RICHMOND, AUG. 9 -- A sharp clash erupted here today between Virginia's present and former chief executives as Gov. L. Douglas Wilder made barbed comments about fellow Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, who responded by urging the governor to "put aside his personal vendettas and get on with his own agenda."
In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Wilder defended his first seven months in office and made repeated unflattering contrasts between his performance and Baliles's record, particularly regarding spending in the governor's office and management of the state's fiscal affairs.
The most pointed comment came when Wilder was asked about his heavy use of state aircraft, including for personal travel.
"If the bottom line is money, the question is which administration spent the most in the Office of the Governor?" Wilder said. Referring to Baliles, he asked, "Have I had anybody picking up my kids and carrying them back and forth wherever they want to go? Do I have a special car for my wife? A special aide for my wife?"
Wilder said the State Police's security units often ferried Baliles's children around Richmond. Because Wilder is not married, the current administration has no expenses for a first lady, he said, and Wilder has maintained that his overall spending is lower than his predecessors'.
Wilder said he made the comparison to show that reporters are holding his administration to different standards than other governors. But he maintained he was not saying "anything is wrong" with Baliles's conduct or criticizing former governor Charles S. Robb, another Democrat who has suffered digs from Wilder.
But Baliles took offense at Wilder's latest comments and others Wilder has made since last January's inauguration. Baliles said his family's travel and security arrangements were the same as those for other governors in recent decades.
"I cannot help but be disappointed that Governor Wilder apparently feels he must tear down his predecessors in order to defend the actions of his own administration," Baliles's statement said. "For the good of the commonwealth, to say nothing of the Democratic Party of Virgina, I respectfully suggest that he put aside his personal vendettas and get on with his own agenda."
Wilder also said during the interview that he was unimpressed by Baliles's voluntary disclosure of the amount of the surplus raised from contributions for his inaugural festivities, a precedent Wilder has steadfastly refused to follow.
Although Baliles disclosed his inaugural finances, he raised a separate fund for entertaining at the Governor's Mansion, Wilder charged.
Not true, Baliles shot back. "I am surprised he would make such an accusation. He is seriously misinformed," Baliles said. "All non-governmental costs of entertaining at the mansion came out of the inaugural surplus fund, and those costs are on file at the Board of Elections."
Wilder vowed that he will do a better job managing the state budget than Baliles did. While the state constitution requires a balanced budget, the two-year spending plan inherited by Wilder after Baliles left office wasn't genuinely balanced because it didn't allow for expected raises for state employees in the second year, Wilder said.
"Would you consider that a balanced budget? I don't," Wilder said. "The question is . . . do you balance it on paper, or do you balance it with money?"
"Governor Wilder inherited a balanced budget," Baliles replied in his statement, adding that changes in the middle of a two-year budget cycle are routine in Virginia.
Wilder, the nation's first black elected governor, responded to criticism that he has given too little attention to Virginia because of his frequent travels out of state by once again making comparisons to the men who have preceded him as governor.
"I have made more public appearances in Virginia than any of my predecessors up to this point," Wilder said. "I'll show you the figures."
Figures provided by Wilder's press secretary, Laura Dillard, show the governor made 289 "in-state" appearances: 137 at locations around the state, and 152 meeting with groups in his offices.
Baliles responded: "My first reaction would be, why would he bother to count them up? But even a quick and conservative review of the first three months of the Baliles administration shows at least 200 public appearances around the state . . . . "
Baliles's spokeswoman added that by the time Baliles had been in office seven months, his public appearance total had grown substantially.
A recent poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. on behalf of several Virginia news organizations showed the governor getting lower approval ratings than the two predecessors with whom he has made comparisons.
Wilder won an "excellent" or "good" rating from 48 percent of the registered voters queried. At similar stages in their administrations, Robb and Baliles both won about 70 percent favorable ratings in similar surveys.
Even in tight financial times, Wilder said, it will be possible for him to make his mark on state policies. As examples, the governor said he will campaign to win public support for "pledge bond" spending to build more roads -- a proposal requiring a constitutional amendment that will be on this fall's ballot -- and alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals.
Wilder said he has "never quarreled with the press with what they write." But he maintained that he is receiving more scrutiny about all aspects of his administration than governors have in the past.
"Perhaps questions are asked of me that weren't asked of other people. Why that's so, I don't know," Wilder said. "I'm not defensive about it. I just try to answer the question by saying, 'If it's news now, why wasn't it news then?' "