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Party of One

At the end of her first term, Delegate Viola Baskerville eyes re-election and talks about individual freedom.


In contrast to Republicans and Democrats who often unite on get-tough-with-criminals policies, Baskerville, 51, opposes harsher sentencing measures.

"I always see a red flag when harsher sentences are introduced," she says. "What people are we going to be impacting here? What are we getting at?"

Her own party, largely supportive of lifting the two-term gubernatorial ban, cannot count on her immediate support. "I haven't decided yet," she says. "I'm waiting to hear arguments from people who have been here longer."

But Baskerville hasn't adopted a wait-and-see attitude on other issues. In a period when the United States is courting China as an ally in the war on terrorism, she refuses to forget Beijing's undemocratic practices, namely its persecution of the Falun Gong. She is the chief patron of House Joint Resolution 541, which expresses the outrage of the General Assembly toward China's treatment of the Falun Gong.

She also refuses to abandon legislation that allows pharmacists to dispense morning-after pills without a prescription. (If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, the pills can prevent an unwanted pregnancy.) Despite its death in committee last year, Baskerville hasn't given up. This session, she has reintroduced it as a resolution — to the consternation of some in her party.

"I was against it last year; I'm going to be this year," says Sen. Phillip Puckett, a Democrat from the Tazewell area. "I'm pro-life."

But Baskerville doesn't intend to stop trying. "Too many people depend on me," she says. "I get e-mails from women all the time thanking me for my bills. They say, 'Thanks for being our voice.'"

If there is a theme that unites all of Baskerville's positions, it is individual freedom. "That's what public service is about," she says — "not elections or winning, but about representing people's desires to have some control of over their lives."

Baskerville says she has obtained this perspective through her various travels. The Richmond native earned her B.A. at The College of William & Mary in 1973. Then she went to the University of Iowa, where she received a law degree. As a Fulbright scholar, she traveled overseas to Europe, South Korea and the Caribbean, and this taught her a fundamental truth about people, she says. "People everywhere want the same things: a better life, education, the freedom to travel, the freedom to voice opinions."

Her travels abroad also make her appreciate her own country. "In spite of all its faults and its struggles with racism and class problems," she says, "this is still a place where people have the right to express opinions."

It is this freedom of expression Baskerville believes is key to confronting racism in Richmond. "There no magic wand in Richmond," she says. "It was the epicenter of a lot of things it's having to confront. It was the epicenter of the Civil War. The best way to deal with race is for everyone to have the honest, difficult conversations with each other. We all need that constant dialogue."

Baskerville's arrival at the General Assembly five years ago was an eye-opener. "I didn't know how government business was conducted," she says. And since, she has noticed the atmosphere has worsened. "The current legislature is very polarized," she says. "There is a lot of tension in the air."

She credits this to a huge turnover in 2001 that resulted in the loss of centrist legislators. "With all of the partisanship — especially about the Department of Motor Vehicles' closings — it's been difficult to get down to work," she says.

She hopes the Assembly can resolve budget issues this session, she says, and have a meaningful discussion about education and plan for security of the state.

The latter issue is a particularly thorny one.

"Everybody is on eggshells," she says. "Despite not yet receiving federal money, we have been dealing with preparedness issues, such as how to respond to bioterrorism."

Next, she says, "my immediate issue is re-election in 2003 and with that to continue to fight for issues important to my district." From there, she adds, "I'll have to see what doors open."

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