Democratic state Senator Martin Nesbitt has died. He passed away only two days after he stepped down as Senate minority leader, citing an illness. The public didn't know that the veteran lawmaker from Buncombe County had been diagnosed the previous week with stomach cancer.
Senator Nesbitt was a true public servant who was deeply respected by both Democrats and Republicans.
As Senate Minority Leader, Martin Nesbitt could always be counted on for a colorful quote, whether it was about the recent shrinking of the state’s Rural Economic Development Center:
"Every time we talk about it, we’re mixing apples and oranges and peaches and pears."
Or about his feeling that some of his Republican colleagues wanted to change more voting laws after a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
"They may have gotten a dose of Viagra here with this decision and want to jump on in, and if they do, it proves the point that North Carolina needs help," said the senator.
Above all, Nesbitt’s fellow lawmakers and state government officials knew that if the veteran mountain legislator didn’t like something, he’d tell them. Here’s what he said to state health officials in January about a recent food stamp backlog:
I heard the explanation that the numbers we’ve been sending to USDA- up to a half of ‘em are duplicates. That isn’t rocket science, that’s not hard- you look and see if the same name’s in there twice."
Nesbitt spoke like the son of a teacher he was.
His father was a principal, and his mother, who taught school, later became a respected member of the state House. Not surprisingly, Nesbitt attended UNC-Chapel Hill and went on to UNC law school. But his political genius lay in his ability to communicate and feel at home with people from all walks of life.
"I don’t think that’s what he learned in law school, I don't think that's what he learned in Raleigh," said
Republican Representative Nathan Ramsey, also from Buncombe County. "That’s what he learned by growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina, going out racing, going fishing, meeting people on a daily basis."
Nesbitt’s love of auto racing was well known. His son raced for years and his granddaughter races now. Ramsey says he used to jokingly call the senior senator a liberal redneck, which I think Nesbitt probably took as a compliment. The western senator first served in the state House in 1979, after he was appointed to replace his late mother. He served steadily- with the exception of one lost term- and rose through the ranks to serve as appropriations chairman. He was appointed to the Senate in 2004 and held that seat, where he served with Democratic Minority Whip Josh Stein.
"He wanted to make sure that run of the mill North Carolinians had a voice here," said Stein. "And that’s what motivated him and it motivated him for thirty years. He was working just as hard at the end of his career as he was at the beginning."
Stein says Nesbitt made sure he represented regular people’s concerns- people who had no access to industry lobbyists or big associations. Nesbitt was well known for his advocacy of public education, mental health issues, and low-income families. And he was loved by people on both sides of the aisle. An ambulance drove him all the way home to Buncombe County from UNC Hospital two days ago. His high school friend, Republican Buncombe County Commissioner Mike Fryar, organized a roadside demonstration for him, complete with racecars, politicians and people of all kinds:
"He was awake. He didn’t see the banner coming through. But he could see out the back window. He could see the people lined up on the road. He saw his granddaughter’s racetruck. He said, you know, that he had seen it."
From there, fire trucks from neighboring districts lined the road leading to Nesbitt’s home, where he died yesterday. Governor Pat McCrory has ordered all state flags to be lowered to half-staff in the senator’s honor until his internment. Martin Nesbitt was 67 years old.