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Season Opener

Delegate Viola O. Baskerville wants to inspire a new age of politics.

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One could argue that Baskerville, 52, is making a move. In recent weeks she’s stepped up her presence, drafting her version of a bill to change the Richmond Charter to allow election of a mayor-at-large. Hers differs from the others by calling for more executive power for an elected mayor and specifying how that person might be removed from office.

Baskerville’s also publicly denounced Richmond City Councilwoman Gwen C. Hedgepeth for not relinquishing her post amid a federal criminal investigation of Hedgepeth and ensuing bribery charges. City Councilwoman Jackie Jackson, a friend of Baskerville, followed suit, introducing to Council a resolution last week — which failed — to essentially remove Hedgepeth.

And there are subtler signs that Baskerville may be expanding her interests. Even as she professes comfort in the alliances she’s formed in the assembly, she appears more eager than ever to make new ones. This morning, Adam Ebbin, a rookie delegate from Arlington and the assembly’s first openly gay member, stops in, offering bagels and coffee. Already he and Baskerville appear like old friends.

Seeing Baskerville, a woman pops her head into Williams’ office to ask when things will get under way and when committees will be assigned. She’s one of Baskerville’s constituents. Williams and Baskerville greet her warmly and tell her the day’s events are mostly ceremonial and abbreviated, like the first day of class. The woman has voted for Baskerville every election since she first won in 1997, she says, adding that she’s excited to be at the Capitol today.

Williams tells Baskerville of a man waiting to see her — he’s from Virginia Union University and has come bearing tickets to the Jan. 18 basketball game between longtime rivals VUU and Virginia State. Baskerville greets the man in the hallway, then proceeds to her own office. It looks like a living room and is decorated with comfortable, stylish furniture. On an end table, an aromatherapy candle is burning. Classical music plays softly. Baskerville asks Williams for a copy of her 2004 legislative package and the comparison of key provisions of her mayor-at-large legislation and those of the five or more other versions of the bill.

“It’s a mental shifting of gears,” she says about jumping from issue to issue, topic to topic, person to person — what politics brings.

As a minority Democrat, Baskerville will face an uphill battle in her push for things like enhanced health-care eligibility and financial aid for college, simply because of the paucity of funds and some acute partisanship. From a strategic standpoint Republicans who hold a majority in both the House and Senate will push the most pivotal legislation.

Yet despite not serving in the majority or on the most coveted committees, such as appropriations, Baskerville has earned a reputation as consistent. She’s routinely considered a smart and thoughtful advocate for small business and women’s rights. And in the seven years she’s spent as a delegate, lobbyists on both sides of the political spectrum have come to view her as central to Richmond’s interests, especially given her service on City Council from 1994 to 1997. “Viola is always a delight to work with,” says Robert Shinn, vice president and chief lobbyist of CSX Corp. “She’s a good spokesperson for social issues, a voice of reason and compromise.”

It’s this reputation that Baskerville appears eager to build on, particularly at a time when she isn’t expected – as a member of the minority — to carry significant legislation.

“I view myself at a crossroads,” Baskerville says. Since she’s joined the House the number of women delegates has dropped from 15 to 12. Women make up 51 percent of the state’s population, but they don’t vote accordingly. She notes that in 1990 women were more involved politically than they are today. “We haven’t replenished that generation of leadership,” she says.

Baskerville pledges to jump-start that drive by redefining — or reclaiming — what public service means. To hear her tell it, it has more to do with people than politics. “Sometimes just 30 or 45 seconds of sincere listening and eye contact means the most,” she says, urging for “more legislators with courage” to stand for what their constituencies want and not what partisanship presumes. “It’s about collaboration,” she says. “It’s not doing the good ol’ boy horse-trading.”

It’s a few minutes after 11:30 and Baskerville is expected at the first Democratic caucus meeting. The session officially begins at noon. This afternoon she’ll get her committee assignments. Sometime soon Baskerville may officially announce her intention to run for lieutenant governor. She’d be the first woman in Virginia to hold the office. “In the House I’m the only woman with a law degree,” she points out. She keeps the diploma from University of Iowa College of Law on her office wall to remind her. She puts on her long black dress coat and tells Williams she’ll be back as soon as she gets off the floor. “I think I’m here for a reason,” she says. And to Baskerville that reason seems to galvanize extra energy these days. “I’m going to stir things up,” she says assuredly, and heads for the Capitol. S

The General Assembly session runs through March 13.

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