RALEIGH — With Republicans taking control of the state legislature, the Democratic political boss many considered the capital's most powerful politician says it is time for him to fade from public life.
First elected to his Senate seat in 1984, Marc Basnight served the last 18 years as president pro tempore, a position that allowed him to set the agenda for new laws while bottling up bills he didn't like.
In a hastily called sit-down with reporters in his office Tuesday morning, Basnight cited his declining health and burgeoning love life as the reasons for his departure.
His ability to speak impaired by a degenerative nerve disease, the Manteo Democrat said it would not be fair to the voters of his eight-county district for him to remain in office as a less-than-fully-effective representative.
"I leave because of my health, not being able to speak on the Senate floor," said Basnight, 63. "If a politician can't debate, he is not much, not worth his salt."
Basnight's decision comes two months after the Republicans won a majority in the chamber for the first time in more than a century. The new GOP majority means Basnight wouldn't have kept the top leadership post he's held since 1993.
His resignation takes effect Jan. 25, the day before Republicans take control of the legislature. His departure, which follows that of Tony Rand in 2009 and David Hoyle last year, ends an era where the three Democrats left their mark on every major piece of legislation of spending decision.
Basnight, who won reelection to a 14th term in November, had previously said he would serve out his remaining two-years and retire in 2012. But on a recent road trip to Deep South historical sites with his new fiancée, Basnight said he came to the realization that it is time to focus on personal priorities while he still can.
Basnight said doctors have never given him an exact diagnosis or name for his condition, a motor neuron disease that causes the slow death of cells that control balance, walking and talking.
His already lengthy Eastern North Carolina drawl has slowed noticeably in the last few years, because of the careful concentration required for him to speak. Before he told the public he was sick, Basnight had to contend with persistent rumors that he was dying. The senator said Tuesday that doctors have no idea how much time he might have left.
"You never know what the future holds," Basnight said. "Obviously, if the disease gets aggressive, that will not be good for me."
A widower who lost his wife of nearly four decades to illness in 2007, Basnight said he recently became engaged to Sue Waters, a librarian for the Dare County schools. The couple met in the bar of Basnight's Nags Head restaurant. He said she buttonholed him over a glass of wine about the need for better pay for educators.
"She's a wannabe redhead," he said, smiling broadly, after he was asked to describe her.
Basnight said he first informed his two daughters and key staffers of his impending departure on Monday.
Sen. Phil Berger, the Eden Republican who will replace Basnight as the top leader in the Senate, praised him as a formidable champion for the causes he supported, especially the state's public universities.
"Sen. Basnight's respect for the institution has never been more apparent than during the current transition process," Berger said. "The grace, respect and cooperation he and his staff have shown Republicans will be the standard by which all future transitions are measured."
Some other Republicans quietly cried foul Tuesday, alleging that Basnight put his name on the ballot with the full intention of stepping down. Within an hour of Basnight's resignation becoming public, a blogger for the conservative John Locke Foundation wrote that the senator had "disenfranchised" voters.
By leaving early, Democratic Party officials in Basnight's coastal district will nominate a successor for appointment by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to serve his full two-year term.
Basnight firmly denied any such scheme, saying he fully intended to serve out his term when he ran, even with his health problems. But after Democrats lost big on Election Day, Basnight said he reconsidered. Not being able to effectively speak or debate on the Senate floor would be a bigger handicap with his party in the minority, he said.
Hoyle, a longtime legislative ally who now serves as Revenue Secretary, said he was surprised by Basnight's decision.
"I would have bet he would finish his term and then ride off into the sunset," said Hoyle, who is from Gastonia.
Basnight said Tuesday he had not spoken to Perdue or anyone else about who might be named as his successor in the state's 1st Senate district. For her part, the governor said she had never met another man like Basnight, who was one of her mentors when she served in the Senate.
"He is a man of principles, of dignity, and with a truly generous spirit," said Perdue, a Democrat from New Bern. "He stood up for the people of this state - all people - regardless of money or titles. A Dare County oyster fisherman was as important to him, maybe more so, than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company."
UNC system champion
Though he never got a college education himself, Basnight will likely be remembered for boosting the UNC system and securing billions in funding for new facilities. He was also outspoken on environmental issues, saying Tuesday that global warming and rising sea levels present a clear threat to North Carolina's coastal communities.
Basnight said he nearly always tried to lead by consensus, but he acknowledged there were times he used his political muscle to sway minds and move stalled legislation. One example was the approval of the state lottery. Another was the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, a law which he said gave him personal satisfaction as the owner of an eatery.
A voracious reader of books on such weighty topics as history and economics, Basnight was famously resistant to the Internet age. Members of his staff tell the story of the day they tried to teach him to use e-mail. Instructed to use the computer's mouse to point and click what he wanted to do, the senator reportedly picked it up from the desk and tapped it on the screen.
On Tuesday, Basnight dismissed any notion he might accept some cushy post on some government board or sign on with a lobbying firm, saying he expects to simply fade away.
"You won't see me back here," he said of the legislature he helped run for so long.
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