Christensen: Nesbitt stayed true to mountain populism

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2014 


Republican Senator Harry Brown, left, talks with Democratic Senator Martin Nesbitt during the session at the Legislature on July 24, 2013.


State Senate leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville, who was buried Tuesday, represented a particular strain of Tar Heel politics – a strongly independent brand of mountain populism.

While North Carolina’s Piedmont area has seen most of the state’s growth – industrializing with textile mills, and later with banks, utilities, insurance companies and high tech companies – the mountains have always lagged behind.

In large part it was geography, the isolation of the mountains and hills. But through part of its history, it was cut off politically, a Republican area in a Democratic state. Unlike West Virginia – another overwhelmingly white, non-slave holding area with unionist sympathies that split off from Virginia – western North Carolina remained part of the state.

Populism strong in mountains

North Carolina has produced a long roster of populists from all over the state, including: U.S. Sen. Marion Butler of Sampson County, Gov. and Sen. Kerr Scott from Alamance County, Insurance Commissioner John Ingram from Randolph County, and U.S. Sen. John Edwards from Moore County. The state also has produced a more conservative brand of populists, who have railed not against big business but against big government.

Nowhere has populism been stronger than in the mountains, where there has long been skepticism about big business.

In its most flamboyant form, there was Robert Reynolds, better known as “Buncombe Bob.” He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932 and 1938, by running against plutocrats and Duke Power.

Running to unseat Sen. Cam Morrison, a millionaire, he noted that Morrison stayed in the Mayflower hotel, where one could order caviar.

“Friends,” Reynolds would say, “it pains me to tell you that Cam Morrison eats fish eggs and Red Russian fish eggs, and they cost two dollars.”

Nesbitt’s legacy: clean air

Liston Ramsey from Madison County, the most powerful House Speaker in North Carolina history, was another populist. He served 19 terms in the legislature and was speaker from 1981to 1989. He championed programs that helped the mountains, whether it was schools, roads, water and sewer lines or other programs. Among the projects that bear his name are the Liston Ramsey Activity Center at Western Carolina University at Cullowhee, the Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill, and a section of Interstate 26 between Asheville and Johnson City, Tenn.

For Ramsey, if the argument came down between the average man and the big corporation, he would usually side with the little guy.

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.

Among Nesbitt’s most important accomplishments was the passage in 2002 of the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act, which required North Carolina utilities to reduce three-fourths of their pollution for their 14 coal-fired power plants.

A decade after its passage, state regulator Sheila Holman observed: “North Carolinians are breathing cleaner air and seeing bluer skies because of the Clean Smokestacks Act.”

That is not a bad legacy.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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