Jerry Baliles, the Opportunity Governor

by James A. Bacon

I was saddened to hear that former Governor Jerry Baliles, a moderate, pro-business Democrat, passed earlier this week. Man, oh, man, I miss him.

Virginia Democrats have begun fantasizing about the left-wing agenda they will pursue if, as they expect, they take control of both houses of the General Assembly. Guns, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment are high on the list of priorities, reports the Virginia Mercury.

I’ll let others fight the culture-war battles. What most worries me are the economic issues — $15-per-hour minimum wage and a repeal of the Right-to-Work law. If enacted, those two proposals would eviscerate the economy of rural Virginia. You could package them as the Rural Virginia Job Destruction Initiative.

What a long road the Democratic Party of Virginia has traveled in the three decades or so since Baliles was governor. A Richmond attorney who was born and raised in Patrick County, he had a foot in both urban and rural Virginia. As a Democrat, he was comfortable using the power of the state to pursue his agenda, but it was a pro-growth, pro-business agenda. He raised taxes to bolster transportation spending. He championed K-12 education and, recognizing Virginia’s role in a globalizing economy, emphasized global studies in the schools. He also led numerous overseas missions — more than any other governor before him, if I recall correctly — in the quest to bring foreign investment to Virginia.

The unifying theme behind Baliles’ thinking was to make Virginia and America more economically competitive. He championed the building of infrastructure — roads, highways and, after he left office, aviation — as well as workforce development. His vision was inclusive: He sought to benefit all Virginians. But I don’t recall him ever advancing the narrative of racial grievance and victimhood. Baliles never thought to improve the lot of the working man and woman by waving magic wands like $15 minimum wages or ditching the Right-to-Work law. He knew that prosperity was built on economic productivity. He knew there are no short cuts.

Making Virginia “economically competitive” is not a priority in Virginia’s 2019 election. The big themes I hear in the campaign ads are culture wars and campaign-financing dirt. Democrats live in a fairy land where prosperity materializes magically. By appealing to their electoral base with culture-war issues, Republicans have offered no economic-policy alternative beyond saying, “no,” to Democrats. Yeah, I’m really missing Jerry Baliles.

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14 responses to “Jerry Baliles, the Opportunity Governor

  1. Sometimes I think, Haner, you’re just aging and delusional. You thought things were better 30, 40 years ago because you were a clueless rookie, a kid enjoying the new candy store. Certainly plenty come on this blog to rail about how much they hate Virginia, and clearly have for decades, how all politicians are venal and hopeless, all of us in Richmond deserving of scorn. But Baliles was a great governor, a true Virginians from birth till the very end, and I always learned something from him. His passing, and that of Alan Diamonstein just a few days earlier, add two more giants to the ghosts I see in the halls of Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol. A new crop of people who couldn’t hold their coats will be coming at us next week.

    Was getting the ears lowered in the John Marshall Barbershop (a key stop on the real political tour of Richmond) Tuesday and learned that Campbell had given Baliles his last trim two weeks ago. There was a photo of Jerry sitting up under the sheet with that classic off-center smile, his friend Curry Roberts beside him. The image will stick. You will miss Baliles, Jim? All Virginia should be in mourning. More than a man is gone.

    • There’s almost nothing better than laughing at the rantings of the plantation class elite. Often wrong but never in doubt. They can’t see the difference between scorn for Virginia’s corrupt politicians and scorn for the commonwealth itself. Yes Steve I’m talking about you. But I won’t stoop to the approach of the Richmond insiders by making elliptical comments. I’ll just say what I mean. You should try it some time … even if you do lose your standing appointment at the special secret barber shop in Richmond where the really cool insiders go to get haircuts. Dear Lord …

      Here is a column I wrote on the political blog I ran before I started writing for Bacon’s Rebellion. It’s from March of 2010. Subject? Jerry Baliles.

      https://grovetonsvirginia.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/gerald-l-baliles/

      Let’s see … I wrote, “For those who may not have lived in Virginia during the Baliles Administration (or, for those who may have forgotten):

      Baliles was a great governor.”

      Nine and a half years later you wrote, “But Baliles was a great governor …”

      You’re only a decade behind. Actually, now that I think of it, being only ten years behind is pretty impressive for a member of Richmond’s elite. Who knows, maybe I will live long enough to hear upper c rust Richmonders talking about the Civil War instead of The War of Northern Aggression.

      • And if I could find it I’d send you my 1985 profile of him for the Roanoke Times, and the entire body of stories from that campaign and his first session, followed by three years of policy and press releases on his term. On what basis do you form your opinions? Reading the Post?

  2. In 1986, Baliles guided a $422 million-a-year revenue package through a special session of the General Assembly

    A champion of education, Baliles long emphasized the need for workers to continually acquire new skills and training throughout their lives and careers. His administration increased faculty salaries, making pay for the state’s higher-education teachers the highest in the South and among the highest in the nation.

    He appointed the first woman, Elizabeth B. Lacy, to the Virginia Supreme Court, expanded the state prison system, and sought to strengthen the state’s environmental protections, including cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. In 2004 he served as chair of a blue-ribbon panel to raise money for the Bay cleanup, and in 2005 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation named him conservationist of the year.

    He also led efforts to increase spending on day care, preschool programs and Virginia’s colleges.

    His lieutenant governor was L. Douglas Wilder, who succeeded Mr. Baliles and became the first African American elected governor of any state. Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, elected with Mr. Baliles and Wilder, was the first woman to hold statewide office in Virginia.

    I would imagine he would have supported the MedicAid Expansion…

    My guess is that today -he would be tarred as being a “socialist”.

  3. It was obvious to everybody in 1985 that a transportation tax package was coming. Among those saying so was the GOP nominee for governor, Wyatt Durrette. Jerry said he wouldn’t raise taxes. In fact, Jerry’s campaign set up a “Republicans for Baliles” group (headed by that era’s Jay Timmons) to attack Durrette’s openness to higher taxes. I watched all this unfold as a reporter, not a GOP operative….

    But then in July 1986 I became a GOP operative. Jerry proposed higher transportation taxes, including a sales tax for transportation. A Pilot reporter (Kent Jenkins) wrote a great piece how he was breaking his promises, and Jerry replied “Well, I only said it once.” In the pre-You Tube age we at RPV produced an eight minute video tape that blew him up on that point, mild by today’s standards, with all the news coverage from the campaign we could gather. No handy-dandy video phone recordings in 1986….I wish I still had that VHS….anybody got one?

    BUT, Larry, and this is the key: Once the September special session got underway, and the voting and moving around happened, plenty of the Republicans voted for several of his bills. It was regional, not partisan. The sales tax bill would have failed without Republican votes. Only one legislator voted no on all the bills – a Democrat named Frank Hall. Even George Allen voted for some of them. Getting the bills negotiated, passed and signed trumped partisan gamesmanship….Plenty of side deals about this or that highway earmark (the fun pork barrel stuff.)

    But we didn’t let him get away with “Well, I only said it once.” 🙂

  4. Thanks for the history lesson, Steve. Wow! Barnie Day! Now, there is someone I miss.

    • Barnie Day was a regular contributor on BR back in the day. Always talking about The Meadows of Dan. He and I would trade occasional e-mails behind the scenes. He also wrote a book called The Last Pavhant. A great read. Just $4.99 on Kindle.

      https://www.amazon.com/Last-Pahvant-Barnie-Day-ebook/dp/B0051VEK1I

      Barnie Day, Ed Risse, Hydra … some of the old timers who used to contribute a lot of commentary around here. I still get the odd e-mail from Ed Risse. He was the master of human settlement patterns. Encyclopedic understanding of the subject. It took quite a while to fully get what he was saying but when you did get it – you realized he was right.

      • He also edited a book, The Sausage Factory, about the General Assembly, another great read.

        • Check the author list….

          • Dick Hall-Sizemore

            My,my. BR is certainly well-represented in the book. It has been a long time since I looked at it. I used to recommend it to new budget analysts as the best introduction to the GA. I am not so sure it would be applicable today. By the way, I got the title wrong. It is “Notes from the Sausage Factory.”

  5. Most Virginians do not know that they can thank Baliles for a convenience that affects them every day–right turn on red. He sponsored the legislation in, I think, his freshman year in the General Assembly. I happened to be in the audience when he presented his bill to the House Appropriations Committee. His presentation was impressive–loads of data on the gallons of gas that would be saved due to the decrease in the time that cars would have to spend idling waiting for the traffic light to turn green and the dollar savings that would thus be realized. It was rare to see a legislator that well prepared (still is).

    • Another lesson I learned from Baliles. That was by far the most controversial measure he was strongly associated with during his time in the House. Being the point person on the big fights in the legislature can be a problem when you run statewide, and his eye was on that prize. Nobody I worked with, and certainly nobody I worked against, taught me more than he did over the years.

  6. I think Baliles was a good and decent man and was a good Governor. But I think breaking his promise not to raise taxes was wrong. He was no more surprised by the transportation funding “problem” than Trump was when the Democrats voted to impeach him after taking control of the House.

    There was always an plan by real estate developers and their lobbyists (some of whom I know) to push through a tax increase so that more land would be open to development and to keep “proffers” from turning into mandatory impact fees. There is no way Baliles was not aware of, and not a “nodding” party to, this plan. It’s wrong to mislead the public.

    I still think his successor, Doug Wilder, was a much better Governor. He managed the state through some tough times and refused to push for a tax increase.

    Having said all this, Governor Baliles, rest in peace.

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