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Grocery shopping with Secret Service: Anne Holton tries to keep it real

On the third day of a bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Sen. Tim Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton, meet and speak to Ohio voters. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Anne Holton was in her neighborhood Kroger, on the most ordinary of domestic errands, when she wheeled her cart around a corner and got a jolt.

Right there in the grocery aisle was a Secret Service agent — a startling reminder to the wife of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine that she was now way outside the realm of ordinary.

To some extent, Holton, 58, has always led an uncommon life. She is the daughter of one former Virginia governor, wife of another and a former cabinet secretary to a third. Her first day of middle school was a national news event, cameras clicking as Gov. A. Linwood Holton Jr., an anti-segregationist Republican, sent her and her siblings to black Richmond schools. She has earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard. For years, she held a job where she was called “your honor.”

Yet throughout all that, friends and even Republican political associates said, Holton has managed to hang onto a sense of normalcy and personal priorities. She never let living in the governor’s mansion go to her head, they said, even if she is the only Virginian ever to reside there as both child and first lady. On the bitterly cold weekend in January 2006 when her husband became governor, Holton pivoted from the inaugural grandeur to a guinea pig funeral, held in a back yard in the old neighborhood for a family pet.

Staying grounded like that could be far more difficult as the pressures and hectic travel schedule of the presidential campaign pull Holton away from so many anchors: family, professional passions, her small Catholic parish and her close-knit neighborhood on Richmond’s north side.

“This has been a month — a whirlwind,” Holton, whom the Hillary Clinton campaign declined to make available for an interview, said while stopping in a Richmond campaign office recently to give volunteers a pep talk.

“Tim told me on the phone this morning that . . . he has been in 24 states in 30 days,” she said. “I have not. But I’ve had some fun on the trail, too. . . . It is crazy and wild. Our lives have been turned topsy-turvy. But for such a great cause. And we’re thrilled to be part of it.”

As a kid, Holton tagged along with her politician-father to church suppers and firehouse meetings. But she is surprisingly new to campaigning as an adult given her husband’s many years in elective office. Barred from political activities as a Richmond juvenile judge, Holton was sidelined as Kaine ran for Richmond mayor, lieutenant governor and governor.

After Kaine won the governor’s race in 2005, Holton came off the bench to concentrate on her duties as first lady, a time she devoted to helping children aging out of foster care. Still off the bench in 2012, she was free for the first time to hit the trail as Kaine ran successfully for the U.S. Senate.

From the archives: Anne Holton and Susan Allen hit the campaign trail for their husbands’ U.S. Senate bids

Now she is back in campaign mode in a big way.

Immediately after the Democratic National Convention, Holton joined Kaine on a barnstorming bus tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio with Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Since then — sometimes with Kaine, sometimes without — she has zigzagged around North Carolina and Florida, gone back to Pennsylvania, stopped in Massachusetts and swung through New Hampshire. In between, she has made multiple appearances in Virginia, a crucial swing state where she has the pleasure of sleeping in her own bed.

If she is weary, she doesn't show it. In North Carolina, as Kaine broke out his harmonica in an Asheville brewery, Holton got into the act by clog-dancing.

She fuels herself through marathon days with apples, string cheese, protein-packed energy bars and Greek yogurt, which an aide keeps handy in an insulated bag. She has a little coffee in the morning but then sticks to water.

“We’re trying to hydrate,” said Mary Ellen Glynn, her chief of staff and sister-in-law. Glynn travels with Holton at all times and is married to Holton’s brother Dwight, the onetime U.S. attorney for Oregon.

At an appearance at a suburban Richmond juice shop, Holton spoke knowledgeably about Clinton’s newly released small-business plan. With TV cameras rolling, she went over the details with the store’s owner, while the owner’s carrot-topped, 4-year-old son was seated beside them on a bench.

“Mommy, there’s a dead bug!” the boy blurted out as they began.

Holton comically plucked a pillow from the bench, plopped it atop the offending critter, then carried on as if nothing had happened.

On her way out, Holton grabbed a green smoothie, fortified with extra protein.

Just before Holton shifted to this go-go-go existence, she was enjoying the freedoms of an empty-nester. As the youngest of three children went off to college, she threw herself into a new job as education secretary to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). She still found time for impromptu outings to restaurants and cultural events with friends.

She has given up the job. Most of the free time is gone. And the nest is filling up again.

Secret Service agents are at the Kaine-Holton house at all times. Glynn, who normally calls Oregon home, has moved in for the duration of the campaign, sleeping in the kids’ old bunk beds.

What downtime Holton still has she devotes to family, friends and a few precious scraps of her old routine.

"Anne went to a book club last week," Glynn said. "She's getting to the gym. There's an aura of normalcy to it."

The Sunday after Clinton unveiled her running mate, Kaine and Holton were back in Richmond and went to Mass at their longtime parish, St. Elizabeth. Clinton’s advance team asked if they wanted the campaign to drive them to church.

Holton said there was no need. Indeed, Kaine went out to fetch his own dry cleaning before Mass. The couple drove to church together in the family Volkswagen, a brand Kaine has favored since luring the company’s U.S. headquarters to Virginia when he was governor.

But after Mass, Kaine was hustled into the campaign’s SUV. Holton walked to the back parking lot and hopped into the Volkswagen Jetta alone. It would be her last time behind the wheel, for at least a while.

That night, the couple got their first briefing from the Secret Service. Among the rules: Agents do all the driving, not just for Kaine but also Holton.

That did not stop Holton from noticing recently that the idled Jetta was due for inspection. She went to the auto shop — ferried by agents in an SUV. A campaign aide drove the VW.

Two Sundays ago, at a neighbor’s house two blocks from her own, Holton sat down with the small book group she has been a member of for about 25 years.

It was like old times — and not. Two SUVs were parked out front. But inside, as always, discussion of the book — “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond — mixed easily with personal chitchat. Much of the latter centered on the extraordinary turn Holton’s life had just taken.

Holton had a million things to share, such as the congratulatory call from Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Biden.

“And her first question to her [Biden] was, ‘What do I do about the clothes?’ ” book-club hostess Irene Carney recalled.

Carney said Holton kept saying “I’m sorry” as she’d pipe up with another story. Stop apologizing, Carney told her, we’re pretty sure we’re the only book club in the country getting this stuff.

From the archives: In Anne Holton’s book group, women weave a tale of their own

When Kaine was governor, Holton shared those experiences with friends, inviting them to some special events at the mansion. Sometimes Holton, a no-nonsense dresser, would seek fashion advice for formal events, borrowing clip-on earrings from Carney who, like Holton, does not have pierced ears.

But as Virginia’s first lady, Holton lived only a few miles from her neighborhood — close enough to come back sometimes for evening walks with friends, the state’s Executive Protection Unit crawling slowly behind them in a car.

Now the security bubble is more intense. Holton told her book-club friends what it was like to go to the grocery store that first time with the Secret Service. The agents ferried her to Kroger in their SUV and then promised to blend in with other shoppers as she collected her groceries.

Holton tried to relax and make her way through her list. At times, she managed to get so engrossed in her shopping that she’d forget all about the men monitoring her every move. And then — boom — she’d see a guy with an earpiece.

Flustered, Holton cut her trip short.

“I left Tim’s favorite lemonade behind,” Holton later told her friends, Carney said.

Holton has since managed to tackle Kroger with agents in tow, so she can keep the house stocked. Carney was able to help out with that the weekend Kaine was named Clinton’s running mate. Knowing Kaine and Holton were probably coming home to an empty larder late that Saturday night, she bought some casseroles, salads and dessert and left them in a cooler on the back porch, not yet patrolled by the Secret Service.

“Clearly,” Carney said, “there won’t be any dropping things off on the back porch now.”