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Linwood Holton, Virginia's first GOP governor of the 20th century, who embraced civil rights, dies at 98
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Linwood Holton 1923-2021

Linwood Holton, Virginia's first GOP governor of the 20th century, who embraced civil rights, dies at 98

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Linwood Holton, vanguard of two-party competition in once solidly Democratic Virginia as its first Republican governor of the 20th century and whose progressive views on race and public investment ultimately isolated him from a GOP that would lurch right in an alliance with the Old South conservatives he long opposed, died Thursday morning at his home in Kilmarnock. He was 98.

Mr. Holton’s death was announced by his four children.

A native of the Southwest Virginia coal belt, hotbed of spirited politics even as the eastern half of the state defaulted to the white-dominated, rigidly conservative antecedent of the Democratic Party, Mr. Holton was elected governor in 1969, his second try in four years for the office childhood friends joked he had sought since the fourth grade.

“To the world, Gov. Linwood Holton is known as a giant of civil rights and change. When others stood in the doorways of schools to block desegregation, our Dad walked us — and bused us — to integrated schools to show the rest of the world the way of justice,” the Holton children said.

“When others balked at tearing down the barriers to employment and opportunities for all Americans, our Dad led the charge in hiring for the Governor’s office a staff that represented all Virginians. In launching a political party that included Main Street business, labor organizations, and African American organizations including the Crusade for Voters, Dad helped break the back of the political machine that had called the shots in Virginia.”

Mr. Holton, father-in-law of a Democratic governor and U.S. senator, Tim Kaine, was the Republican nominee in 1965, certain he would lose to Democrat Mills E. Godwin Jr., a former segregationist who — with Mr. Holton’s endorsement — would succeed him in 1973, having become a Republican. Mr. Holton reasoned that his first attempt for governor would elevate his profile for a successful campaign in 1969.

Until his victory over William C. Battle, son of one of 11 Democratic governors produced by the conservative political machine of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., Virginia had not chosen a Republican as its chief executive since 1881. It elected that year William Cameron, a Confederate veteran who had aligned with the GOP, implementing a startlingly forward-thinking program under which the state spent more on schools, eliminated restrictions on voting and opened public jobs to Black people.

Kaine, husband of Anne Holton, one of the governor’s daughters and a former judge and Virginia education secretary, described Mr. Holton as “my public service role model,” adding, “His courageous efforts to end racial discrimination in Virginia, born out of a deep religious conviction about the equality of all God’s children, made him a moral pillar for so many.”

Mr. Holton was a tireless advocate for political competition but he believed strongly, too, in two-party cooperation. And though his relationship with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly had its ups and downs, Mr. Holton set the tone for his administration on Election Night, welcoming Battle and Battle’s wife, Barry, to Holton headquarters at the old Hotel John Marshall, a short distance from the state Capitol.

For the national Republican Party, Mr. Holton’s victory one year after Richard Nixon won the presidency was a harbinger of the South’s evolution from Democratic cornerstone to a GOP bulwark that would erode by the early 21st century because of the region’s accelerating racial and cultural diversity — something Mr. Holton, in a ringing inaugural address in January 1970, had urged the party to embrace.

Embraced civil rights

Virginia, he said, should forsake the bitter racial politics that approximately a decade earlier spurred the state to close public schools in defiance of court-ordered desegregation and pledge that “no citizen of the commonwealth is excluded from the full participation in both the blessings and responsibilities of our society because of race.”

Mr. Holton, who 36 years later would witness the swearing-in of his son-in-law, Kaine, as governor — one who shared his commitment to racial equity, continued, “As Virginia has been a model for so much else in America in the past, let us now endeavor to make today’s Virginia a model in race relations. ... Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”

As governor, Mr. Holton appointed Black people to positions previously closed to them: the gubernatorial staff and numerous boards and commissions, though not to judgeships or such premier panels as the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. Black employment across state government rose 25 percent.

Mr. Holton’s conciliatory views on race were captured in an iconic news photograph of him, accompanied by a plain-clothes Capitol Police officer, escorting the governor’s other daughter, Tayloe, to the majority-Black John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond, a city then roiling over a court-ordered busing plan that would drive whites to the surrounding suburbs.

Mr. Holton’s term was also distinguished by advances in transportation — he modernized the management of the Port of Hampton Roads — and an elevated attention by the state to the environment. However, a protracted battle over his proposal to erect a prison at Green Springs, a bucolic crossroads in Louisa County, ended in failure, a casualty of concerns over its impact on the landscape and historic buildings.

And facing an occasionally hostile Democratic legislature, Mr. Holton pressed, with limited success, tax increases for improvements at the port and in mental health services. Democrats resisted higher taxes on tobacco, a historic Virginia crop, but consented to increases for alcohol.

Two-party competition

With his aquiline features, big grin and easy manner — as governor, he was known to work in his stocking feet — Mr. Holton would be a compelling, telegenic salesman for a Republican Party that even a century after the Civil War was still associated by some Virginians with the sectional conflict’s big-government aftermath that, among other things, included voting rights for Black people.

Mr. Holton argued that one-party Virginia, in thrall of Democrats, was akin to a town with one drugstore — that, absent competition, it sold what it wanted at whatever price without regard for the preferences of the public. It was time, Mr. Holton said, to give Republicans a chance.

The Nixon victory for president in 1968 — Virginia had sided with the Republican over Vice President Hubert Humphrey — steeled the party’s confidence that it could win the governorship behind Mr. Holton the next year. Money, staff and political technology steered to Virginia from national Republican sources would make for a thoroughly modern campaign, one that targeted the growing suburbs.

Mr. Holton’s 65,000-vote triumph over Battle was helped by sharp divisions among Democrats that played out in the primary between Battle and Henry Howell Jr., the populist firebrand and a favorite of Black and labor voters. Howell endorsed Battle but only meekly, declaring that his supporters were “free spirits” — a remark widely interpreted as encouraging Howell voters to back Holton. And many did, seeing the election as an opportunity to topple the last of the Byrd machine.

Indeed, Mr. Holton entered the finale with Battle with what, for a Republican, would now seem unthinkable: the endorsements of the AFL-CIO and a prominent Black political organization, the Crusade for Voters.

Mr. Holton ran with two fellow western Virginians: H. Dunlop “Buzz” Dawbarn of Augusta County for lieutenant governor, and Abingdon-born Richard D. Obenshain for attorney general. Mr. Holton gave up his law practice to campaign full time, supporting his family, in part, with money from a friend, a Roanoke industrialist.

With Republicans focused on Mr. Holton’s candidacy, Dawbarn and Obenshain would lose. Dawbarn fell to Democrat J. Sargeant Reynolds, an heir to a manufacturing fortune who would die of pneumonia in 1971 following attempts to treat his inoperable brain tumor and be succeeded by Howell. Obenshain lost to Andrew P. Miller, the son of Francis Pickens Miller, a staunch critic of the Byrd organization who had challenged Battle’s father for the gubernatorial nomination in 1949 and Byrd, himself, for the Senate three years later.

Obenshain, far more conservative than his gubernatorial running mate, would become Mr. Holton’s principal rival for the leadership of the state Republican Party and was credited with forging an alliance of disaffected Democrats, many of them Byrd loyalists, and traditional, center-right Republicans who had toiled for Nixon, Barry Goldwater and Dwight Eisenhower.

This coalition was the foundation of Virginia’s modern Republican Party and Obenshain became its undisputed leader — a status sealed with his victory over Mr. Holton and two others for the 1978 U.S. Senate nomination. It was a loss that, Mr. Holton said in conceding to Obenshain, meant he was now an “elder statesman.”

Obenshain was killed that August in a plane crash in Chesterfield County. Republicans selected as a substitute nominee, John W. Warner, a comparative moderate and longtime Holton friend from their days as undergraduates at Washington and Lee University, who had placed second at the convention and would narrowly win the Senate seat. He would hold it until his retirement in 2009 and — like Holton — occasionally break with an increasingly conservative GOP to endorse Democrats.

For Mr. Holton, that included L. Douglas Wilder in 1989 to become the nation’s first elective Black governor. The endorsement was symbolic on at least two levels: Not only was it an affirmation of Mr. Holton’s commitment to racial harmony — a theme of his governorship — but it was a thumb in the eye to Republicans for repudiating his centrist views.

Mr. Holton’s relations with Byrd’s followers had been fraught from the beginning of his administration. In 1970, only months into his term, Mr. Holton urged Republicans to challenge U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., the son and namesake of the political oligarch. To not oppose Byrd, who had left the Democratic Party to become an independent, especially after the Republican breakthrough for governor, would be “like having the biggest, shiniest new fire engine and not taking it to the fire,” Holton said at the time.

Republicans would come up with a candidate; Democrats, too. But Byrd would easily dispatch both, an outcome that raised discomfiting questions about Mr. Holton’s ability to expand the GOP.

Race had defined Mr. Holton’s career from the start, spurring him to seek — unsuccessfully — a seat in the House of Delegates in 1955 and 1957. These were the years following the landmark ruling in 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing separate schools for Black students and white students — a decision, he believed, Virginians would eventually embrace had Byrd Sr. not used it to perpetuate his authority by fanning racial fears.

Those fears contributed to Mr. Holton’s defeats for the legislature but did not diminish his long-term goal that post-World War II Virginia should be a two-party state, one in which the friction of ideas and broad voter participation would compel the elective leadership to invest in services essential to an emerging suburban dynamo.

Rural roots

Abner Linwood Holton Jr.’s origins were stoutly rural and comfortably middle class. Born Sept, 21, 1923 in Big Stone Gap, a coal town in Wise County, nearly 400 miles west of the capital by car, Mr. Holton was among three children — two sons and a half-daughter — of a railroad executive father and homemaker mother.

His father, a native Georgian, was a Democrat who remained loyal to the party in 1928, when many in the South bolted rather than support their presidential nominee, Al Smith, because the New York governor was an Irish Catholic who opposed Prohibition. Mr. Holton said his father resented the nativism that stoked the anti-Smith vote.

Publicly educated, Mr. Holton — as a high school student — represented his hometown at Boys State, a program then held at Virginia Tech to introduce young Virginians to government and politics. It included a mock government. Mr. Holton said he aspired to be Boys State governor but entered the contest too late: “Even at Boys State, I was casting far ahead, hoping and dreaming that one day I would be the real governor of Virginia.”

Mr. Holton was admitted to Washington and Lee, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. In 1943, he entered the Navy, becoming an engineering officer in the submarine service. Among his assignments: delivering to the American base at Pearl Harbor, an experimental Japanese submarine — captured after the war — from which an airplane could be launched. A model of the vessel sat on the mantle over the fireplace at Mr. Holton’s retirement residence on the Northern Neck.

After the war, he completed his undergraduate degree in commerce at W&L and was admitted to Harvard Law School, from which he was graduated in 1949. Mr. Holton returned to Virginia to begin practicing law and enter politics. He joined a small firm in Roanoke and, through a lawyer at a competing practice, met his future wife, Virginia Harrison Rogers — Jinks, as she was known — the daughter of a prominent Roanoke attorney who shared her father’s Democratic pedigree. The couple wed in 1953.

Though Mrs. Holton, who had worked at the Central Intelligence Agency before her marriage, was an energetic and engaging political partner, she would tease her husband that his Republicanism meant that — in the Virginia of the 1950s — he was socially unacceptable and that she was reluctant to be seen in public with him.

On leaving the governorship in 1974, Mr. Holton was briefly at the U.S. State Department, serving as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s liaison to the Senate. Mr. Holton next practiced law in Washington before becoming a lobbyist for the insurance industry. He later affiliated with Kaine’s firm in Richmond, which is named, in part, for the former governor — McCandlish Holton.

Mr. Holton, at the request of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, led the commission that transferred control of Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports from the federal government to a private authority. And for Gov. Gerald Baliles, Mr. Holton was the interim president of the Center for Innovative Technology in Northern Virginia, guiding it through managerial difficulties.

Later years

Mr. Holton lived in McLean before retiring to a cottage on a creek outside Irvington, in Lancaster County. He and his wife spent their later years at a nearby senior residence, the Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury.

They were avid skiers well into their 80s, organizing family trips to Rocky Mountain resorts. Mr. Holton also enjoyed raising fruit trees and delighted telling friends that, when tending to his peach trees in McLean, he would thwart fruit-gnawing squirrels with a blast from his shotgun. He would discharge the gun only when jets on approach to National Airport passed overhead, the roar of their engines muffling the report of his firearm.

Such mischievousness was evident as well during Mr. Holton’s years as governor.

On Christmas morning, he would round up his family to help his older son deliver that day’s edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch so that the Holtons could get on with their holiday celebration at the Executive Mansion. Residents of a downtown apartment building recalled being handed their newspaper by the governor.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Holton is survived by four children: Tayloe Loftus, a physician in Syracuse, N.Y.; Anne Holton, of Richmond; A. Linwood III, who goes by Woody, a historian and professor at the University of South Carolina who won the Bancroft Award in 2001 for his biography of Abigail Adams, and Dwight, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor in Portland, Ore., who was active in Democratic politics in Virginia and unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for attorney general in Oregon.

Mr. Holton also had nine grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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