Gerald L. Baliles, an understated and cerebral political figure who served as Virginia’s governor from 1986 to 1990, cultivating a bland but effective style of leadership that emphasized increasing funding for transportation, education and the environment, died Oct. 29 at his home in Charlottesville. He was 79.

The cause was complications from kidney cancer, said his wife, Robin Baliles.

Mr. Baliles was a Democrat of such moderate temperament that his political style was sometimes described as “boldly cautious.” He won the governorship in 1985, after serving in the House of Delegates and as Virginia’s attorney general under Gov. Charles S. Robb (D).

One of his signature accomplishments was to open doors in government for women and minorities in the commonwealth, which had been the capital of the Confederacy and was often proudly slow to change its ways.

His lieutenant governor was L. Douglas Wilder, who succeeded Mr. Baliles and became the first African American elected governor of any state. Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, elected with Mr. Baliles and Wilder, was the first woman to hold statewide office in Virginia.

The three-person Democratic ticket that Mr. Baliles headed in the 1985 election was “really revolutionary” for Virginia, University of Virginia political analyst Larry J. Sabato told The Washington Post at the time. “It’s a Southern state and is one of the most conservative.”

As governor, Mr. Baliles appointed the first woman to the Virginia Supreme Court, Elizabeth B. Lacy. He launched an initiative to raise taxes for an ambitious road-building project, primarily in Northern Virginia. He called the legislature into special session and, to the surprise of many, succeeded in getting the bill passed.

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“If you didn’t know it already,” Del. Clifton “Chip” Woodrum (D-Roanoke ) said in 1988, “you learned at that moment that underneath his pinstriped exterior lurks the heart of a riverboat gambler.”

Mr. Baliles traveled to more than 20 countries to tout Virginia as a place for international business, and he pushed a $100 million cleanup effort for the Chesapeake Bay, which included a ban on offshore oil drilling.

He also led efforts to increase spending on day care, preschool programs and Virginia’s colleges. In 1987, he delivered a stern commencement speech at Virginia Tech, then in the midst of an athletic department scandal.

“We have glimpsed an ominous future, a future few of us ever thought possible,” he said. “It is a future of misspent financial resources, of million-dollar coaching contracts and lavish expense accounts. It is a future that invites unethical conduct and humiliating publicity. It is a future this institution never dreamt of. It is a future that Virginia Tech does not need.”

Longtime football coach and athletic director Bill Dooley was dismissed, and the university’s football and basketball programs were placed on probation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for two years. Mr. Baliles replaced several members of the university’s governing board in an effort to emphasize academics over sports.

When Mr. Baliles left office in 1990, prohibited by state law from running for two consecutive terms, Virginia’s financial fortunes had fallen, and budget shortfalls began to doom some of his more ambitious goals.

Nonetheless, Wilder predicted that “the Baliles legacy will be that you don’t talk about what you do, you do it. He’ll go down as perhaps one of the most effective governors we’ve had.”

Gerald Lee Baliles was born July 8, 1940, in Stuart, Va. After his parents separated, he and a brother were raised by their grandparents on a farm in Patrick County, near the North Carolina border.

Mr. Baliles graduated from Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Va., then attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., receiving a bachelor’s degree in government in 1963. He graduated from the University of Virginia’s law school in 1967.

Throughout his life, Mr. Baliles had a scholarly mien and, even while campaigning for office, could be seen reading biographies, books on Chinese history or treatises on philosophy.

“I consider Jerry to be the most intelligent officeholder in Virginia,” Sabato said in 1985, before adding, “I think he’s a terrible speechmaker and speechwriter.”

Mr. Baliles was a deputy attorney general before being elected in 1975 to the first of three terms in the Virginia House of Delegates. He was elected attorney general in 1981 and resigned in 1985 to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. Considered a long shot at first, he handily defeated Fairfax County Republican Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. in the general election.

Mr. Baliles’s first marriage, to the former Jeannie Patterson, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 16 years, the former Robin Marshall Deal, of Charlottesville, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Jon Baliles, a former Richmond City Council member, and Laura Baliles Osberger, both of Richmond; two stepdaughters, Katherine Stone Walsh of Charlottesville and Danielle Deal Hudak of Ashland, Va.; and four granddaughters.

Mr. Baliles was under consideration as a possible U.S. attorney general in the administration of President Bill Clinton, but he kept a low profile after leaving the governor’s mansion. He was a partner at the Hunton & Williams law firm in Richmond and served on educational and environmental task forces. He was director of the Miller Center, a University of Virginia research institute on politics and public policy, from 2006 to 2014 .

Mr. Baliles “lifted Virginia’s profile nationally, and helped Virginians see themselves differently,” Terry, the commonwealth’s first female attorney general, said in 1988. “Jerry then flipped the state’s image, from the Old Dominion to the New.”