BALTIMORE — Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine spoke personally about the racial "scar tissue" in his home city of Richmond on Thursday in a wide-ranging speech to the National Urban League Conference, where he sought to highlight his history as a civil rights attorney and as a local politician who worked through racial tensions, while also drawing a harsh contrast with the Republican presidential nominee.
Kaine used his address to attempt to draw a sharp parallel with how his own father-in-law, former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, and Donald Trump and his father treated African-Americans over the same period in the nation's history. Kaine frequently refers to Holton's fight to desegregate public schools in Virginia in the early 1970s, but Thursday he also brought up a 1973 Justice Department suit against Trump's firm for violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which the Urban League was involved with.
Kaine cited a 1973 New York Times report that the Justice Department filed suit against Donald Trump and his father "for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans."
"It was one of the largest federal cases of its kind at the time," Kaine said. "When federal investigators spoke to Trump's employees they said they were instructed to mark rental applications from African American people on the back of the application with C, with a C for colored so that they would know who they wanted to rent to and who they didn't …This was a huge lawsuit."
Trump attorney Alan Garten pushed back on the accusations from four decades ago, saying in a statement, "There is absolutely no merit to the allegations. This suit was brought as part of a nationwide inquiry against a number of companies, and the matter was ultimately settled without any finding of liability and without any admission of wrongdoing whatsoever."
The Urban League historically invites all major presidential campaigns to speak to their conference, but the Donald Trump campaign declined an invitation to join this year, Urban League president Marc Morial said.
In his remarks, Kaine spoke about his early career as a civil rights attorney, noting that housing discrimination cases were "the heart" of his legal career. "So this is real personal to me," he said.
"I learned when I started to practice civil rights that anybody who is a person of color, frankly anybody who has been a religious minority, you kind of have to learn the ways of the majority as a survival instinct," Kaine said. "You have to learn kind of in order to survive the ways of the majority. So often those of us in the majority, we are not forced to learn the ways of anybody else. And we can insulate or wall ourselves off, even without intending to. We have to force ourselves out of our comfort zone to learn about the realities of all the beautiful parts of this wonderful American tapestry."
Much has been made of Kaine's fluency in Spanish and subsequent ability to communicate with America's Latino communities, but also noteworthy is his long and sustained connection with the black community in his long-time hometown of Richmond. Kaine and his family have been attending a majority black church for decades, and he served on the city council and as mayor while the area has what he called "a history of treating African-Americans with indifference at best, hostility and contempt at worst."
"My running for mayor was a little bit odd," Kaine recalled, because the mayor at the time was chosen by the city council, and Richmond was (and still is) a majority African-American area.
"Being a capital of the confederacy, with a lot of people wanting to maintain themselves and stay set in their ways, he was somebody who challenged people a lot by bringing separate groups together," Kaine's vice mayor Rudy McCollum told NBC News last month.
"We're a city with a history," Kaine said Thursday. "We're a city with some scar tissue. Now I'd seen extreme poverty in Honduras. Some of the parts of Richmond weren't that far off."
Kaine, who since being chosen as Clinton's running mate is still working to introduce himself to a wider American public unaware of many components of his background, told his audience that when he served as Virginia's governor he did something "no other governor had done."
"I officially apologized on behalf of the commonwealth of Virginia for slavery," he said. "I'd done the same thing as Mayor of Richmond."
The senator also focused on his call for criminal justice reform and the need to "rebuild the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
He noted that federal agencies still do not keep track of the number of people in the country killed by police or who die while in police custody. "People here in Baltimore know this so very, very well," he said. "Just as people in Virginia know this. A profound distance has grown up between law enforcement and communities in too many places in America, and that distance is dangerous. It's dangerous for the communities, and it's dangerous for the police."
Kaine also highlighted work he is doing with the Congressional Black Caucus to form a commission to mark the 400th anniversary of African slaves arriving at Jamestown. "If English lives in history matter, if Spanish lives in history matter, then African American lives in history ought to matter to us too," he said. "African American history matters because black lives matter."