The family of Gerald Baliles has circulated the news that the 79-year-old former governor has “enrolled in a palliative care program” after several years of battling kidney cancer.
Elected in 1985, Baliles was one of the least glamorous and most important governors in Virginia history. Baliles’ term came sandwiched between two governors who drew national attention simply by their presence: Charles Robb, the son-in-law of former President Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first African American elected governor. Yet the low-key, technocratic Baliles accomplished more than either of them put together — and a lot of other governors, too.
When Baliles’ term came to a close, The Roanoke Times wrote that his was “the most action-oriented administration that Virginia has seen in 20 years and one that may yet be redeemed in history as one of the greatest” — on a par with those of Harry Byrd Sr. in the 1920s and Mills Godwin in the 1960s. Nearly three decades later, that assessment still holds true.
Byrd built roads; Godwin presided over the creation of the community college system. Baliles also built roads, but remembering him simply as “the transportation governor” shortchanges his impact. Baliles’ stands out as a governor who had his eyes fixed on a distant horizon, not the next day’s headlines. Twitter, thankfully, did not exist then.
Baliles’ legacy is all around us, whether we realize it or not. Yes, his legacy is there in every road we drive on — but it’s also perhaps even there in the job you hold. Baliles, more than many politicians, understood how the economy was changing — and how the state needed to change with it.
Baliles, a Democrat, is best remembered for dramatically increasing funding for transportation — yes, taxes got raised as part of that. Republicans then — fewer in number than today — didn’t like that, of course, but the Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures that came along later never rolled back those taxes, or tried to tear up the roads built with them. Other governors have had to deal with the state’s ever-growing transportation demands — most notably Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Bob McDonnell — but they’ve always been measured against the standard Baliles set.
It’s important to remember that Baliles did not want to build roads simply because he loved the smell of asphalt. He saw better roads as necessary for Virginia to compete in a newly-globalizing economy. Baliles was, in many ways, Virginia’s first international governor. Here’s more from one of the stories The Roanoke Times published as Baliles prepared to exit office:
Pulling out a map of the world and focusing on Virginia’s place on the map with a fascination many men would show for a Playboy centerfold, Baliles said “it used to be that economic growth could be attracted from within the country’s borders. It used to be we could trade within our own country. But the fact is that in the last 10 years this country has lost its economic insularity. Virginia’s borders today are no longer surrounding states but Brussels, Brazil, Tokyo, Toronto. It used to be that our competition was South Carolina; now it’s South Korea. Virginia, especially at a time when the federal government is pulling back, has got to be able to compete in world markets.”
Keep in mind Baliles said that in 1989 — years before the North American Free Trade Agreement, years before China joined the World Trade Organization, years even before the internet and other technologies roiled the economy. Looking back on those quotes now, Baliles comes across as a nothing short of a visionary.
That’s not necessarily how he was seen at the time. Baliles made a point of leading international trade missions to bring business to the state — eight trips to 15 countries. Nowadays, that’s considered a routine thing for every governor (Terry McAuliffe made 27 international trade trips) but at the time Baliles’ “globe-trotting” was criticized for “overblown self-promotion.” Critics demanded to know: Where’s the payoff? That, of course, is classic short-term thinking. Building a new economy is a generational task. The payoff wasn’t necessarily to be found in 1989 but is more clearly seen in 2019. Today, Virginia’s international trade accounts for $35.9 billion in sales and some $2 billion in tax revenue — which, by the way, is far more than what his transportation plan cost at the time. Today, nearly 321,000 jobs in the state are tied to international trade. If one of those is yours, you may need to thank Baliles. He didn’t create all those, of course, but he bent the state on a trajectory to make it more of a global player.
Baliles also pushed for more foreign-language instruction and international studies in the state’s schools. Some saw that as yet another case of a politician meddling in the state’s classroom. But Baliles saw it as part of his drive to make Virginia globally competitive. “If we can find new markets, but we can’t communicate with the people and don’t understand who they are and what motivates them, then we won’t be able to sell [to] them,” he said at the time. Baliles sounds even more prescient today.
Baliles’ outsized impact was something of a surprise at the time. Former Republican legislator Ray Garland wrote in 1990 that Baliles was “an unlikely candidate for the title of revolutionary.” In the General Assembly, he “nursed a reputation for cautious and generally conservative politics.” As governor, though, Baliles was definitely not cautious and not conservative, either. He was certainly in tune with the state’s old-line business community when it came to his emphasis on economic development. But Baliles turned out to be an unexpected social justice governor, as well. As the first modern Democrat in the governorship, Robb had been careful not to seem too out of step with Virginia tradition. Baliles, by contrast, more audaciously declared that it was time for a “New Dominion,” a rhetorical flourish that he happened to take seriously. He increased the state’s environmental budget by 70%. He appointed the first woman to the Virginia Supreme Court, Elizabeth Lacy. He declared — quite unexpectedly —that it was time to admit women to then all-male Virginia Military Institute. Nothing came of that — at the time Baliles was ridiculed by the state’s political leadership for what seemed a ridiculous position. History, though, has proven him correct on that — and lots of other things.