But none of those appearances are public. All eleven of them are private donor events, expected to bring in millions of dollars for the Democratic ticket. Hosts of the events include CEOs of car dealerships, mobile payments companies, biotechnology firms, real estate brokers, and Stonyfield Farm, the organic yogurt makers.
More than attracting white working-class voters or adding an “aw shucks” persona to the ticket that will spawn a million dad jokes, the ability to reel in cash is Kaine’s actual specialty. For anyone concerned about the power of money in politics, that’s ominous news. Because to be truly cozy with big-money donors is to answer the call when they want something in return. And Kaine has shown a troubling willingness to advocate for the interests of donors whenever asked—even if those interests clash with progressive priorities.
Before he entered the Senate in 2013, Kaine served as governor of Virginia and chair of the Democratic National Committee simultaneously. In the age of Obama, as party-building responsibilities were taken away from the DNC and put into the president’s campaign arm, Organizing for America, the DNC chair position only had two roles: Speak for Democrats on TV and raise gobs of money.
And Kaine barely ever appeared on TV; he was criticized for staying behind the scenes too much, in fact. But he sure didn’t disappoint as a money-raiser. Even while serving as governor, Kaine spent an average of three days a week on the road doing events to gin up campaign cash. It didn’t help his approval ratings in Virginia, but it paid off—at least if you you’re looking at the raw numbers. In the 2010 election cycle, when Kaine served as chair, the DNC raised $229 million, easily outpacing the Republican National Committee. (None of that mattered on Election Day, as Democrats got clobbered by the Tea Party wave.)
The money train doesn’t stop when Kaine needs election funds for himself. Since 2001, Kaine has raised $60 million for his own campaigns, including $18 million for his 2012 Senate campaign. It’s overwhelmingly been big money: Just 17 percent of that came from small donors in contributions of $200 or less. The financial services industry, for example, gave Kaine $4 million. Two of his top five contributors are corporate legal and lobbying firms, McGuireWoods and Akin Gump, and law firms are the number-one industry donating to him. His annual fundraiser, a barbecue-themed event called “Smoked and Oaked,” is held on the rooftop of Washington law firm Jones Day. In the week before being named the VP nominee, Kaine was still fundraising for himself in California and Boston and Rhode Island.
Every politician has to raise money, and I don’t begrudge Kaine that. But what’s more troubling is the evidence that he doesn’t stop there, but also actively lends support to corporate benefactors. Kaine embodies the true complications of a big-money world for the politicians marinated in it.
Two letters to federal regulators that Kaine signed in July, the same week that Clinton tapped him for vice president, tell part of the story. Large regional banks want to reduce daily paperwork requirements showing that they’ve maintained enough assets to handle a sudden economic downturn. Community banks want themselves exempted from Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules on the types of loans they can issue. Both found support from Kaine, who requested these specific changes on their behalf. Over his career in Virginia statewide office, Kaine raised $4 million from the financial services industry, and took in millions more as a Senator.
No grassroots activists spend their days clamoring to limit regulations on banks. There’s no constituency for these requests at all, outside of bank executives. Letters like these are lobbyist-generated favors; they’re part of the currency of big-money donor networks. Kaine’s willingness to sign them signals that he has no problem extending himself on their behalf.
Politico recently dug up another example. As per routine, the state of Virginia released 145,000 emails written by Kaine and his staff when he served as governor. One really stands out.
It was just after Christmas 2009. The Obama Administration was talking about reforming the student loan system. Instead of routing federal student loans through middlemen lenders who take their fee off the top, direct federal lending would save tens of billions of dollars that could be plowed back into higher education affordability programs.
The company that stood to lose the most from this was Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest provider of private student loans. They are based in Virginia. So Jack Remondi, then CEO of Sallie Mae (he now runs the spinoff corporation Navient), met with Kaine, and followed up with an alternative proposal that, Remondi wrote, “achieves nearly all of the Administration’s goals and can be enacted quickly on a bipartisan basis.”
Kaine took this proposal from private industry and immediately forwarded it to Jim Messina, then the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the White House. Kaine admitted that “I have no expertise in this area and cannot vouch for the proposal,” but he sent it to Messina anyway, “in case it represents a workable compromise.” Messina sent it along to Melody Barnes, the White House Domestic Policy Adviser.
So Tim Kaine, as a favor to a major Virginia business, used his contacts to get their main alternative to student loan reform to top advisers to the president. In the end, the Administration largely held to their proposal, which passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. But there’s something unsettling in the easy way big business alternatives traveled through Tim Kaine and into the corridors of power.
That’s the ever-present danger of having a skilled fundraiser with deep connections to K Street near the top of the executive branch. Handling big donors means paying attention to their concerns. Clearly, Kaine has no compunction about getting their viewpoints into the hands of policymakers—or, in a Clinton White House, maybe straight to the president.
It’s a bad enough trait, though expected, for a DNC chair, whose job entails the proper care and feeding of donors. It’s a much worse characteristic in a vice president. No wonder Republican Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise who recently endorsed Hillary Clinton, cited Kaine’s presence on the ticket as “a positive for me.”
The Clinton campaign has endorsed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and other campaign finance reform steps. But they’re also sending Tim Kaine out to do a big-money fundraiser per day. Nobody suggests they should unilaterally disarm while Donald Trump rakes in cash. But it does suggest that it will be difficult to wean Clinton and Kaine off the current system of money in politics, and all the compromises that implies. They are too good at working it.