Gerald Baliles, a former Virginia governor and native of Patrick County, died Tuesday at the age of 79, after a four-year battle with cancer.
Baliles, a Democrat, led the state from 1986 to 1990 after serving in the House of Delegates and as attorney general. He led a history making 1985 ticket with the first African American, Douglas Wilder as lieutenant governor, and first woman, Mary Sue Terry as attorney general, elected to statewide office in Virginia.
Baliles led an action-oriented administration that many of those who worked or served with him said established him as one of Virginia’s great governors.
“What was most impressive about him was he was understated,” said Rick Boucher, who served in Congress while Baliles was governor. “Most people in public life have a large ego, but Jerry was not like that. He was focused on the policy, focused on the substance of the issues, and always thinking a few steps ahead to make something important happen.”
Baliles succeeded in winning record tax increases to finance ambitious transportation improvements, for reforming the state’s income tax structure, for bringing global awareness to the state’s education and economic development efforts, for making major strides in environmental protection and social program initiatives.
“He was a man of bold ideas, and a person who was very precise in their execution,” said Richard Cranwell, of Vinton, who served in the House of Delegates and was former majority leader. “He always planned his work and worked his plan.”
Taking advantage of the healthy economy at the time, Baliles called a special session during his first year in office and succeeded in passing a 10-year, $10 billion transportation package that required increasing the gas and sales tax.
“He deserved the moniker of the transportation governor,” said Jack Kennedy, of Wise County, who served in the House of Delegates when Baliles was governor.
Kennedy credited Baliles for helping Southwest Virginia complete U.S. 23 and U.S. 58 alternate. Cranwell said Roanoke’s airport got a new terminal out of the transportation package.
Baliles reasoned that a quality transportation system was essential to economic development. He was the first governor to view economic development through a global lens. He visited more than 20 countries to market Virginia and attract business.
“Governor Baliles modernized our roads, pushed environmental policies that understood economic growth and conservation go hand-in-hand, and led unprecedented international missions that laid the groundwork for Virginia to become the global trade hub it is today,” U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, also a former governor, said in a statement. “Given the decades of Virginia prosperity these initiatives have enabled, it would not be hyperbole to say Jerry was one of the Commonwealth’s most accomplished governors of the twentieth century.”
Baliles grew up in Patrick County, which is why he focused so much attention on economic development in Southwest Virginia, Boucher said. Baliles attended Fishburn Military School in Waynesboro, earned an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and a law degree from the University of Virginia.
“He felt like Southwest Virginia was home for him, so he was on the scene continually, whether to announce industry jobs or what we could do for education and develop the workforce,” Boucher said. “He was constantly concerned about the region. I think he did more to advance the economy in Southwest Virginia than any governor in my memory.”
His term as governor saw a few dozen new businesses opening in the region, about as many business expansions, thousands of new jobs and nearly $200 million in capital investments.
Although he did experience difficulties in Southwest Virginia. He used the state police to crack down on a violent coal miners strike in 1989.
Baliles died early Tuesday surrounded by his family, according to a statement issued by Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.
“As the 65th governor of Virginia, he understood and valued the role government can play in improving citizens’ lives,” Northam said in a statement. “Governor Baliles fought for rural Virginians, promoted civil discourse, and was the epitome of a true public servant. While his accomplishments in office were, and remain, impressive, I will miss him for the kind ear and the sound advice he was always willing to give to me.”
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, also noted Baliles’ contributions to Southwest Virginia, saying the former governor “remained devoted to promoting the interests of rural Virginians.”
Boucher highlighted Baliles establishing the New River Trail State Park, Virginia’s narrowest state park that winds for 57 miles between Pulaski and Galax. When Norfolk Southern decided to abandon the rail line, Baliles worked to secure the rights of way for the property.
Even with his understated character, he took bold stances. As governor, Baliles argued it was legally and morally indefensible to deny female students admission to then male-only Virginia Military Institute — a call that didn’t receive any other public support from statewide political figures.
In 1987, he halted an athletics versus academia scandal at Virginia Tech by delivering a commencement speech warning the university to shape up and then packing the board of visitors with people who would see to it.
Education — especially higher education — was an important passion of his. He hosted President George H.W. Bush’s Summit on Education. He also chaired the Commission on the Academic Presidency and the Task Force on the State of the Presidency in Higher Education.
After his term as governor ended in 1990, Baliles went back to private practice with the Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams (today known as Hunton Andrews Kurth), specializing in aviation law.
He was hired as the director of the Miller Center, a public policy research institute at the University of Virginia, in 2006. He stepped down from that position in 2014.
Recently, he’d been calling attention to the two Virginias” — an urban crescent that is prospering economically and a rural Virginia that is not — and proposed a “Marshall Plan” for rural Virginia to address education needs.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, also a former Virginia governor, called Baliles a good friend who will be missed by all.
“In his four years as governor, Gerald Baliles was a steady hand steering the commonwealth, making important investments in transportation that Virginians are still benefiting from today,” Warner said in a statement.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Northam has directed that state flags fly at half-staff in Baliles’ honor for the next 30 days.