Cover Story

Giving Rural Virginia A Voice

by Bill Sherrod, Editor

 

Speaking Out in Richmond for the Folks Back Home, Watkins Abbitt, Jr., Carries On a Family Tradition of Public Service.

Across a large swath of Central and Southside Virginia , the name Abbitt is synonymous with public service.

For decades, there have been Abbitts in positions of public trust — from a judge to elected officials — working to improve the lives of their communities.

Beginning his 22nd year as a Virginia General Assembly member, 59th District Del. Watkins M. Abbitt, Jr., is one of the most influential members of the state’s House of Delegates, with assignments ranging from the Appropriations Committee to the Commerce and Labor Committee.

And his years of service to his fellow Virginians is a family tradition: His father, the late Watkins M. Abbitt, was a U.S. congressman for nearly 25 years.

Appomattox Native, Abbitt, 62, is a native of Appomattox County and grew up near where he and his wife, Madeline, currently reside, just outside the town of Appomattox on a rolling, scenic farm called Rose Bower. The farm is only a couple of miles from his family’s homeplace at the tiny, rustic crossroads community of Vera, where his late grandfather, George Abbitt, operated a country store for 40 years.

Much of Abbitt’s district — which includes the counties of Appomattox, Buckingham, Cumberland, Nelson and parts of Albemarle, Fluvanna and Prince Edward counties — is rural, with historically agrarian economic characteristics. Abbitt himself is marginally involved in agriculture through his farm, which he leases. His main avocation, however,  is as small-town businessman. He owns an insurance agency, Conner-Abbitt Insurance, and a land-sales company, Abbitt Realty, both located in the town of Appomattox .

Because he lives and operates successful businesses in a small Virginia community, Abbitt understands the challenges facing residents of small towns and rural areas across the Commonwealth. In this – his way of life — Abbitt finds what he believes is his strongest asset in serving the people who have repeatedly elected him the past 22 years.

“I feel that my greatest value during my tenure as a delegate has been as a voice for rural Virginia ,” Abbitt says. “Whether it’s been by working to help electric cooperatives in their mission of service to their members, or boosting funding for education in rural areas, I’ve tried to be an advocate for rural Virginia . This is something that I take great pride in.”

While he acknowledges that tending to the details of lawmaking is important, Abbitt sees his role more as that of servant, rather than legislation-crafting politician. “We do a lot of constituent service. I think this job is more about being an ombudsman for the people you represent — a link between them and the state bureaucracy — than it is about the 45 or 60 days the General Assembly is in session.

“For example, if somebody’s having a problem with a state agency, you can help them cut through the red tape to solve the problem — you can try to make some sense out of the bureaucracy for that person in your community.”

Abbitt believes that the tremendous growth taking place in parts of the state makes it especially important that rural Virginia have a clear and powerful voice in Richmond when legislation is being crafted. In fact, the growth explosion in Northern Virginia and Tidewater is the biggest change Abbitt has seen in his years in the General Assembly. “Rural Virginia is changing, too, just not as fast as other parts of the state,” he says. Changes in rural Virginia range from the evolution of agriculture to the growing numbers of people moving into rural areas to settle.

“We need a strong voice to explain our needs, to ensure that we get the funding we need for education, police and fire protection, roads, and the other components that contribute to a community’s quality of life,” Abbitt says. Such needs may not be immediately apparent, especially to anyone not familiar with the unique characteristics of rural, small-community life. “It’s very important that we make sure our voice is heard in Richmond ,” Abbitt notes.

A homespun

When you first meet Abbitt, the advocate’s voice comes across with strength — but warmly, with a friendly Southside Virginia lilt. In conversation, you very quickly come to understand that you’re talking to a genuine Virginia gentleman whose homespun approach to public service is refreshing in a postmodern age of sound bites and buzzwords.

And the core values that have kept him in office more than two decades reflect the best traditional facets of public service. Abbitt is a “people person.” He likes working with, talking with and just being around people; and helping people is really what compels him to continue in elected office.

“On a state level, you can actually make a difference — you can really help people — as soon as you’re elected,” notes Abbitt. “And this is a very rewarding thing. It gives you the opportunity to return something to your community.”

This is a point Abbitt especially tries to make with young people, when talking about the reasons a person should get involved in any kind of community service.

“Any time I talk to young people about holding elected office or about public service in general, I try to let them know that the service part of the job is what is really rewarding – you hear this idea a lot, but it really is true. The ‘giving back’ is the part that’s most rewarding about elected office.”

Take your children to the polls

Like many of his generation, Abbitt is concerned with what he perceives as diminishing interest in government at all levels. “We’re now in the second consecutive generation where there are increasing numbers of non-voters,” he says. “This tendency not to vote among young people is not good. But it’s something that we can work on and improve. And the change can start at home, with parents and grandparents.”

According to Abbitt, “If parents take their children, or if grandparents take their grandchildren with them to the polls when they go to vote, it shows the child the importance of civic involvement. And we’re talking young children, age three, four, five. Research shows that if an adult has carried a child or grandchild to the polls, there’s an 80 percent chance that the youngster will vote when he or she grows up, compared with about a 22 percent chance that the youngster will vote if he hasn’t visited the polls with his parents or grandparents ... So this is one more way that parents and grandparents really can have a positive impact on their young people’s futures.”

Avid Outdoorsman

When not in his office at Appomattox , or in Richmond tending to General Assembly business, or in his district visiting with constituents, you’re likely to find Watkins Abbitt outdoors, doing anything from hunting, fishing or canoeing to frying fish or cooking sorghum for a community benefit.

An avid outdoorsman, Abbitt has repeatedly, over the years, been recognized for his contributions to protecting Virginia ’s natural heritage. He has received awards ranging from the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ “Legislator of the Year,” to “Legislative Conservationist of the Year” recognition from the Virginia Wildlife Federation.

Abbitt owns the cabin used by Mt. Hope Hunt Club, where legendary hearty breakfasts are prepared during the chill, still, pre-dawn hours of deer-hunting season. “My father and four other people started the club in 1931, when each person pitched in a dollar and bought a hunting dog,” Abbitt says with a grin.

Today, the clubhouse is a weather-worn but comfortable gathering place where friends discuss everything from the latest political gossip to the previous day’s deer drive. The hunt club is a spot where people can congregate as much to talk and socialize as to hunt. It’s a rural tradition —the kind that’s so much a part of Abbitt’s way of life because the central component of the tradition is people.

“When you get right down to it, elected office is, simply, all about people,” Abbitt concludes. “It’s about helping people and the community, and that’s something I really enjoy.”

 

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