The red-brick downtown here still has an appliance store and a neighborhood pharmacy. People leave their doors unlocked. And the parking meters on Main Street don't take quarters because a dime buys the maximum of two hours. Twelve minutes costs a penny.
It is from this town of 2,200, steeped in nostalgia and the values of a bygone era, that Virginia Republicans today plan to pluck their first-ever speaker of the House, Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr., to lead them--and the state--into the future.
Wilkins, a self-described "country boy" with a hard-to-miss gap between his front teeth, is as unpolished as he is revered by his fellow Republicans for three decades of tenacious work building the party. But even his friends note the irony: The party he is credited with building completed its rise to power this month by winning elections in fast-growing, bustling suburban areas such as Northern Virginia, far removed from small, rural towns like this one, Wilkins's home for all but six of his 63 years.
The future Wilkins has been working toward throughout his public life would be, he said, much like the past he knew here in Central Virginia as a child. It was a place where he walked to school and worked as a paper boy, a place where neighbors relied on themselves and one another, not the government, to better their lives.
"It was like I'd like it to be again," Wilkins said. "Almost never locked the door; sometimes we hooked the screen. I went to town myself when I was six years old. Nobody thought anything of it. If I misbehaved, somebody would paddle my butt and send me home."
He added, "We've lost something, I can tell you."
The speakership is regarded by many as the second-most powerful job in Virginia state government, behind only the governorship. The speaker appoints delegates to committees, selects chairmen and routes bills through the labyrinth of lawmaking in Richmond. With each of those powers, Wilkins would be able to shape the agenda of the legislature and the state, helping some bills to become laws while consigning others to a quiet death.
Republicans said they are planning to nominate Wilkins today at their first caucus meeting since gaining a majority in the House of Delegates this month.
Some Democrats see this as the first good news they've had since the election. They hope that Wilkins's sharply conservative views and blunt talk will give them an ideal target, much as national Democrats made gains at the expense of Newt Gingrich when he rose to be speaker in a newly Republican Congress in 1995.
"The citizens of the commonwealth, especially the citizens of Northern Virginia, are going to be in for a shock when they realize who's in power," said Rodney Taylor, a Democratic activist from Amherst. "His ideology is certainly a throwback. But you have to remember that 25 years ago, he was saying more conservative things than anyone in Virginia. The commonwealth has come to him."
Wilkins pledges to be a fair and impartial speaker, and though Democrats have their doubts after decades of battling him, Republicans say Wilkins will be a pleasant surprise--smart and humble, ideological without being unreasonable.
On issues, Wilkins is stubbornly conservative. He favors paddling students who misbehave in school and opposes seat belt laws. He favors widespread government testing for the virus that causes AIDS and opposes borrowing money to build roads or transit systems. He opposes abortion--making an exception only to save the life of the mother, not in cases of rape or incest. And he vehemently opposes most forms of gun control and most ideas for restricting suburban growth, calling them an infringement on personal liberty.
On none of those issues is he likely to find agreement with most Republicans from Northern Virginia or the other suburbs that helped to bring his party to power.
But Republican lawmakers--many of whom Wilkins personally recruited to run for office--say Wilkins understands the urgency of not alienating the party's core of suburban voters, who care passionately about schools and easing traffic problems and are wary of aggressively conservative social agendas.
Last week, Wilkins disputed the suggestion that he would have trouble understanding suburban issues. "I realize the speaker's job is different than the delegate from Amherst's job," he said. "You have to change your perspective as you go into different jobs."
Wilkins is known as both partisan and practical. Since his election in 1977, he has often cast the lone vote opposing measures he regarded as unwarranted expansions of government power. But as minority leader throughout most of the past decade, he also cut the deals necessary for legislative progress.
"He built the Republican Party," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "And he's built it not simply in his own image."
Wilkins describes his childhood in Amherst as mischievous and idyllic. He was born on Aug. 12, 1936, in his parents' house, not in a hospital. "That's the way they did it in those days," he said. And he grew up reading, wrestling with friends and playing baseball.
He got a degree in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech, then spent two years in the Air Force during the height of the Cold War, manning a radar station on the northern edge of Washington state, waiting to spot Soviet bombers.
Wilkins returned to Amherst to work for his father's construction business, building roads and bridges, but felt the urge to enter conservative politics as much of his generation tacked left in the 1960s.
"The things that were going on in the '60s I didn't like," recalls Wilkins, a father of six. "I thought the world was going to the dogs. . . . The Woodstock syndrome of drugs and public sex. Not the most healthy situation for our children, I don't think."
Among those institutions he deemed too liberal was the United Methodist Church, which supported President Johnson's War on Poverty. Wilkins eventually quit his local Methodist church and never went back.
He made three unsuccessful runs for public office between 1963 and 1973 before winning his first election in 1977 and joining a House of Delegates that had only 20 other Republicans. He soon became a leader in the party, building a base for his future quest to become speaker.
He became minority leader in 1991, shortly after selling Wilkins Construction Co. to devote himself full-time to his political career, much of it focused on identifying and recruiting candidates. He works out of a wood-paneled office in the concrete-block building that is still the headquarters of the construction company.
For this fall's elections, Wilkins raised $370,000 to help Republican candidates around the state, adding to his formidable collection of political IOUs that clinched his drive to become speaker when the Republicans gained 52 votes in the House, with one Republican-leaning independent to pad the margin. His main rival, Fairfax Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., dropped out of the race Wednesday.
Friends and enemies alike marvel at Wilkins's hard-headed devotion to the idea that Republicans could take over the legislature after a century of Democratic control. Throughout the years, they say, many have underestimated the determination of a man who, citing health concerns, won't take painkillers despite several serious back injuries, who will endure dozens of extra traffic lights on the drive to Richmond rather than pay $1.75 in tolls for an expressway.
Among Wilkins's admirers is his former aide, L. Preston Bryant Jr., now a Republican delegate from nearby Lynchburg, who like many lawmakers warns that Wilkins must remember that "Virginia of 1999 is not the Virginia of 1955." But Bryant said Wilkins is up to the task.
"Folks have long been skeptical of him," Bryant said. "But once they look back on a year as speaker, they will realize they've been wrong about him all this time."
CAPTION: Soon-to-be House speaker Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R) comes from Amherst, a rural town of 2,200 in Central Virginia that is steeped in nostalgia.
CAPTION: Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) speaks to Patricia Baker's second-grade class at Temperence Elementary School in Amherst County.