Martin Nesbitt a big man who fought for the little guy

March 7, 2014 

The thing people noticed was his size. And then maybe his hair. Martin Nesbitt made a big first impression, yes, indeed. But now, in the wake of his death at 67, the legacy of the state Senate Democratic leader from Asheville is more about the lasting impression he has left behind.

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.

People appreciated that. So they sent him to the House for 11 terms, though they brought him home in the Republican surge in 1994. Two years later, he was back, and in 2004, he was appointed to the Senate, and he held that seat until his death, serving as his party’s leader when it was in the majority and then in the minority.

Mountain legislators tend to stay a while in Raleigh. The folks back home pick their person and stick with him, unless he acts up. Nesbitt didn’t.

That’s why, earlier this week, when he went home in an ambulance, with a police escort, after a diagnosis of stomach cancer, people lined the streets in Buncombe County to show their respect.

Certainly Nesbitt had shown his. Throughout his legislative career, he stood for the rights, for the needs, of average people.

He was a bullish advocate for the mentally ill and for the state’s obligation to help the less fortunate. The son of the late Rep. Mary Nesbitt, a teacher who also served in the General Assembly, he made the university system and public education a top priority through a long career.

And even in his final days, Nesbitt was still battling, uphill, against what he felt was a wrong turn in the General Assembly.

Jack Betts, a retired Charlotte Observer associate editor based in Raleigh, interviewed Nesbitt for a book project in December. Betts wrote of Nesbitt’s work in the legislature: “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.” That was indeed Nesbitt in brief.

But he also was a man in full. He liked stock car racing and worked on cars with his son, who had a racing team. He liked the informal back-and-forth exchanges with members of his own and the opposing party. He remained active in community affairs in Buncombe County and knew the hills and the hollows. He was down-to-earth with constituents.

He was not happy, Betts wrote, with the direction of the Republican-led legislature when it came to government downsizing he thought went way too far.

He told Betts, “I asked them (Republicans) on the floor, ‘I know what you are doing, but can someone tell me what the plan is?’ When you destroy the university system, who is going to lead the Research Triangle Park? When you cut the sales tax by a penny, how many jobs do you create? When you gut community colleges 10 percent, how many more people do you train to do the jobs?”

That kind of public-interest passion is too rare in members of both political parties. Martin Nesbitt understood why it mattered.

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