By John Celock
Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine has been stressing his background as Richmond’s mayor and governor of Virginia on the campaign trail, gaining some pushback from national political analysts, who want to focus on his almost four years in the U.S. Senate.
The majority of Kaine’s political career has been spent at the state and local level, including a stint as a city councilman and as Virginia’s lieutenant governor. This contrasts with his running mate, Hillary Clinton, whose tenure as first lady, senator and secretary of state is longer than her time as first lady of Arkansas, and Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, who served in Congress longer than his nearly four years as Indiana’s governor.
Not to discount Kaine’s national experience, which include a focus on national security issues as a member of both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, experience in local and state government can be especially valuable for those in federal government. Serving at those levels expose an elected official to a wider range of issues, put them in closer contact with constituents and usually provide a closer level of accountability.
Those serving in local and state government often deal with constituents up close with many local governments having citizen comment periods at Council meetings. While an elected official can get through those with ducking an issue, they cannot escape hearing about an issue. They also cannot escape a group coming to a meeting about an issue. That level of accountability is often missing in Congress, partially due to the distance from Washington and the set of issues being different.
Serving in state and local government also leads to elected officials being more hands on regarding the issues they are working on. Most local elected officials do not have personal staffs or if they do very limited staffs. Most state legislators either have no staff or primarily secretarial staff that also assist with constituent issues. While state lawmakers have central staffs to assist with bill drafting and some research, most of the work is left to lawmakers themselves.
The lack of staff means several things. First the lawmakers must do more of the research into the issues themselves and be able to become subject matter experts. In addition, they have to be more engaged in the committee process or in full meetings about the legislation and ordinances coming before them. They also are working more hands on with constituents in order to solve district-based issues.
In addition, the entire lawmaking process differs from Washington and the state and local level. The Washington process is driven a lot by staff given the time restraints on lawmakers while at the state and local level lawmakers are more engaged in the actual process from start to finish, including committee negotiations, etc.
The process also is different at the federal level than the state and local level since many congressional committees and hearings have sparse attendance, with lawmakers having many conflicting meetings at once and other commitments, including time spent in fundraising call centers operated by their parties. In contrast, many state legislatures have set times for certain committees and local governments also set aside time differently.
State and local experience has long been a part of national candidates resumes, including many who had that as their sole resume line. George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Spiro Agnew had only served in state or local government prior to appearing on the national party ticket. While former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had held various appointed posts in the federal government, his only elective experience and longest held office was almost 15 years as governor of New York.
Many of those appearing on national tickets with federal experience had careers at the state and local level. President Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator longer than he was a U.S. senator, Vice President Joe Biden was a council councilman in Delaware, Bob Dole served as a Kansas state legislator and Russell County attorney, Joe Lieberman was Connecticut attorney general and a state legislator, Walter Mondale was Minnesota’s attorney general, Hubert Humphrey was mayor of Minneapolis, Barry Goldwater was a councilman in Phoenix, Ed Muskie was Maine’s governorWilliam Miller had been Niagara County district attorney, Henry Cabot Lodge was a Massachusetts state legislator and Adlai Stevenson served a term as Illinois governor.
No presidential campaign since the turn of the 20th century has not had as one of the four major party nominees, no candidate with no prior background in state or local elective office.
The state and local level of politics is an important level of government and a pipeline to higher office. We see many future presidential and vice presidential candidates coming from this level and many future members of Congress and the Senate from this level. It provides an important level of insight and experience for the future and it is one that should not be dismissed.
This analysis is not meant as any endorsement of Tim Kaine but rather one that explains that his experience in local and state government is important. It provides a skill set that proves valuable in his Senate service and if elected can prove important in the White House. One that allows him insight not only into how federal programs play at the state and local level, but also one where he knows the importance of federalism and the interrelationship between the federal, state and local governments.