Baliles champion of open government

Published 7:16 pm Tuesday, November 5, 2019

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The first time Gerald Baliles came to Smithfield, so far as I can determine, was in 1981. He was running for attorney general of Virginia, and doing so in Baliles’ signature style — meeting a few people in a small setting and enveloping the room with the personality that four years later would take him to the governor’s mansion.

He attended a meeting of the Smithfield Rotary Club that evening in the basement of the Smithfield Inn, and while speaking to the club, used what I call the Baliles “parlor trick” of accurately naming every person in the room after having only shaken hands and introducing himself before dinner.

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It didn’t take long, however, to realize that there was a lot more to this man than his incredible recall of facts, faces and names. Governor Baliles, who died of cancer Oct. 29, was quite simply one of the most impressive persons to occupy the governor’s mansion during the second half of the 20th century.

He won the governorship in 1985 and was known as the “transportation” governor for putting in motion what would become Virginia’s final burst of highway improvements to drive the economy. He also increased spending for education and placed environmental concerns much higher on the state’s agenda.

That’s the official Baliles. Here’s the one I came to admire in the years after he served as governor.

When a group of newspaper executives, ranging from the publisher of the Richmond Times Dispatch to the publisher of a tiny weekly in Smithfield, put their heads together to create what became known as the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, we looked to elder statesmen for guidance.

Former Governor Baliles was the first we called. While governor, he had penned policy statement that remains the opening of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. “The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.”

Baliles, a Democrat, met with the future coalition leaders in a Richmond office building and brought along his good friend, former Republican Governor Linwood Holton. Over a catered dinner, the two men spent the next several hours explaining the intricacies of Virginia politics: What was possible, what was impossible and, with that background, what we could expect in launching this venture. We were strongly advised to be moderate champions of openness, and that has been a guiding principle of the Coalition ever since.

Baliles remained a supporter of the Coalition for years thereafter and advised its leadership regularly.

In 2006, when The Smithfield Times, the Smithfield Little Theatre and the Isle of Wight Arts League tried to create what we hoped would become a small town lecture series, I turned again to Governor Baliles and asked if he would consider being the opening speaker.

Baliles, who generally declined to do the “lecture circuit,” not only accepted, he did so enthusiastically. Always the intellectual and educator, he was intrigued with the idea of bringing quality speakers to a small town. He came to Smithfield, accepted a very modest fee and a Smithfield Ham, and wowed another audience.

After that, we hosted former Governor George Allen, Symphony Director JoAnn Faletta and Coast Guard Rear Admiral Larry Hereth. Despite the quality of speakers, we learned very quickly that not many people were willing to pay to spend an evening listening to out-of-town intellectuals.

Governor Baliles and I were in touch periodically after that, and he never failed to ask how the lecture series was doing and to lament its ultimate failure.

During that period, he was the director of the Miller Center for Public Affairs. Under his leadership, the Center became one of the nation’s leading clearing houses of public policy debate. There, experts in a variety of public policy areas lecture and debate in a civil and reasoned atmosphere the complex issues that confront our nation and the world.

The Washington Post described Baliles in an obituary as an “understated and cerebral” political figure. Others have credited him with reshaping the “Old Dominion” into the “New Dominion.”

Both descriptions accurately fit this surprisingly warm, personal and good-natured individual. Virginia is a far better place because of his life of service.