It is hard to imagine the Virginia political world of 1969. We were then governed by a single party that allowed little competition. Both our federal and General Assembly delegations were overwhelmingly Democratic. And the Democratic party at the time was dominated by the Dixiecrat Byrd Machine, which limited voting through poll taxes and other schemes and practiced white supremacy as an ironclad rule. No Republican had won a statewide race in Virginia since the 1920s.
The election of my father-in-law Linwood Holton as the 61st governor of Virginia in November 1969 ushered in one of the biggest transformations of Virginia politics in the 20th century. It helped destroy machine politics, create a two-party competitive system in this cradle of democracy and open up opportunities for all Virginians to finally be treated as equals. I have drawn on the lessons of Lin’s career during my 25 years of serving my city, commonwealth and country in public office.
Lin was born in 1923 in Big Stone Gap and grasped from an early age the evils of prejudice — whether expressed as racial hostility or condescension toward people in Appalachia. In particular, seeing the few African Americans in his hometown treated as second-class citizens while he was a boy left a searing sense of outrage and shame on Lin’s conscience that has motivated him throughout his entire life.
Lin graduated from Washington and Lee, served as a submariner in the Pacific at the end of World War II, went to Harvard Law School and then began his legal and political career in Roanoke in the late 1940s. He soon married Jinks Rogers, daughter of the prominent Byrd Machine Democrat who founded the Woods Rogers law firm. And he commenced his effort to build a modern Republican Party to give Virginians true political choice.
It wasn’t easy building a two-party system while practicing law and raising four children. Lin lost a close race for the House of Delegates in 1955 and seemed poised to win in 1957. But President Eisenhower’s decision to send National Guard troops to help integrate Central High School in Little Rock a few weeks before the election cost Republican candidates support across the South, and Lin lost his race.
Lin ran as the Republican nominee for governor in 1965 and surprised everyone by winning 38% of the vote on a shoestring budget. In 1969, he tried again, assembling an unusual coalition that included the AFL-CIO and Virginia Crusade for Voters, the most powerful African-American political organization of the day. His win on Election Day produced Virginia’s first Republican governor in almost a hundred years.
Lin’s term as governor of a state with two overwhelmingly Democratic Houses produced notable achievements — the creation of the Cabinet system, addition of state parks, clean-up of Virginia’s polluted rivers. But his signature achievement was working to promote racial justice.
He stated in his inaugural address that the “era of defiance” was over and pledged to make Virginia “a model in race relations.” He appointed African Americans to key leadership positions and helped Virginia become the first Southern state with a fair housing law. And he made national headlines when he abandoned Virginia’s battle against school integration and proudly escorted his children into predominantly African American schools.
Just as Eisenhower’s stand for racial justice cost Lin a Delegate race in 1957, Lin’s courageous embrace of school integration cost him as he tried to gain the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1978. As the principal architect of Virginian’s modern Republican Party, it would have seemed like a natural next step in a state that was now enjoying two-party democracy for the first time in decades. But he had angered too many people with his pro-civil rights stand and finished third in a four-way convention. While he continued public service for many years as a member of the Amtrak Board, director of the Center for Innovative Technology, and chairman of the Washington Airports Authority, he would never run for office again.
What a joy it was to welcome Lin and Jinks back into the governor’s residence when Anne and I served the commonwealth together from 2006 to 2010. By then, the anger at Lin’s leadership had faded, and people understood how important his accomplishments were to Virginia’s evolution.
Lin stands for so many things at age 96. You can lose often but still be a winner by standing firm for principle and doing right when you have the chance. Every day is “opportunity time” as Lin used to loudly announce to my wife and her siblings to wake them up in the morning. The key to happiness is helping others, especially when they are down and out. Working across the aisle accomplishes a lot, as evidenced by Lin’s collaboration and sincere friendship with Gov. Baliles.
And Lin and Jinks together have shown us how a committed couple can do multiple times more than any individual. When I was governor, there was an effort to amend the Virginia Constitution by referendum to prohibit any legal recognition — marriage, civil union, or otherwise — of same-sex couples. I campaigned against the referendum and asked Lin and Jinks to join Anne and me on the steps of the Governor’s Mansion to explain our opposition. I talked about how wrong it would be to pollute the Bill of Rights — granting protection to Virginians—with a provision that was all about exclusion. But Lin was more personal, pointing out that we two couples brought more than 70 years of wedded bliss to the press conference. He wanted all others to have an equal opportunity to enjoy the gift that we had experienced and found nothing in same-sex marriage to undermine the wonderful institution of marriage. While the referendum narrowly passed, Lin was right, and the Supreme Court acknowledged that within a decade by declaring that the promise of equality extended to all.
As I enter my 60s and think about my heroes, I don’t have to look far. I inherited my work ethic from my dad, my recognition that kindness counts from my mother, my passion for social justice from missionaries I worked with in Honduras, and my bone-deep belief that public service still matters from my mother- and father-in-law. Lin is a proud son of Appalachian Virginia, and our commonwealth has been dramatically improved by his life of service.