The following story was originally published Jan. 3, 2010 near the end of Tim Kaine's term as governor.

It's just before 7:30 a.m. on a December Monday, and the fog in Richmond is so thick that the twin-engine plane in which Gov. Timothy M. Kaine planned to crisscross the state to christen a series of employment centers is grounded.

No matter, Kaine said. We'll just drive.

Heading to traffic-clogged Northern Virginia at the peak of rush hour isn't the optimal way to make a 9 a.m. appointment. But then, Kaine's four years as governor haven't been about cruise control and blue skies.

The 51-year-old Democrat has governed during the worst national economic crisis since the Great Depression. He has cut $7 billion from state spending since 2007, and he recently presented a budget for 2010-12 that slashes an additional $2.3 billion.

Kaine is the first governor in the state's modern history to leave office with a budget that has less revenue than the one he inherited.

"I didn't have a bumper sticker that said, 'Kaine will cut more out of the state budget than anybody in history,'" he tells a gathering at the opening of a Woodbridge center for employment and job-training services.

Beyond the travails, there was tragedy. On April 16, 2007, a mentally disturbed Virginia Tech student gunned down 32 students and faculty before taking his own life in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

Kaine's bid to repair and build Virginia's crumbling and congested roadways stalled despite multiple attempts -- including fruitless special sessions of the legislature in 2006 and 2008.

It is "probably my biggest public-policy disappointment," Kaine said.

Yet, as he gets ready to hand the keys of the Executive Mansion to Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell, Kaine arguably has traveled farther down the road toward realizing his ambitions for the state -- and fulfilling an unlikely political destiny -- than anyone might have expected under the circumstances.

This year, with bipartisan support, he won passage of a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants -- a historic achievement given Virginia's 400-year dependence on tobacco.

Kaine also presided over a dramatic shift in political power in Virginia. During his tenure, Virginia Democrats took control of the state Senate, picked up three seats to take a majority in the state's U.S. House delegation and won both U.S. Senate seats.

Virginia also voted to elect a black man president of the United States.

"No one would have believed that Kaine could have helped engineer the election of an African-American president," University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato said.

"He can take a great deal of credit for Barack Obama's nomination and election victory in Virginia, which was really stunning."

. . .

Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton, had been in Japan on a trade mission for just five hours when they were awakened at 1 a.m. and told of the tragedy in Blacksburg.

They quickly flew home. The next day, Kaine and President George W. Bush spoke at a memorial service on campus.

"Anne and I have unashamedly shed tears," Kaine said, speaking without notes.

He said anger at the gunman was natural, as was questioning how the events could have been handled differently. "It's OK to be angry," he said, invoking the Old Testament story of Job, who was afflicted with tragedy and questioned God's wisdom.

Kaine said despair also was natural. He quoted Christ on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

But Kaine also urged the Tech community to hold onto the "spirit of community" that it had shown the world amid its grief.

Spurred by the Tech tragedy, both parties worked to expand and reform the mental-health system by implementing laws that called for better monitoring of patients and shifting the focus of treatment from institutional care to community-based facilities.

Looking back on the legislative responses to Virginia Tech and to transportation gridlock, Kaine said: "We're good people at solving things in the aftermath of a tragedy. We're not good people in solving things before a tragedy."

But Kaine's administration notched other successes.

During his term, Virginia preserved about 400,000 acres of open space and expanded pre-kindergarten programs by 40 percent. It financed a $1.5 billion capital bond project to expand infrastructure in state colleges and universities.

Kaine's budgets preserved the state's AAA bond rating and were balanced without tax increases -- at least until Dec. 18, when he proposed scrapping the local car tax in exchange for an increase of 1 percentage point in the state income tax.

Greater focus on prenatal care and services for poor, expectant mothers also dramatically improved Virginia's infant mortality rate. Holton spearheaded efforts to reform the state's foster-care system.

But a year after Virginia Democrats' sweeping successes in November 2008, Republicans swept all three statewide offices.

"It didn't work the way I wanted, but I've been in this business long enough to know you're not going to get everything you want," Kaine said.

Then again, Kaine never expected to be in this business.

He grew up in Overland Park, Kan., where his father had an ironwork shop. He graduated from Harvard Law School and arrived in Richmond 25 years ago knowing only one person. He planned to practice civil-rights law and had no political ambitions.

But the one person Kaine knew in Richmond -- Holton -- was the daughter of former Gov. Linwood Holton, whom Kaine recently described as his political role model.

"If you had told me 25 years ago, you're going to do OK as a civil-rights lawyer and you're going to be mayor of Richmond and you're going to be governor and you're going to be national co-chair of Obama for America, and he's going to ask you to chair the oldest political party in the world, I'd say, 'You gotta be kidding me,'" Kaine reflected. "You gotta be kidding me."

. . .

Kaine has spent much of the past month on the road and in the air on something of a farewell tour by making public appearances at events such as the opening of the employment center in Woodbridge.

Juan Ramos, a employment center employee, was eager to greet Kaine and talk to him in Spanish, a language the governor honed in his 20s as a missionary in Honduras.

"He's a patient governor," said an excited Ramos. "He takes the time to talk to people."

It is Kaine's favorite part of the job. He's made more than 1,300 visits to commerce and trade events, including several trips abroad, to solicit business for the state. Five Fortune 500 companies moved their headquarters to Virginia during his term.

During the past four years, Virginia received accolades as the "Best State for Business," the "Best Managed State" and "Best State to Raise a Child" -- tributes Kaine is eager to mention at every public opportunity.

"I think he can rightfully take pride that he has overseen the commonwealth at a period of time when we're at the top ranks of states by every metric," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-11th, who greeted Kaine at the employment center.

"We are an economic leader, an education leader and a political leader, and that's what I'm handing over" to McDonnell, Kaine said.

"Virginia is the best state in America."

But the honors -- claimed by public officials of both parties -- have not insulated the governor, or his agenda, from the grim economic realities that dominated his term.

Tight budgets thwarted his ambition to expand pre-kindergarten programs greatly and forced him to stress the already stretched social safety net upon which the neediest Virginians rely.

"My job has been primarily to try to lead this state through the hardest economy we've seen since the Depression," he said.

Tax-wary Republicans in the House of Delegates repeatedly blocked statewide transportation proposals during Kaine's tenure. The one plan that did clear the legislature, in 2007, was derailed by the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled that unelected regional authorities may not collect taxes.

"Two things crippled him -- an awful economy and a Republican House of Delegates that had figured out after Mark Warner that they didn't want to create a Mark Warner," Sabato said. He was referring to Kaine's popular predecessor, who won a $1.4 billion tax increase with Republican help in 2004 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008.

Sabato said Kaine's acceptance of Obama's offer to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee made him appear more partisan, which made it harder to win compromises in the legislature.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said Kaine did not work hard enough to build consensus across party lines like Warner. Kaine's approach cost him and the state deals on matters such as transportation, he said.

"He probably has this T-shirt that says 'I spent four years in the governor's mansion and all I got was this lousy smoking ban,'" Griffith said.

Griffith did credit Kaine with working with lawmakers to pass mental-health reforms after the Virginia Tech tragedy. But he said the outgoing governor's legacy probably would be mostly political, citing Obama's victory.

"Unfortunately for him, he couldn't put us to the sword," Griffith said, meaning that Kaine could not bend Republicans to his will.

. . .

Leaving Woodbridge, it still was too foggy to fly. Kaine decided to drive to South Boston, roughly 200 miles away. The black Chevrolet Suburban made a pit stop outside of town at the Get N Go Gas Stop and Country Store, where Kaine picked up a Dr Pepper and a pack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

"Smoke the Legend" read a tobacco sign of an Indian chief affixed over an aging gas pump. Inside, fried chicken waited under hot lights. The governor, in shirt and tie, chatted easily with the store clerks and locals and posed for pictures.

"I always wanted to stop here," he said, noting that he's never traveled anywhere as governor and felt like the people weren't gracious.

The tobacco sign was a reminder of how much things have changed in Virginia in just the past year. With the help of House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, and other House Republicans, Kaine won passage of the restaurant smoking ban, arguably his greatest legislative policy success.

"I've had my wins and taken my lumps," he said of his record. But the smoking ban, he said, "is a life-saver."

In other matters of life and death, Kaine vetoed attempts to expand the scope of the death penalty.

"I took a personal pleasure in vetoing every death-penalty bill that came to my desk" said the governor. "We don't need to expand the death penalty to make Virginia safer."

Kaine personally opposes capital punishment, but he allowed 11 executions to proceed during his tenure.

During his term, Kaine also restored the rights of 4,300 felons who had served their time -- more than any previous governor.

Kaine knows that many subjects of his executive decisions, such as his vetoes of death-penalty bills and of bills that would allow holders of concealed weapons permits to carry the guns in restaurants, likely will receive a friendlier reception when McDonnell becomes governor.

But Kaine seems comfortable as he makes the transition from governing 7.7 million people to serving one -- Obama, as chairman of the DNC.

The governor is in daily contact with the White House and has become a sounding board who offers the president outside-the-Beltway perspective.

"My advice is in the 'for what it's worth' category," Kaine said.

Kaine always has preferred policy to politics, and running government to running campaigns. But he sees his 16-year political career as merely an extension of what he came to Virginia to do -- promote racial reconciliation and get people to work together.

"I kind of view my political work as fully connected to my civil-rights work," he said.

In February 2007, Kaine had rolled the dice and endorsed a young Illinois senator, a fellow Harvard law graduate and former civil-rights lawyer with a similar political spirit.

On his final radio show for WTOP in Washington, Kaine received a surprise call from Obama, who thanked him for his service to the state.

"I think my happiest day as governor was in November 2008," he said, referring to Obama's election.

. . .

Kaine is excited about his new/old job -- running the DNC. In addition to preparing the party for the 2010 midterm elections, his primary goal will be to galvanize Obama's 13 million grass-roots supporters into a political force that can push for change in areas such as health-care reform.

"I'm a doer, and he's a doer," he says of himself and Obama. "And he wants to do good things."

Kaine and his family also are looking forward to returning to their home on Confederate Avenue in Richmond's Ginter Park.

Even though they'll miss the closet space of the Executive Mansion, family members, including his wife and children Nat, Woody, and Annella, are looking forward to living life outside the bubble of Capitol Square, in the constant company of a state police security detail.

On the downside, Kaine said he'll miss not having to take off his shoes at airport checkpoints.

Anne Holton is going to serve part time as a consultant with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children across the country. She also will take on a number of volunteer commitments in Virginia.

Soon, Kaine will be able to return to a weekly breakfast with pals at Karen's Restaurant. To teaching a law school and an undergraduate class at the University of Richmond on Mondays starting next semester. To everybody not standing every time he walks into a room.

"Very few of my friends are in politics," Kaine said. "They're all people who live within a half block of my house. I'm really looking forward to returning to that."

"I'm really looking forward to being Tim again."

Kaine won't pledge that he won't ever run for office again, but he doesn't think it is likely.

He said he would like to work toward improving America's attainment of higher-education degrees and perhaps work in higher education administration.

He previously has expressed interest in becoming a university president and is likely to be considered for a Cabinet post if Obama wins a second term.

"You only live once, and I still have a lot of things I want to do in life," he said.

"I feel like Virginia is in a great place right now, and I played a part in it, both in local and in state government. And I feel very good about that."

Kaine should take a measure of satisfaction from his tenure, Sabato said.

"Governors need to be people who think clearly, plan carefully, and try to do the right thing under the circumstances of the time," he said.

"The circumstances of the time did not permit him to be a great governor, but he governed with intelligence, made reasonable decisions and didn't embarrass the state."

------------

Contact Jim Nolan at (804) 649-6061

Get the Virginia Politics Insider email update every evening during the GA and weekly all year

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

jnolan@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @RTDNolan

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.