GREENSBORO, N.C. — Anne Holton first stepped into the spotlight in 1970 as a white student enrolling in a predominantly black middle school in Virginia’s capital as part of a push for school integration by her father, the state’s governor at the time.
Decades later she’s stepping onto an even bigger stage as she works to get Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Holton’s husband, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, elected to the White House.
A vivacious Harvard Law graduate, former judge and former state secretary of education, Holton has begun campaigning solo for Clinton. She’s expected to stay on the campaign trail, both with her husband and by herself, through Election Day.
Officially, Holton is going to a focus on promoting Clinton’s plans for education, foster care reform, and other issues. But her unofficial role appears to be trying to make Clinton more relatable. She often highlights Clinton’s role as a new grandmother in campaign appearances, sometimes eliciting “awwws” from friendly audiences.
“I’m not intimidated by politicians. I understand that, at least the good ones, can be pretty normal people,” Holton said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I really do feel like voters, while they think they know a lot about Hillary, they really don’t know as much as they think they know.”
Friends and associates say Holton is well qualified for the rigors of a national campaign and, like her husband, is viewed by supporters as down to earth, approachable and someone with a genuine passion for public service.
Kaine and Holton are also known for not taking themselves too seriously. At a recent campaign stop in North Carolina, the Virginia senator played harmonica with a band while his wife showed off some folk dancing moves.
“Anne will be an asset to the team, if they let her be herself,” said Tag Greason, a Republican state lawmaker who worked with Holton on education issues. “That authenticity will come through.”
Holton’s father, A. Linwood Holton Jr., is a moderate Republican who worked to improve race relations when he became, in 1970, the first GOP governor in Virginia in nearly a century. He enrolled his children in predominantly black public schools in Richmond to spur integration in a state whose capital had also been the capital of the Confederacy.
Linwood Holton said his daughter took her attendance at a new middle school in stride.
“Anne could handle anything and made a lot of fun of the way the newspapers were treating it,” Holton wrote in his autobiography.
After graduating from Princeton and then Harvard Law school, where she met Kaine, Anne Holton returned to Richmond to work as a legal aid lawyer before becoming a family court judge. She and Kaine raised three children and became fixtures in their North Richmond neighborhood and their racially mixed Catholic church.
Like her husband, Holton enjoys the outdoors. She helped start a cycling club in her neighborhood for women, called Mother Bikers, complete with its own T-shirts.
“This was when our kids were little and it was partly an excuse to get away on Saturday morning,” Holton said.
When Holton became Virginia’s first lady she moved back to the same Executive Mansion where she had lived as a child. Though she resigned her judgeship, she made clear to her husband’s staff she was eager to contribute. “I really want to work!” Holton wrote in a 2006 memo.
Holton devoted herself to reforming the state’s foster care system, particularly in helping older children get adopted. Official figures show the number of Virginia children in foster care started dropping steadily after Kaine’s first year as governor.
Marilyn Tavenner, who was Kaine’s secretary of health and human services and later became head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Holton used her perch as first lady “in a very graceful way” — as a strong advocate who did not micromanage.
“She was in the background, constantly being a voice of conscience,” Tavenner said.
Holton continued to work on foster care issues after Kaine’s four-year term — Virginia’s governors cannot have consecutive terms — before becoming secretary of education under Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2014.
Holton also campaigned with Kaine in his successful 2012 race for the Senate. She visited deep-red Southwest Virginia, home of the state’s struggling coal country and where she was born, in Roanoke, in 1958.
Holton said she’d be happy to visit similar communities around the country and hopes to be put to use in key battleground states.
But one thing she won’t do, Holton said, is go on the attack. She noted that her father remained friends with William C. Battle, the man he beat in the 1969 gubernatorial race, and gave the eulogy at Battle’s funeral many years later.
“That’s my dad’s training,” she said.