Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia will be scrutinized for all sorts of things in the coming days, for his positions on gun control, abortion, and global trade. The chattering class will also consider how he fits into the political calculus of this raucous campaign season, such as his appeal to blue-collar voters in a purplish swing state.
But Hillary Clinton’s choice of running mate is notable for something that many may not be aware of: he’s an urbanist.
Like HUD Secretary Julián Castro, also vetted in the veepstakes, Kaine was a mayor, and picked up all the urban mechanics that comes with the job. He came to be chief executive of the city of Richmond as a Harvard Law School graduate focused on fair housing, and won a jury verdict against Nationwide Insurance for discriminatory practices.
But it was in statewide office that he built a record that should pique the interest of anyone who cares about cities. In a state known for extensive conventional suburban development—far-flung single-family subdivisions and rambling corporate office parks—Kaine became a bit of a crusader against sprawl.
He was among several governors who took up the cause of smart growth at the beginning of this century, alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger (California), Janet Napolitano (Arizona), Christine Todd Whitman (New Jersey), Angus King (Maine), Mitt Romney (Massachusetts) and of course Maryland Governor Parris Glendening.
In a slow evolution in thinking away from building new highways and eight-lane arterials, Kaine talked about new approaches to transportation that were better integrated with sustainable land use: increasing options to include transit, bicycles, and pedestrians. Unhappy about the ravaging of Virginia farmland and countryside, he pushed through a $100 million open-space acquisition initiative.
More recently, he was an important force in bringing about the remarkable transformation of Tysons Corner, from soulless edge-city poster child to transit-oriented development hub. Kaine favored a tunnel for the D.C. Metro extension there, arguably making the area even more vital. (Although he apparently joked about the fierce advocacy of “mole people” during the debate over surface versus underground).
As the advocacy group Smart Growth America pointed out when he was named chair of the Democratic National Committee, Kaine has an appreciation for urban design. He invited the Governor’s Institute on Community Design to Virginia for “one of the first closed-door planning and policy sessions with a governor and his staff,” says SGA.
I first met Kaine shortly after publishing a book about sprawl, and had transitioned from the Boston Globe to Mitt Romney’s smart-growth office in Massachusetts. Virginia was interested in Romney’s organizational initiative to coordinate the state agencies that are involved in growth and development—transportation, housing, the environment, energy, economic development—that ultimately was adopted in the federal partnership of DOT, EPA and HUD under President Obama.
He was aware of my book and dove right into some policy-wonk banter. Here was a guy whose eyes lit up at the mention of land-use regulations; my kind of people. He was also personable and unpretentious, an observation I have since seen echoed by many others.
In the tumultuous world of land policy, there’s a chance Kaine’s favoring of smart growth could be turned against him, by the Trump-Pence campaign or surrogates. For many years a kind of anti-density theme has built up around the country, expressed in Tea Party protests at local planning meetings. A fervor for property rights and associated resistance to planning, seen in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo vs. New London, is also part of that rebellion.
Like Glendening and Romney, a Republican, Kaine didn't emphasize urban growth boundaries so much as incentives for different growth and development options. Broadly speaking, being for sustainable development these days is inherent in a post-carbon environmental stance: trying to mitigate climate change, reduce emissions through alternative transportation modes made possible by better land-use patterns, favoring solar and wind. None of that is likely to go over well with a Republican ticket calling for the abolishment of the EPA.
It’s notable that both parties are holding their conventions in struggling cities, but thus far haven’t made much in the way of reference to urban policy. In Tim Kaine, there is now a figure on the national stage who is eminently conversant.