A locked office, getaway car and secret flight: The final steps in picking Clinton's vice president

It was early evening Friday, when four of Hillary Clinton’s top aides, including campaign chairman John Podesta, snuck out of her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, using a freight elevator to avoid being seen.

The four traveled 15 miles to the airfield in Teterboro, N.J., rather than one of the region’s larger commercial airports, where they might have been spotted, then flew to North Kingston, R.I.  From there, Podesta drove to a parking lot near a beach in Newport and waited in the car.

Nearby, the man he had come to see, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, was conducting a fundraising event for a fellow senator, Rhode Island’s Jack Reed. 

For weeks, reporters had speculated that Kaine was at the top of Clinton’s short list for her running mate, and Friday had been quietly touted as the day an announcement would come. But up until the last minute, as cable news speculated about the timing and the name, no word of a final decision had leaked.

To maintain the secrecy, Podesta was careful to stay in the car. He was dressed in a suit and “would have stuck out like a sore thumb,” said a Clinton campaign official who described the events to reporters on condition of anonymity.

As Podesta waited, he and Clinton started making calls. At 7:32 p.m. the former secretary of State called Kaine, who was at the reception for Reed, and told him, among other things, “John Podesta is outside, hiding.” 

Podesta had planned to return with Kaine to a nearby hotel to begin going over plans for an announcement rally in Miami on Saturday morning. With a mass of reporters outside, however, they decided to stay at the event site, a converted shipyard where boats are refurbished. Kaine snuck into an office space that was covered in ropes and boating equipment, locking the doors to keep out dock workers who were trying to get in.

The call between Clinton and Kaine lasted 15 to 20 minutes. The senator then met up with Podesta, and the two snuck away in a Volvo, a different car than the one Kaine had been spotted arriving in. The idea of a getaway by boat came up briefly, but was set aside.

Anne Holton, Kaine’s wife, who had flown into town to be with him, was waiting at the nearby Viking Hotel. Kaine waited until he saw her in person to reveal the news.

At the hotel, Podesta briefed them on the plans, and Kaine and his wife called their three children. The group had dinner, and President Obama, who had considered Kaine as a potential running mate in 2008, called at about 10:45 p.m.

Shortly after the call from the president, the group took off. They hopped a plan to fly back to Kaine’s home in Richmond — the senator already had an extra set of clothes with him because he had been scheduled to do another fundraiser Saturday in Nantucket — and headed, instead, for Miami to get settled in.

En route, Kaine opened a laptop and began working over the draft of his speech for the next day, which Clinton’s staff had begun. Aides said he worked on it for about an hour during the flight and more in the morning.

“He doesn’t love the teleprompter,” an aide said, noting that Kaine had used the device, but also did parts of Saturday’s rally speech off-the-cuff, as he often does.

Although Clinton considered several candidates for running mate,  Kaine was the only one who had merited a second interview.

The two had first discussed the job last week, after they campaigned together in Annandale, Va., a suburb outside Washington. After an event that showcased their potential chemistry — and Kaine’s fluency in Spanish — Clinton invited him to her home in Washington for an unscheduled sit-down.

At first, that meeting included some of the senior aides who had been working with Clinton to oversee her selection process. But after a while, aides left them alone for a one-on-one conversation that lasted until 10:30 p.m.

The next day, Clinton met, also at her Washington home, with several other candidates on her short list. At the end of the day, she told aides she wanted to see Kaine another time.

The second encounter was a family affair. Kaine and his wife joined the candidate and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as well as their daughter, Chelsea, and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, for lunch at the Clintons’ home in Chappaqua, a suburb north of New York City.

Afterward, aides said, Hillary Clinton continued to praise the Virginia senator, expressing confidence he was ready for the job and that she thought he would be a true partner in governing. Podesta, a former White House chief of staff, told Clinton that whomever she picked as her running mate needed to be someone who  “whenever they walk into a room, you are glad to see them and want to have them as part of any conversation.”

Clinton said Kaine was that person.

Still, aides said, Clinton didn’t make the final choice until Friday. The decision ended a process that had started in April when Podesta arrived at her Chappaqua home with a Duane Reade shopping bag containing binders of vetting material on more than two dozen potential choices.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more 2016 campaign coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.

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