Forty-seven years ago, a mountain Republican from Big Stone Gap, Va., put himself forward as a candidate for governor of Virginia.
It was an audacious move. No Republican had been elected governor of Virginia in more than 100 years, and the state’s politics were dominated by the Democratic machine of U.S. Senator Harry Byrd. Back then, Democrats were the conservative, segregationist force that led the notorious Massive Resistance opposition to integration of public schools in Virginia. Republicans by contrast were a moderate, if ineffective, presence in state politics.
Through an unusual confluence of electoral tides, A. Linwood Holton was able to beat a divided Democratic party to be elected governor in November 1969. In his inaugural speech, he sounded a new theme when he said: “The era of defiance is behind us. Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”
Holton had the opportunity to put his words into action the following school year, after a federal judge ordered the Richmond schools desegregated. By virtue of living in the downtown Governor’s Mansion, Holton’s children were assigned to the predominantly black Richmond schools.
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On Aug. 31, 1970, Holton led his 13-year-old daughter Tayloe by hand to her first day of school at the mostly African-American Kennedy High School. His other daughter, Anne, and son, Woody, were taken by their mother to a formerly black middle school. The next day, a photograph of the governor and his daughter appeared on the front page of The New York Times.
This history is all very personal to me, because Linwood Holton, now age 92, is my uncle, and Tayloe, Anne and Woody (and their brother Dwight) are my cousins. My first job out of college was as Linwood Holton’s “factotum,” as he called me, driving the candidate around the state as he searched for votes from the coal country hills to the tidelands of Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
Among my jobs was to carry a bottle of whisky for the press, to take the edge off long days after filing their stories. It was the influence of those irreverent, sometimes rowdy reporters that led me to pursue a career in journalism. (One of them, red-capped Mel Carico of the Roanoke Times, just celebrated his 100th birthday, I’m happy to say.)
Despite being schooled at the supposedly inferior inner-city Richmond schools, the Holton children went to college at Dartmouth, Princeton, Virginia and Brown, then on to successful careers as a physician, a judge, a U.S. Attorney and a university professor.
Anne Holton went to Harvard Law School, where she met her husband-to-be, a young Kansan named Tim Kaine. They returned to Richmond where they pursued careers as civil rights attorneys. She became a judge, then Secretary of Education in Virginia, and Kaine became mayor of Richmond, governor, U.S. Senator and now, as we all know, Hillary Clinton’s running mate for vice president of the United States.
So it was with more than just passing interest that I drove over to Greensboro recently to attend a Kaine rally at the Greensboro train station. My obvious bias aside, I was impressed with a message that emphasized similar progressive themes to those articulated by his father-in-law those many decades ago in Virginia – economic opportunity, equality of education, fair treatment of the disadvantaged.
On Aug. 31, 1970, Gov. A. Linwood Holton led his 13-year-old daughter Tayloe by hand to her first day of school at the mostly African-American Kennedy High School.
Kaine took note in particular of two issues of concern to North Carolinians – the notorious HB 2 allowing discrimination against LGBT people, and the state’s voter ID law.
“LGBT equality is just one more wall we need to knock down to be all that we can be,” he said. “This is about going forward, not backward.”
Kaine praised the recent federal appeals court decision overturning the state’s voter ID law as intentionally discriminatory. That ruling , he said, will allow 100,000 more people to vote in North Carolina than would have otherwise.
Thus motivated, I found myself on a hot Saturday afternoon standing outside the Wal-mart near Cole Park Plaza, brandishing a clipboard with voter registration forms. In two hours, I approached 138 people and registered a total of three. I don’t know whether they will vote Republican or Democrat. What matters is that their vote will have a major impact.
Why? Because North Carolina is a key battleground state. CNN political commentator John King said recently, in analyzing the candidates’ paths to victory, “How does Donald Trump get there? He must, must, must hold North Carolina.”
And Orange County, with its mother lode of Democratic voters, will have a major influence on who gets North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes. Matt Hughes, the county Democratic chairman, told me he has heard that Orange has been identified as one of the five most important counties in the nation in potential impact on the outcome.
It makes sense, he said, given the number of Democratic voters in Orange. In 2008, Barack Obama carried North Carolina by 14,177 votes over John McCain. The margin for Obama in Orange County was 33,540 votes.
As Kaine said in Greensboro, “If someone tells you your vote doesn’t matter, tell them this: If your vote doesn’t matter, why is the other side working so hard to keep you from voting?”
Ted Vaden lives in Chapel Hill. Contact him in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org