Virginia lost another great statesman last week with the death of former Gov. Gerald Baliles.
The Charlottesville area also knew him as the former director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and as a local resident during his later years.
Behind his soft Virginia accent lay a formidable intelligence, a voracious appetite for knowledge, and an ability to dispense incisive wit and generous compliments with equal ease.
Thanks to his old-fashioned integrity as well as his energetic intellect, he earned the respect of both Republicans and Democrats and was able to work with many different interests across the commonwealth on many diverse issues.
He’s perhaps best known for being able to shepherd through the legislature a historic transportation package during his 1986-1990 governorship, a package based on an increase in the gasoline tax and that included road projects as well as money for public transportation.
This success came despite having uttered the equivalent of a “no new taxes” pledge during the campaign. But he was persuasive in later making the argument that Virginia needed to modernize its transportation infrastructure in order to capitalize on growth and a changing economy.
This single accomplishment might be the reason — symbolically or literally — for Virginia’s climb toward becoming one of the country’s most desirable business locations. Transportation improvements alone might not have been enough to make that possible, although such improvements played a vital role. But the package signaled a fresh, forward-looking attitude in Virginia and made it easier for further progress to occur.
Looking back over his career in a series of communications with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mr. Baliles said, “I guess my place in history can now be evaluated in terms of results over the past 30 years. And I’ll leave that to others.
“But there is no doubt in my mind that the best thing we did in my administration was to make the connection between investments today and opportunities tomorrow.”
Better schools, more accountable higher education and a strengthened mental health system were also signatures of his administration.
So was his place at the top of a ticket that included a black man for lieutenant governor and a woman for attorney general. Some political observers thought that, even in 1985, voters would not accept such a ground-breaking ticket. They were wrong.
In Virginia, governors can serve only one term, so we’ll never know if Mr. Baliles might have won re-election. Instead, he became a partner at the Richmond law firm of Hunton and Williams, now Hunton Andrews Kurth, where he often focused on — no surprise — transportation issues.
He left that job to take over the directorship of the Miller Center in 2006, retiring in 2014. There, among other accomplishments, he established the National War Powers Commission, which proposed a revision to the War Powers Act — an issue that remains relevant still today.
“Jerry brought wisdom and integrity to everything he did,” current Director Bill Antholis said in a post on the center’s website. “His record of service to the commonwealth and the nation is extraordinary. His commitment to the university and the Miller Center set the standard that we all strive to maintain.”
Virginia is fortunate to have had Mr. Baliles at the helm during a formative time in the commonwealth’s development. UVa, the Miller Center and the Charlottesville community also are blessed to have known him and to have benefited from his influence and leadership.
He will be missed.