Just a few days after he announced he was stepping down as minority leader in the North Carolina Senate and a day after he returned via ambulance to his Swannanoa home, Senator Martin Nesbitt, Jr. died Thursday night of stomach cancer. He was 67.
Tributes flowed in as news broke and they continue this morning. Nesbitt served in the General Assembly for all but two years since stepping in to complete the term of his mother, former Rep. Mary Cordell Nesbitt, who died in 1979.
Here’s a roundup of remembrances about the man, one of the state’s true populists.
Jack Betts — Mountain man Martin Nesbitt, gone too fast
Martin and I were the same age, and as a teacher’s son, I recognized some familiar things, particularly the pressure he felt to live up to expectations and do right. He could be unpredictable, but he was always focused on helping folks. He had populist sensibilities, often raised hard, sometimes irritating questions about what otherwise good-soundling legislation might do to old folks or jobless folks or retired folks or folks who just wanted their government to leave them alone. He sometimes made life hellish for legislative leaders with his probing questions and his warnings to think twice before rushing into something and his constant goading of the leadership to do more for schools, for mental health programs, more for people who needed help, more for rural areas that were never going to have the kind of amenities you would find in Charlotte or Raleigh.
Carolina Public Press — Honoring, remembering Sen. Martin Nesbitt
News & Observer — The Quotable Martin Nesbitt
During the debate after anti-abortion legislation was added to a Sharia law bill on July 2:
“We’re sitting in here tonight, and you’re gonna win this debate and feel really good about yourself because all you big, grown-up, gray-haired men have beat three women. I wanna see what you do with about 10,000 of ’em – ’cause they’re coming. They’re coming. They’re not gonna put up with you doing this to them in the dark of the night in the middle of a holiday week.”
Citizen-Times — Martin Nesbitt of Asheville dies at 67
Throughout his career, Nesbitt pushed for better pay for teachers, more funding for schools and better outcomes for students.
He was a champion of the ideals of the Democratic Party, fighting sweeping changes to the state’s voting laws in the final session of the Senate last year. But he also had many friends across the aisle.
During his time in Raleigh, Nesbitt was a solid ally to the LGBT community. He sponsored or co-sponsored several LGBT-inclusive and other progressive pieces of legislation.
In 2008, Nesbitt was a co-sponsor of the Healthy Youth Act, which mandates more comprehensive sex education in schools, and he voted to approve the landmark School Violence Prevention Act requiring all public schools to adopt stringent, LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies.
NC Policy Watch – Remembering Sen. Martin Nesbitt’s legacy, dedication to North Carolina
Even when the votes weren’t there to win the day, Sen. Nesbitt was a champion for public education, health care, and programs that benefited rural and low-income North Carolinians.
News & Observer – Late Sen. Martin Nesbitt was a voice for NC poor
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.
Asheville Citizen-Times – Swannanoa friends welcome Martin Nesbitt home to Asheville
The Daily Tar Heel – N.C. Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt remembered
Politics NC – So long, Martin
Through my ties with mountain Democrats, I was introduced to Martin. I had an idea about an incumbent protection program that included letters-to-the-editor, regular press releases, quarterly newsletters and fundraising. Martin apparently thought it made sense and, for a year or so, brought me into an inner circle of progressive Democrats who were out of power both in the broader legislature and, to some degree, within their own party.
The fight within the Democratic Party was whether or not to move to the right. Martin and his band were adamant that the party hold true to its core values. They were pro-schools, pro-labor, pro-environment and pro-choice. They believed in standing up for average citizens and that government was still necessary to prevent discrimination.
Talking About Politics – Mountain Man Martin Nesbitt: A Tribute
“I worked with him for several years on the Clean Smokestacks Act in the early 2000s. After the bill passed, it was many years before I understood his motivation wasn’t to beat up the electric utilities or kowtow to the environmentalists. Instead, he wanted to help mountain folks who thought their trees were dying from pollution drifting in from other states. He believed North Carolina couldn’t badger other states to clean their emissions if we weren’t doing something to clean ours. So, he patiently brokered a solution that took about four years but got the job done. In the end, his people were better off.
“He spent thousands of exhausting hours traveling to and from Raleigh, a testament to his commitment to take the mountain voices to the legislature. I remember so vividly the emotion in his voice and in the voice of his carpool buddy Senator Bob Swain when they talked about driving home from Raleigh, rounding a curve on I-40 and catching the first glimpse of their beloved mountains in the smoky distance.
“When I reflect upon the life of Sen. Nesbitt,” said state AFL-CIO president, James Andrews, “I am reminded of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King in Letter from Birmingham jail.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”
Asheville Citizen-Times – Boyle: Nesbitt gave great service, great quotes
News & Observer – Martin Nesbitt a big man who fought for the little guy
He was a mountain populist in every sense of the word: direct, blunt sometimes, with average folks always in mind. In all his years in the state House and Senate, Nesbitt never had his head turned, mountaineers might say, by all the courtship of lobbyists or the deference they and others showed to an influential lawmaker.
Mountain Xpress – Nesbitt was a mountain populist to the very end
Asheville Citizen-Times – Nesbitt’s contributions will live on
If you shop at the farmer’s market, hike at the N.C. Arboretum or attend any number of events at the WNC Agricultural Center, you are benefiting from the work of Sen. Martin Nesbitt.
If your children are in public school in Buncombe County, they have modern facilities because of Nesbitt’s efforts. If you have attended a college or community college in the last decade in North Carolina, you have benefited from his leadership.
News & Observer – Christensen: Nesbitt stayed true to mountain populism
Nesbitt was Ramsey’s protégé in the House before later moving on to the the Senate, where he became Democratic leader. He too earned a reputation as a champion of the common man and an advocate for the mountains and for education.
Nesbitt had a presence. He was a big bear of a man, with an unfiltered mountain accent, and he relished a good political rumble. For fun, he worked as crew chief for his son’s stock car racing team.
Asheville Citizen-Times – A man of the mountains, a mountain of a legacy
These mountains feel a little smaller, a little more vulnerable to the troublesome forces of the outside world, with the loss of Martin Nesbitt.
He was our advocate and defender.
We thank him for his service.