Tim Kaine and Virginia's Third Rail
Gov. Tim Kaine made it plain in his campaign TV ads: Yes, he's morally opposed to capital punishment, but he did not intend to impose his personal views on Virginia. "I'll enforce the death penalty," he said in his TV spots. "As governor, I'll carry out death sentences handed down by Virginia juries because that's the law."
True to his word, Kaine has allowed four executions to go forward already in his short time in office. And true to his core beliefs, Kaine this week vetoed bills that would have expanded the use of the death penalty in Virginia.
What's remarkable here is not that Kaine is doing what he promised he would do--during the campaign, Kaine told me in an interview that he had no doubts about his ability to carry out the death penalty, but he also said that he had no intention of expanding the death penalty. No, what's quite amazing is that despite all the stereotypes that political consultants cling to about Virginia, this is a governor who was arguably elected because of his opposition to capital punishment--well, not quite because of his position, but more precisely, because of his willingness to be forthright about his position, even in the face of a scurrilous and low set of campaign ads launched by his opponent, Republican Jerry Kilgore, who famously smeared Kaine as something of a Nazi for saying that even Adolf Hitler wouldn't have qualified for the death penalty.
(Actually, that's not what Kaine said. What he actually said in response to a question about whether Hitler, Idi Amin and other evil characters should have been executed was this:
[T]hey may deserve, you, they may deserve it, of course they may for doing something heinous, they don't deserve to live in civilized society, they may deserve the death penalty. You know, I look at the world, most nations have decided not to have a death penalty, and, and many are very safe, I don't think, I don't think it's needed to be safe.)
Anyway, the point is that Kaine may have won election in good part because Kilgore went way too far on that Hitler ad, and Kaine refused to crawl into the gutter with his opponent, trusting that Virginians would accept him as a man of his word--he opposes the death penalty, but would enforce the state's law. And obviously, a man with such a position could not reasonably be expected to sign bills that would expand the death penalty.
And that's the other amazing bit in this series of vetoes that Kaine announced this week: He did so with little expectation that standing up against the death penalty would cause him any political harm. In fact, the reaction across the state has been mild bordering on ho-hum. Once again, the people are well ahead of the politicians on this issue. As in Maryland, where legislators this session failed to accept Gov. Martin O'Malley's invitation to put a halt to the state's executions, Virginia pols don't see that popular support for capital punishment is in freefall. Sure, most people still philosophically support the death penalty, but given the cavalcade of bad news about botched executions, doctors who won't sanction the use of lethal injections, misidentified killers and DNA exonerations, it's become clear that the death penalty process is fatally flawed, and many Americans no longer want the blood of a tainted process on their hands.
Should Kaine have gone all the way and said that he would not enforce Virginia's law? During the campaign, I pressed him on this point: If you're really philosophically opposed to the practice, how can you sign a death warrant? He split some hairs and stood by his lawyerly allegiance to the statutes. Well, ok, but doesn't he at least have an obligation to do as O'Malley has and stand up for a moratorium or other effort to halt Virginia's executions?
That's the next step--it's probably a political bridge too far for a Democrat in Virginia right now, but it would be the right thing for Kaine to do.
By Marc Fisher |
March 29, 2007; 8:15 AM ET
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