A. Linwood Holton Jr., Virginia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction and a crusader against racial discrimination, died Thursday. He was 98.
Holton, who served from 1970 to 1974, declared an end to “Massive Resistance,” Virginia’s institutional defiance of federal orders to desegregate its schools. A moderate who raised taxes, he eventually fell out of favor with an increasingly conservative GOP he criticized as obsessed with cutting taxes at the expense of crucial services.
Holton died peacefully at his home in Kilmarnock, his children said in a statement shared by the office of Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, Holton’s son-in-law. Kaine called Holton “more than a father-in-law — he was my friend and my public service role model.”
“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,” Kaine said.
Holton was the first Republican to break the stronghold Democrats held on state government for nearly 100 years, defeating William C. Battle in 1969. He enrolled his own white children in predominantly Black schools rather than fight school busing. He also was the first Virginia governor to appoint Black officials to high-level government posts.
“To the world, Governor Linwood Holton is known as a giant of civil rights and change. When others stood in the doorways of schools to block de-segregation, our Dad walked us (and bused us) to integrated schools to show the rest of the world the way of justice,” his children's statement said.
Of raising taxes, Holton once said at a 1999 conference on his administration: “I’ll bet not three of 10 people in this room could tell you what tax I increased, but they all appreciate the swimmable rivers throughout Virginia which my 1 percent increase in the state income tax paid for.”
Holton alienated Democrats who controlled Virginia's General Assembly when he insisted on a GOP opponent in 1970 for U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.’s bid for reelection as an independent.
By the time his term was over, Holton had also lost his own party’s support. His choice as state GOP chairman lost to the preferred candidate of GOP conservatives.
Although he never officially left the GOP, the former governor increasingly sided with Democrats.
In 1985, when Democrat L. Douglas Wilder sought to become the state’s first black lieutenant governor, Holton warned Republican gubernatorial candidate Wyatt Durrette that he would openly oppose the GOP ticket if anyone attacked Wilder on racial grounds. Wilder won and would later go on to become governor.
Holton refused to support Jim Gilmore’s successful campaign for governor in 1997, saying the Republican’s proposal to cut the personal property tax on cars would divert money from public schools. Three years later, he tacitly backed Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb’s failed bid for a third term by criticizing Republican George Allen as too conservative on such issues as abortion rights and gun control.
At the University of Virginia conference on his administration, Holton said the GOP’s attitudes about guns and federal interference in private decision-making were driving voters away. He also called on the party to renounce its “segregationist appeal to Southerners.”
In 2001, Holton actively backed a successful campaign for lieutenant governor by Kaine and later campaigned for Kaine in his successful bid for governor.
Hours after Kaine won the race for governor, Holton underwent surgery for bladder cancer. Holton had known of his ailment for some time but nevertheless campaigned with Kaine in the demanding final days of the campaign.
Holton was born Sept. 21, 1923, in Big Stone Gap in southwest Virginia. He went to Washington & Lee University in Lexington, receiving his degree after going into the Navy in World War II. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949.
He set up practice in Roanoke and got involved in reviving GOP politics. His first run for public office was in 1965, as the GOP nominee for governor against Democrat Mills E. Godwin Jr.
He lost to Godwin, and later was succeeded by Godwin, who switched parties during Holton’s term and won in 1973 as a Republican. Virginia is the only state that bars its governor from serving two consecutive terms.
“Linwood Holton made history when Virginians elected him governor in 1969. His victory placed the Commonwealth at the leading edge of its southern neighbors, signaling the beginning of the two-party South,” leaders of the Senate GOP caucus said in a statement Thursday.
After leaving office, Holton returned to practicing law and eventually settled in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.
Current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said Holton “faced down Virginia’s demons and enabled this Commonwealth to look ahead.”
“He showed a wistful state how to embrace the future, inviting us all to be ‘touched by the better angels of our nature,' in the words of President Lincoln who founded the reforming Republican Party that Linwood Holton revered," Northam said in a statement.
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