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Tim Kaine, fluent Spanish speaker, is Clinton's VP pick

The Virginia senator once lived in Honduras and has earned the support of Latinos in Virginia and beyond
22 Jul 2016 – 06:07 PM EDT
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has been a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign Crédito: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images and Scott Olson/Getty Images. Photo composition by Juliana Jiménez.

He’s a low-key Democrat from Virginia who learned to speak Spanish during a missionary year in Honduras almost 30 years ago. In 2013, he delivered the first ever full speech in Spanish on the floor of the Senate.

Now, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, 58, is Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s pick for a running mate, to take on Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the general election.

Clinton made the announcement late Friday on Twitter calling Kaine "a man who's devoted his life to fighting for others."

When Clinton introduced Kaine at a packed university arena in Miami on Saturday he quickly broke into Spanish. "Bienvenidos a todos en nuestro país, porque somos americanos todos!" (Welcome to everyone in our country because we are all Americans) he said to loud applause.

"We're going to be compañeros de alma (soul mates) in this great lucha (fight) ahead," he added.

If elected, he promised to work for immigration reform during the first 100 days of the new government, including a pathway to citizenship. "Anyone who loves the United States that much deserves to be here," he said.

Kaine's been called dull and uninspiring, and even "boring." As a white, Catholic moderate, he doesn't exactly make history in the same way short-listed Hispanic VP options -- Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, or California Representative Xavier Becerra -- would have.

But Kaine, the former governor of Virginia, has built a reputation as a champion of diversity and immigration reform, earning him the support of Latinos in Virginia and beyond.

“I'm a big fan of immigration reform,” Kaine told Univision reporter León Krauze earlier this month (in Spanish). “It’s a shame we are still waiting for reform, but I am thinking ahead. This presidential campaign is going to be very clear on the differences between the candidates.”

Ten years younger than Clinton, Kaine was born in Minnesota in 1958, the eldest son of an ironworker and a teacher. After attending an all-boys Jesuit high school, he attended the University of Missouri, completing his bachelor's degree in economics in three years. Then he entered Harvard Law School.

Seeking meaning and spirituality, Kaine took a year off from law school to volunteer with Jesuit missionaries in El Progreso, Honduras, a poor area in the country’s northwest, where he ran a vocational center that taught carpentry and welding to young men. According to a 2005 profile of Kaine, in Honduras he “rode his bicycle into villages to recruit students and managed to double the school’s enrollment to 65 during his stay.”

After law school, he moved to Virginia, where he practiced law in Richmond for 17 years. He was voted to the Richmond City Council and then elected mayor. During those years, he “forged a strong bond with Richmond’s black community by joining a predominantly black Catholic church,” according to the Washington Post.

Eventually, he was elected Virginia governor in 2005. After serving as chairman of the Democratic National Party, Kaine was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a member of the Western Hemisphere, Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Rights and Women’s Issues Subcommittee.

During a June 2013 debate on the Senate’s immigration bill, Kaine took to the podium and asked Senate officer Heidi Heitkamp if he could deliver remarks in Spanish. She agreed.

“I think it is appropriate that I spend a few minutes explaining the bill in Spanish, a language that has been spoken in this country since Spanish missionaries founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565,” Kaine then said in Spanish. “Spanish is also spoken by almost 40 million Americans who have a lot at stake in the outcome of this debate.”

Kaine supports efforts to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs.

On his website, Kaine states: “For far too long, our immigration system has placed undue burdens on legal immigrants and kept millions of others living in the shadows of our society. I support a bipartisan approach to immigration reform that will provide a better visa system to encourage growth of a talented workforce, enhance our border security, create a path to normalizing the legal status of those here unlawfully - following compliance with various requirements such as payment of taxes and a fine - and establish a better system for companies to verify the immigration status of their employees.”

Last year, Kaine returned to Honduras with senator John Cornyn.

“The violence and the lack of economic opportunity is very strong for people,” he told Univision earlier this month. “The United States should help the Northern Triangle countries to increase and develop their economies, to help with security issues and we also need to fight against drug addiction here in this country because he have a responsibility for the violence in those countries.”

Given that Virginia is a swing state, Kaine could help the state vote blue, though a pick from Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania would have maybe had more sway.

But his executive experience as a former Governor as well as Senate responsibilities on the foreign relations and armed services committees give him valuable qualifications that make him ready to step into the presidency if need be, analysts say.

Kaine's links with Honduras have aroused controversy among some observers of that country's descent into violence.

"He initially took a number of progressive positions regarding Honduras, raising concern about the military's takeover of the police, for example, and questioning U.S. security aid because of human rights violations by Honduran forces," says Dana Frank, professor of History at UC Santa Cruz, who is an expert on human rights and U.S. policy in Honduras.

"But more recently he has adopted positions very close to those of the State Department, which some analysts find troubling give the terrifying violence perpetrated by the Honduran government, and its deep, documented corruption--and the Administration's ongoing support for the regime nonetheless," she added.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump dismissed Kaine as part of what he calls Washington's out-of-touch political elite, but other Republicans praised Cliton's VP choice. "Trying to count the ways I hate @timkaine. Drawing a blank," Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake wrote on Twitter. "Congrats to a good man," he added.

Republican commentator Ana Navarro tweeted that Clinton "has Spanish-speaking do-gooder" while "Trump has Joe Arpaio... and a taco bowl," in reference to the controversial Arizona sheriff and a viral photo Trump published in May eating Mexican food.

During a July 14 campaign event with Hillary Clinton in Virginia, Kaine told the crowd about a useful word he learned while in Honduras: “listo.”

“When I lived in Honduras, the best compliment you could pay to someone was … that they were listo, that they were ready,” he said. “Because in Spanish, 'ready' means more than just on time, it means well-prepared, it means you’re ready to get on the battlefield. You’re ready to fight.”

“Estamos listo para Hillary!” he said. “Hillary’s ready to make history.”

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