The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, September 02, 2005

Kaine talks about issues; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

Critics and political opponents assail Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine as a “flip-flopper” who “stands for nothing but election.”

But look past the spin, the candidate says, and you’ll find positions that are consistent, even if they’re not simple.

One place where Kaine consistently takes fire is on matters of life and death. A Roman Catholic and former missionary, the candidate says he opposes both abortion and the death penalty, but wouldn’t move to restrict either as governor.

“I have stated since I first got into public life: I am not going to change my religious view to get elected to public office,” Kaine said at a July debate in West Virginia.

“I will protect women’s rights to make their reproductive choices. I will carry out a death sentence handed down by a Virginia jury,” he said.

Kaine’s opponents say he has flipped on the issue of the death penalty.

They cite a statement he made at a lieutenant governor’s debate in 2001, when he said he supported stopping Virginia executions until it could be demonstrated that the death penalty was proven to be absolutely fair to every defendant.

That one question doesn’t adequately address what he’d do as governor, Kaine said in an exclusive interview with The Northern Virginia Daily this week.

“[There are] two very different questions, one for somebody who’s going to be in the legislative branch … ‘What would you think of a bill that would put a moratorium on the death penalty?’” he said.

“I’ve been pretty blunt about my position” against capital punishment.

But it’s another matter entirely for a governor to single-handedly stop any and all executions in a state. Kaine says that’s a line he won’t cross, despite his personal convictions.

“The clemency powers are given for a very particular reason, I believe, to protect somebody who’s innocent,” he said.

When it comes to executive clemency, all Kaine can do is give his word. Clemency powers are all but absolute in Virginia.

But “I’ve even given [voters] a clear yardstick to judge me against,” he said, pointing to his time in Richmond city government.

“When I was the mayor of Richmond, we had a prosecutor’s office that prosecuted cases capitally. I didn’t grandstand against them, I supported the prosecutor’s office … because that was the law.”

Apart from social issues, matters of taxation have been one of the major themes in the 2005 campaign, and all three candidates have been doing their best to pick each other to pieces over them.

Kaine claims in both print statements and television ads that he reduced taxes while he was mayor of Richmond. But while the tax rate did go down twice during his tenure, actual tax bills on homes went up, due to the increase in their value.

“Assessments did go up because we were redeveloping the city and attracting population,” Kaine said. Taken with tax deferrals for home improvements, lower taxes for small businesses, along with lower utility taxes and connection fees, the lower real estate tax rates are more than enough justification for Kaine to label himself a tax cutter, he said.

Kaine has said during the 2005 campaign that he supports rolling back the state’s tax on inheritances, also called the death tax, as the federal tax is reduced over time.

But the lieutenant governor had little praise for the Virginia Senate in 2003, when the legislature was considering putting an end to the tax.

“Never has the General Assembly done so little for so many, and so much for so few,” Kaine said, talking to media outlets in February 2003. Kaine said this week that he was being critical of the way the tax was being eliminated, not the idea itself.

Kaine said he held the same position as Gov. Mark R. Warner, that “we ought to roll back the estate tax, but we have on the table already a pledge to get rid of the car tax and get rid of the sales tax on food,” he said.

“We shouldn’t leapfrog the elimination of the estate tax over pre-existing pledges. Let’s do it in connection with broad-based tax reform,” he said.

Warner’s original budget, of which Kaine continues to be a vocal supporter, contained a provision that would have significantly reduced the estate tax. Had the legislature approved the governor’s budget, the estate tax would be all but gone today.

Even so, the 2004 budget deal raised taxes by a total of $1.6 billion.

Kaine and others credit the deal with enhancing the state’s fiscal health. The state has ended the past two budget years with hundreds of millions in the bank.

Those higher tax rates shouldn’t be touched, he said, even if the state continues to rack up surpluses after the Rainy Day Fund is full.

“I would take any moneys over and above a normal growth rate and I would either rebate them to taxpayers or put them into capital improvements like transportation,” he said.

The Democrat’s campaign recently launched an initiative to reach out to gun owners and ease fears that he’d support new restriction on firearms in the Old Dominion.

Both his Republican-nominated opponent and gun rights organizations have made much of the candidate’s record on firearms.

In particular, they point out that Kaine paid some $6,600 in 2000 to charter buses for a Richmond delegation to the Million Mom March, a rally in Washington in support of new gun laws.

“I had families of homicide victims coming to me and saying that they wanted to do that, that would be a healing thing for them. As the mayor of a city with the second-highest homicide rate in the U.S., I had a lot of sympathy for those people,” he said. “I’d been to too many crime scenes and funerals.”

“I didn’t go myself,” he said. “That’s not my issue.”

Critics also point to 2001, when Kaine and the rest of the Richmond City Council asked the city attorney about the feasibility of suing gun manufacturers, but were told that Virginia law makes such suits unlikely to succeed. The candidate says he rejected the idea, even after being pressured by other mayors around the country to go forward.

“My position has always been that the best way to reduce gun violence was to go after crooks who use guns,” he said. Kaine points to his support for Project Exile, a nationally lauded effort to prosecute gun crimes through the federal courts.

Kaine’s opponents also take aim at his appearance on a National Rifle Association satellite and Internet radio show earlier this year. When pressed by the host, Kaine wouldn’t say whether he’d rather have the support of the NRA or the Brady Campaign, a prominent gun-control group.

“I’m not writing anybody off,” Kaine said.

Kaine said this week that his record is consistent on guns: a supporter of the right to keep and bear arms, but a civic leader who was concerned about Richmond’s high gun-related murder rate.

Some gun rights groups disagree. The NRA’s political arm gave Kaine an “F” rating in 2001. The rating means a candidate is “a true enemy of gun-owners’ rights.”

That doesn’t bother the candidate “overly much,” he said. “I guess I view it for what it is. NRA is a partisan organization.”

While the lobby group talks up Project Exile, it leaves out his contributions to the program as mayor of the first city where it was used, Kaine said.

“If they were going to be intellectually honest, they’d give me credit for that,” he said.

Operatives on both sides have taken Kaine and GOP nominee Jerry Kilgore to task for their spending plans. Each side accuses the other of breaking the bank with new programs.

Kaine readily admits that he hasn’t found a way yet to pay for two of his most expensive proposals — universal pre-kindergarten and a $500-per-employee health insurance credit for small businesses.

“I believe that everything I have proposed to spend, I can spend within the confines of the current budget,” he said, with those two exceptions. “I will be candid, I haven’t completely figured out how to finance them yet.”

“We spend a tremendous amount of money right now on remedial education,” he said. Getting more employees off Medicaid would also save the state money. Both programs have enough potential cost savings to make them worth looking at, Kaine said.

Election Day is Nov. 8.