- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

Maggie Lena Walker, the first American woman to become a bank president, was the first black woman to run for statewide office — in the 1920s, when the state schools superintendent was an elected office.

“It’s been 80 years since the first qualified African-American woman was running for a statewide position, and it would be a shame if we had to wait another 80 years for one to win. So, I’m working hard to win,” says state Delegate Viola O. Baskerville.

This daring Richmond Democrat, with a reputation for “sticking out her neck,” is seeking to become the next lieutenant governor of the Old Dominion. She aims to maintain her base while appealing to crossover voters to win in this former capital of the Confederacy.

Mrs. Baskerville dismisses critics who say she is an underdog.

“The underestimating will blow up at the primary,” says this deceptively understated candidate, who has a history of winning elections in which she had less money and fewer endorsements than the front-runners.

In the June 14 Democratic primary, she faces state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett of Russell, and former state Sen. Leslie L. Byrne and Delegate J. Chapman Petersen, both of Fairfax.

Virginia’s primaries are open to all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation. However, because the Republican and Democratic primaries will be held on the same day, voters must choose only one primary in which to participate.

“I’m encouraged by the responses, and I’m getting crossover conservative votes,” Mrs. Baskerville says. “The voters across party lines are aching for an authentic voice, one that speaks up and out and stands on issues regardless if everybody agrees.”

She has been spreading a message of “progressive values/traditional leadership” across Virginia’s diverse terrain.

Her message appealed to a white conservative from Southside Virginia named “Thigpen,” who expressed his desire to campaign for her by riding around Amelia and Blackstone with a 6-by-2-foot sign on his pickup.

“He asked me, ‘Mrs. Baskerville, you don’t mind getting your fingernails dirty, do you?’ and I told him I have to work so hard that I don’t have any fingernails, and he liked that,” Mrs. Baskerville says.

Mrs. Baskerville, who is serving her fourth term as a delegate, says her strong environmental-preservation stance is important to urban as well as rural voters “who want to protect the state’s air and land for future generations.”

After interviewing other candidates, Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille endorsed Mrs. Baskerville’s candidacy Tuesday night at the Black History Resource Center along with several other Northern Virginia Democrats, including retiring Delegate Marian Van Landingham, Alexandria Council members Joyce Woodson and Ludwig Gaines, and Fairfax Delegate Kris Amundson.

Bob James, vice chairman of the Black Caucus of the Virginia Democratic Party who introduced her during a meeting of the Arlington County Democratic Party this week, said, “Her message is resonating, and she’s eating away in Northern Virginia, which is not her base, and that’s a good sign.”

Mr. James said Mrs. Baskerville’s broad base was demonstrated by her ability to overcome the first hurdle of securing 10,000 signatures statewide to get her name on the June 14 ballot.

“I think she can win,” he says.

“My ability to get things done in a contentious atmosphere is what I bring to the job; it’s a battle, but I don’t mind rolling up my sleeves,” Mrs. Baskerville says.

On getting her initiatives, such as medical-malpractice reform, picked up by Senate Republicans, she says: “It’s important that the legislation gets passed and not always important to receive top billing.”

She says her tenacity eventually got legislation passed to set up a scholarship fund for Virginians who were denied an education during the pre-civil-rights era.

Today’s civil rights issues coalesce around “economic equality,” she says, explaining why she has pledged to help minority-run small businesses win more state contracts, given Virginia’s abysmal record in this area, according to a commissioned study.

“I’m the only one with a pro-business message in the Democratic [primary] field who talks about it besides the traditional issue like education,” she says.

She bristles at those who say she is inexperienced, noting that two former lieutenant governors, a Republican and a Democrat, had no executive experience before they were elected.

“Be fair about how you portray my candidacy and my ability,” she says.

Mrs. Baskerville, 53, who represents Henrico County and Richmond in the 71st District, points out that she is the only female lawyer in the General Assembly, which has 20 women among its 140 members.

Not the most diverse or progressive record, but if Mrs. Baskerville gets her way, she intends to break the deadlock on the ol’ boy network still reigning in the Old Dominion.

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