Watkins Abbitt: Incumbent and sorghum squeezer
Watkins Abbitt's family has lived around Appomattox since well before General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at the courthouse there in 1865. In fact, Abbitt still owns the family farm about three miles from that hallowed site.
While politics seem to run in the nine-term delegate's family– his father, another Watkins M. Abbitt, served in the U.S. Congress for 25 years, and a federal building in Farmville bears his name– he originally didn't plan to follow in his father's footsteps. "There was enough rebel in me that I didn't like politics when I was younger," he admits.
He did like canoeing Virginia's rivers, and in 1971, after college at VCU, Abbitt became interested in keeping them clean. He lobbied to secure a scenic river designation for several state waterways, and in 1982, then-governor Chuck Robb named him to the State Water Control Board, the body from which Charlottesville's Kay Slaughter recently resigned and which Abbitt calls "one of the most powerful boards in the state."
His clean water credentials have earned him the "River Conservationist of the Year" award from the Virginia Wildlife Federation, and this year, the endorsement of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
Abbitt started representing the extremely rural 59th District, which takes in southern Albemarle County west of Scottsville and south of I-64, as a Democrat. In 2001, he ran for reelection as an Independent, causing some grousing among the now minority Dems in the General Assembly. Abbitt has no regrets. "I don't have to attend as many meetings and political caucuses," he says.
He's being challenged in November by Shipman resident Allen Hale (who sat in The Hook's Hot Seat October 2).
The day The Hook met with Abbitt, who drove up from Appomattox for a League of Women Voters forum, the Daily Progress ran an article on the race in which Hale accused him of having "learned the art of performing constituent service."
"That's the most important service I do," responds Abbitt. He says he gets three or four constituent calls a day, and he tries to be an information source for his district whether the issues are local, state, or federal.
And he mentions some advice from his father: "Politicians who are elected on a cause don't stay around long. Those who take care of their constituents do."
Abbitt, who owns an insurance and real estate business, also does a little farming. He produces an endangered, labor-intensive agricultural product: sweet sorghum, which is made from cooking the juice of sorghum cane. During the Depression, it was a staple for people who couldn't afford to buy sugar.
"We make about 40 to 50 gallons, but my friend said to make less because the people who like it are dying out," he says. This year's sorghum batch was threatened when Hurricane Isabel blew down Abbitt's sorghum cane crop, but he's found some cane from another farmer.
"It's very strong," warns Abbitt. "Either you like it or you don't." And it's not to be confused with molasses– or the sticky business of politics.
What do you like best about Charlottesville? UVA
What do you like least? Traffic
Favorite hangout? James River
Most overrated virtue? Silence
What would people be surprised to know about you? I am a motorcyclist.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Lose 40 pounds
What accomplishment are you proudest of? Being a voice for rural Virginia in the General Assembly
What do people find most annoying about you? I'm a politician.
Whom do you admire? Thomas Jefferson
Favorite book? The Bible and Catch 22
What subject causes you to rant? Waste in government
What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Technology
What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? Technology
What do you drive? Chevrolet S-10 pickup
What's in your car CD player right now? Asleep at the Wheel
What's your next journey? Will figure that out after the election.
What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? Too many speeding tickets when I was young
What do you regret? Not working harder when I was young
Favorite comfort food? Fried chicken
What's always in your refrigerator? Duke's mayonnaise
Must-see TV? Nothing
Favorite cartoon? Doonesbury
Describe a perfect day. Canoeing the James River with my wife
Walter Mitty fantasy? Driving in a NASCAR race
Who'd play you in the movie? What movie?
Most embarrassing moment? I went to the wrong funeral.
Best advice you ever got? Don't complain– half the people don't care, and the other half are glad to hear it.
Favorite bumper sticker? Ban bumper stickers.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO