Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s short list for a vice presidential running mate may have just gotten a little shorter.
Until this morning, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was widely viewed as Clinton’s safest pick as a running mate because of the breadth of his political experience, his moderate policy stands, his ability to once again put Virginia in the Democratic win column and, frankly, his bland, good-government persona which would make him virtually unassailable on the rugged campaign trail this fall.
Kaine is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the darling of the liberal wing who began campaigning with Clinton this week; Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another liberal who would be important to Clinton in wooing voters in the Buckeye State; and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who would appeal to Latinos and other minority voters
But that abruptly changed with a report by Politico that Kaine took full advantage of Virginia’s notoriously lax law governing public officials’ acceptance of gifts. Kaine reportedly accepted more than $160,000 of gifts between 2001 and 2009, when he served as the state’s lieutenant governor and governor.
Those gifts, according to his previous public disclosures, included an $18,000 vacation in the Caribbean, $5,500 in clothes and a trip to watch the George Mason University men’s basketball team play in the NCAA Final Four.
Kaine and his family vacationed on the exclusive Caribbean island of Mustique shortly after he won election as governor in 2005, and stayed in a house belonging to James B. Murray Jr., a Charlottesville-area investor and former business partner of Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. Kaine also accepted $5,500 worth of clothing in 2003 and 2005 from Stuart C. Siegel, a close friend and Democratic campaign supporter, according to the Politico report.
This is far from the first time the media has focused on Kaine’s acceptance of gifts, and the former governor was careful to fully disclose the gifts he and his family received over the years. He has acknowledged taking advantage of Virginia’s extraordinary loose restrictions on gifts to public officials. And he wrote in a 2013 op-ed in The Washington Post that he regretted not proposing that his state adopt the far more restrictive federal ethics rules while he was governor.
A spokesperson for the senator told Politico that Kaine “went beyond the requirements of Virginia law” during his eight years as lieutenant governor and governor, and that “He’s confident that he met both the letter and spirit of Virginia’s ethical stands.”
But the report couldn’t have come at a worse time for Kaine, a one-time chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The Supreme Court ruling earlier this week overturning the public corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell was a vivid reminder of what Chief Justice John Roberts described as the “tawdry” practice of gift-giving in the state.
No one has accused Kaine of political wrongdoing in taking advantage of a practice followed by Virginia governors and other state officials for decades. But it certainly undercuts his reputation for integrity, and the gifts have to be taken into account by Clinton and her campaign officials who are now in the process of vetting potential running mates.
Clinton herself has been saddled with serious image and credibility problems throughout her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, regularly calls Clinton “Crooked Hillary” while saying she should go to prison for her abuses of her email and secret government documents. He could easily turn his sights on “Crooked Tim” if the senator is tapped as the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said today that there was “absolutely nothing new” in the Politico report and that “all of that has been well known for years in Virginia.”
“It was completely legal and couldn't be more different from the McDonnell gift grab -- which was hidden and directly linked to a businessman's desire for a governor's favors,” Sabato said in an email. “What the past couple of days' hit jobs on Kaine in Politico actually reveal is an effort by rivals to deep six his VP chances. Arguably Kaine is the best match for Clinton. For someone else to get the plum, Kaine must first be damaged.”