1981 AG race

Democrat Gerald L. Baliles (left) and Republican Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. appeared at an event during the attorney general’s race in 1981.

Recent days have chronicled the passing of two political leaders from a different era in Virginia’s history — former Gov. Jerry Baliles and former Del. Alan Diamonstein. Both left their mark on the commonwealth, especially our former governor. I knew him well.

I was Jerry’s Republican opponent for attorney general in 1981 and governor in 1985. Before our run for attorney general, we served one term together in the House of Delegates. Those two years led to a friendship that would endure notwithstanding two statewide contests against each other and then blossom in the following decades. During conversations in recent years, we remarked how such friendships were commonplace then and how rare they seem to be now.

Our friendship was real. We saw each other frequently over the years, usually at Virginia Bar Association or State Bar meetings. We always gravitated toward each other, easier maneuvering for me than him, so that we could catch up and discuss current issues and share political anecdotes.

We found ourselves in recent years drifting closer together with our views, whether a product of an enduring friendship or just our reactions to the gravitational pull to the left and right of our respective parties. We recognized the importance of personal relationships like ours in a political world where such friendships are rare, but the need to find ways to work across the aisle in the public interest has rarely been more important.

It wasn’t that we didn’t rough each other up a bit during the 1981 and 1985 campaigns. We did. He knocked me pretty hard for my pro-life views (since changed). I blasted his slate of promises measured against a no-tax increase pledge, charging one or the other would be tossed aside should he occupy the Executive Mansion.

He did win, of course, and Virginians saw an historic tax increase for promised transportation improvements. I don’t know what I would have done as governor, having made a similar no-tax increase pledge. However, I now believe Jerry made the right decision, and Virginians are far better off today because he did.

We were partisan, just not with the rancor and vitriol of today. Then, politicians clashed over issues without escalating philosophical differences into personal vendettas. Character mattered more than adhering blindly to tribal loyalty. Today there is serious doubt that anything trumps (sorry, but it is the right word) allegiance to one’s political party, even a sworn oath to uphold the Constitution.

Like so many who knew Jerry, his loss will be deeply felt for me. He was an important part of my past in so many ways. My two defeats ended my political career, so one of my childhood dreams faded away. I can say with gratitude that he was so gracious in the subsequent years and even told me that he went to bed in our attorney general’s race in 1981 believing he would lose, as both his and my internal polls forecasted. As is often the case, however, the polls missed the mark. Four years later they were accurate, and his victory was decisive.

Perhaps Virginia is better for it. Jerry was an excellent attorney general and a visionary and consequential governor. From transportation to environmental progress and breaking the gender uniformity on our state Supreme Court with the appointment of its first female justice, his leadership paved the way for those who followed.

I join countless Virginians who are thankful for his contributions to our lives, and in my case, for the immeasurable value of a friendship. It defied political differences and constituted an example that politicians today could benefit by emulating. With a two-party system in a very divided commonwealth, crossing the partisan divide is more challenging than ever.

Yet, if two men whose lives crossed as ours did could forge and maintain a friendship that endured before, during and after two statewide campaigns against each other, others in public service might find a way. Virginia will be better if friendships like ours flourish in the years ahead.

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Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. is a lawyer in Richmond. Contact him at: wdurrette@dagglaw.com

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