Few members of the Virginia General Assembly have entered the legislature with the background and training in state government that Gerald L. Baliles brought when he entered the House of Delegates two years ago.
Because of his eight years in the state attorney general's office, Baliles, known to his colleagues as "The Gentleman from Henrico," was able to command attention like no other freshman in the 100-member House.
When Baliles, a 37-year-old lawyer now seeking his second term in the House as a Democrat from Richmond and suburban Henrico County, spoke recently, a lot of people - including Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin - listened. What Baliles was saying was so obvious to anyone familiar with Virginia politics that many wondered why no one had bothered to say it before.
Virginia, Baliles said in a 12-page letter to House Speaker John Warren Cooke, has so many elections so often that both the public and politicians are getting turned off and bored by the whole business of politics.
It is, Baliles said, "too much of a good thing . . . because there is no end to the campaigning and its resultant public and private expense, which is often exorbitant." Long before the 1976 Presidential election, he pointed out, candidates were lining up in Virginia for this year's gubernatorial race.
Even before that race is completed, candidates are lining up organizations for next year's race for the U.S. Senate Del. Carrington Williams (D-Fairfax) for example, sent out flyers last week advertising a worker training session for his as-yet-unannounced Senate race. Williams, of course, is not alone - and that is just the point Baliles was making.
All this is wearing down the public's interest in politics, as well as that of the volunteer workers so crucial to any campaign.Baliles said in his letter. And that's not even considereing the ever-rising costs of funding these campaigns, he said.
The public costs of holding elections are rising, along with the well reported increases in campaign costs borne by the candidates and their contributors. Baliles, who represents one of the most conservative areas in the state, was quick to make that point, too.
"A conservative estimate," he said, is that every election, regardless the number of offices at stake costs the taxpayers (at the rate of) $35,000 per 100,000 registered voters. At that rate, Baliles figures that the cost of staging a state election every year is about $695,450.
What Baliles proposed is that Virginia reschedule its elections, moving to a timetable that would place most elections for state office on a biennial basis. Normally such a proposal would cause consternation among old-line conservatives whose roots are in Byrd organization.
After all, one way the Byrd organization ruled the state for decades was through low voters turnouts - a level aided and abetted by the constant elections. But conservatives are conservatives, and the constant drain on the public purse by Virginia's annual elections has to be troublesome to them.
When asked what he thought of the record costs in the current election for his successor, Godwin, whose roots are in Byrd organization, turned to Baliles' letter. While he did not endorse, Baliles's specific recommendations, he did call the delegate's suggestions provocative and said he believed the matter deserved study.
Presumably that will happen during the next session the General Assembly, convening in January. To re-arrange the elections would require both changes in election laws and the state constitution requirements that place any major revisions of the state election process years away.
Old-line opposition to some of the proposed changes may have eroded by january. For one reason, recent elections, as Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Fitzpatrick has said, illustrate how conservatives seem to have mastered both recent election techniques (telephone banks direct mail) and the politics of Virginia's suburban growth areas as well.
Baliles did not propose any hasty retreat from the every-year elections and proposed retaining Virginia's practice of having its governor, lieutanant governor; and attorney general elected in a non-presidential year. But he did urge that one five-year term be inserted into the current schedule so that Virginia's general election would be held at the same time as most other off-year elections. Only virginia and New Jersey elect their governors during the current year.
So, if you don't like this election, stick around, there's another one coming in just 12 months.