Residents of this small manufacturing town just east of the Blue Ridge claim Basett has three products of which it can be proud: colonial-style furniture, sweatshirts, and Albert Lee Philpott.
While the town's furniture is well known, less attention has been paid to claims it produces seven out of 10 of the nation's sweatshirts, or to Philpott.
That's certain to change after Jan. 9 when A. L. Philpott, a blunt, shrewd country lawyer who has represented the town and surrounding Henry County in the state legislature for 22 years, becomes speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. That action will make formal what most legislators and lobbyists recognized long ago: the conservative "gentleman from Henry," as he is called on the floor, is one of the most powerful officials in Virginia.
There's no dispute that Philpott has emerged in recent years as the single most important lawmaker in Richmond. His domination of important legislative committees, command of the state's complex legal code -- much of which he has rewritten -- and talent for late-night bargaining has inspired respect, awe and even fear in his fellow legislators. Many speak of him the way wary children speak of a stern, demanding father.
"A. L. is pretty much a mixture of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson,' says former Fairfax County delegate Richard L. Saslaw, recently elected to the state Senate. "The way to get ahead in Richmond is to level with him. You can't slip anything by him -- it's like trying to slip the dawn past the rooster."
"He walks in the most straght-backed and he can scowl like an absolute lion," says Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax).
Some lawmakers contend Philpott, a staunch conservative who thinks of George McGovern as a traitor, can kill a proposed bill with little more than that scowl. But whether real or partly imagined, his power and the continued political supremacy of the rural Virginia he epitomizes help explain why many Northern Virginians feel alienated from and shortchanged by state government.
Last June, for example, while Northern Virginia politicians were criticizing Richmond for failing to alocate enough state-controlled gasoline to ease lines, little Patrick County population 16,000 and part of Phipott's legislative district, got nearly four times as much gasoline per person as giant Fairfax.
Although he has voted against Northern Virginia-backed proposals to finance Metro, ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and allow public employes to bargain collectively, Philpott says he is sympathetic to the needs of suburban Washington. But he readily concedes there are some problems there that he just cannot understand.
"I've been up there and seen the cars backed up so that you could walk on their roofs for 15 miles," says Philpott, shaking his head during a recent interview in his Bassett law office. "I just wouldn't live in that sort of environment."
Still, even those Northern Virginians who have tangled with Philpott politically are quick to acknowledge his authority.
"He has his own way of doing things and he doesn't bend very much," says state Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), who as Senate majority leader says he had trouble finding Philpott to discuss Senate-approved bills that Philpott disliked.
"He doesn't return phone calls when he doesn't want to. But he carries an awful lot of weight with an awful lot of delegates and he'll carry even more as speaker."
The distance between Washington and Bassett is 250 miles. Measured culturally, it is far greater.
Bassett is a vintage small southern industrial town. Unions are virtually nonexisttent -- "the times they've tried to come in here, all they've caused is trouble," says Philpott. The nearest public bus system is 10 miles to the east in Martinsville and the closest thing to Metrorail was the Norfolk and Western Railway's passenger train that stopped running through here more than 15 years ago.
Per capita income in Henry County, as last measured by the Department of Commerce in 1974, was less than $4,000 per year -- half that of Arlington. There are few federal projects here and people feel as isolated from Washington as Northern Virginians feel from Richmond.
"They feel closer to state government," says Danny Barkin, Political writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. "It's poorer population and people depend on their state legislators for roads and schools."
While many Northern Virginia lawmakers toil in near anonymity and seldom hang on long enough to gain seniority, A. L. Philpott is perhaps Henry County's best-known and most-prespected person. His family has lived in this area since before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Philpott still assiduously works the local political circuit, speaking at meetings and picnics and attending the mundane needs of constituents.
"I've been in this game for 30 years and I suspect I've met most of the people in this area at one time or another," says Philpott.
Henry County has always been staunch Democratic country and has remained so even as Southside Virginia counties to the east have turned Republican. Despite strong and vocal misgivings about the party's liberal wing, Philpott has avoided the temptation to join fellow conservatives who have flocked to the Republicans.
It isn't always easy. One observer recalls Philpott's reaction at a state Democratic meeting in Richmond two years ago when the crowd gave a standing ovation to populist Democrat Henry Howell, one of Philpott's biggest party foes.
"A. L. rose like he had a ton of bricks on his shoulders. He clapped three times with an incredibly pained expression on his face and sat down."
Philpott's political power and his livelihood have always fit neatly together. As a lawyer he represents savings and loan associations and corporations such as Bassett Furniture Industries, the town's largest employer. As a delegate, he has chaired the powerful Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee, which passes judgement on bills affecting those clients, saying he sees no conflict in his role as a lawyer-legislator. He is proud, he has said in floor speeches, to represent his hometown's businesses.
His family ties fit as well. Philpott's brother-in-law Walther B. Fidler is a former delegate who now lobbies for the Virginia Manufacturers Association Richmond attorney Philip S. Marstiller, Philpott's son-in-law is a registered lobbyist for beer wholesalers savings and loans and a land title association.
Still, not even those most critical of the relations between legislators and lobbyists question Philpott's motives or his honesty.
"He is a man of absolute integrity," says De. Martin Perper (R-Fairfax). "If A. L. Philpott told me it was dark outside at 12 noon, I'd believe him."
Philpott won't reveal the size of his wealth, although he says he is far from being a millionaire. He is more forthcoming concerning his bout with stomach cancer that was first discovered during an ulcer operation in 1972. Doctors found that the disease has spread to his lymph glands and he underwent sometimes painful chemical therapy. The disease is in remission now but he still makes semi-monthly trips to a Winston-Salem, N.C., hospital for examinations.
Friends say the disease has made Philpott even more intense and more of a workaholic than before. He himself admits, "the more you work, the less time you have to sit around and worry about it."
As speaker, Philpott promises to be a harder taskmaster than retiring Speaker John Warren Cooke, a small town newspaper publisher who presided over the House 12 years. Philpott's first task will be to assign legislators to the House's 20 committees and many lawmakers expect Philpott to see that delegates he likes or agrees with get on the important ones.
"A. L. is not as prone as John Warren to leave things to chance," says Del. Frank Slayton (D-Halifax).
Folks back home in Henry County are somewhat amused at the awe and fear with which others view A. L. Philpott.
"To most people around here, A. L. is a comfortable old shoe," says Robert P. Crouch Jr., the county's circuit court clerk. "There isn't much awe but a lot of affection."