State Sen. Martin Nesbitt dies at 67

03/06/2014 8:54 PM

03/07/2014 6:34 AM

State Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a veteran lawmaker whose soft mountain drawl served as a powerful voice for Democrats, died Thursday. He was 67.

His death came 10 days after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

The Asheville attorney on Monday had relinquished his post as the Senate Democratic leader citing health issues, but the seriousness of his condition was not widely known.

Nesbitt first took a seat in the legislature in 1979, appointed to replace his late mother, Rep. Mary Nesbitt, and served more than three decades in the House and Senate. Led by a populism now lost in an era of partisanship, Nesbitt became a leading voice for mental health, education and the working poor.

“He was a giant figure,” said Sen. Dan Blue, a former House speaker who entered the legislature about the same time as Nesbitt. “He had a sense of mountain populism that ran through him and he sensed that his major charge was to look out for the average everyday person.”

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, who served with Nesbitt in the legislature, said, “North Carolina has lost a great leader.”

“Martin was a fierce defender of his values, a champion for mental health, and a strong advocate for North Carolina’s children and public education system,” she said.

A commanding presence

A protégé of powerful former House Speaker Liston Ramsey, another mountain Democrat, Nesbitt rose quickly through the ranks. He served 11 terms in the N.C. House, serving as appropriations chairman under Blue, and five terms in the Senate.

In 1994, a Republican takeover pushed him from office, but he returned to the House two years later. In 2004, he was appointed to the Senate. He became his party’s leader in 2009 when Democrats held the majority and kept the post when Republicans took control of the chamber two years later.

Former state Sen. Doug Berger, a Democrat, said he worked hard for Nesbitt to become majority leader because he was “just so skilled at explaining issues and at bringing people of both races together for the common good.”

Nesbitt’s current and former colleagues remembered his commanding presence in size and persona, recalling his warm demeanor and penchant for telling rambling stories on the Senate floor to illustrate his point.

“He was very garrulous, always full of stories, many of which you heard more than once,” state Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, recalled. “He was a large mountain man but gentle and with a very big heart.”

Days before his diagnosis, Nesbitt talked to colleagues about the need to fix the disorder in the Department of Health and Human Services. And even after, Nesbitt remained in good spirits, Blue said.

He watched the North Carolina basketball game from his UNC hospital room Saturday, cheering and fussing as his alma mater eked out a win, even though his efforts were labored.

Blue watched the game with Nesbitt, whose health declined rapidly. “I knew he was very sick and knew he was going downhill, but I never knew it would go that fast,” Blue said. Even after his diagnosis, “he was still determined he would beat this and live to still serve the people of this state.”

‘Made his mother proud’

Nesbitt returned home to Asheville the day before his death to a hero’s welcome. He rode in an ambulance escorted by sheriff’s deputies as well-wishers lined the road waving “get well soon” signs and American flags. Others drove race cars, an ode to his love of stock car racing and his days on the pit crew of his son’s racing team.

His Republican colleagues respected his leadership even if they didn’t agree on the issues. “Sen. Martin Nesbitt cared deeply about people and spent a lifetime fighting for what he believed would make North Carolina a better place,” said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, an Eden Republican.

Gov. Pat McCrory called Nesbitt “a dedicated public servant” and ordered flags at state buildings lowered to half staff in his honor.

In the tumultuous 2013 legislative session, Nesbitt made impassioned pleas against the Republican agenda, taking to the floor to warn against swift, ideological action.

“Martin Nesbitt often said he served in the North Carolina legislature to do his mother proud. I think it’s fair to say he made his mother proud,” said Paige Johnson with Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina, recalling Nesbitt’s fight against a late-night maneuver on an abortion bill. “Tonight our heart goes out to his family and to every North Carolinian … because we’ve lost a real champion.”

Staff writers Craig Jarvis and Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

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