When I started covering the North Carolina General Assembly for the Greensboro Daily News in March of 1977, I noticed state Rep. Mary Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, right away. Might have been because I have an affinity for retired school teachers, being the son of one, and Mary Nesbitt was a lifetime educator. She had that schoolmarm look about her — compassionate, but tolerating no foolishness; insistent on a higher standard but not overly surprised when younger folks fail to meet them; expectant of better things, knowing that in a legislative session small steps are often the only hope. She died in 1979, and soon after, her son Martin Nesbitt was filling her seat in the House.
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.
Nesbitt moved to the Senate some years ago and with the arrival of a new Republican majority in Raleigh, found himself as the Senate Minority Leader — a job he stepped down from earlier this week after doctors discovered stomach cancer. He died Thursday at age 67 after coming home to Buncombe in an ambulance with a police escort. His admirers stood along the streets as the small procession came through town, wishing Sen. Martin Nesbitt well. He went too fast.
I recall running into Nesbitt in a convenience store along I-85 a few years ago. We had both stopped for a tank of gas, some coffee and a chance to use the restroom. Nesbitt's face and white shirt had grease stains on them — not what you usually see in a veteran lawmaker. He smiled and explained he had been working on his son's race car for a big upcoming race somewhere nearby, and spoke avidly of all the places they had raced and how much joy he took in helping out with the pit crew. I was amazed — here I knew only of a man whose life was dedicated to practicing law and debating issues and working on legislation, but what he really liked was spending time with his son, with a wrench in one hand and a spark plug in another. He had a life outside politics. I admired that.
I had one last interview with Nesbitt just before Christmas. I was working on a Business North Carolina cover story on Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, and I asked Nesbitt how he saw Berger's performance. He was gracious about Berger's personal style, his reputation for keeping his word, and some good procedural things Berger had done in the Senate. But he was also worried, he said, about what was happening to the state with the changes Republicans were making. He understood the GOP wanted less government, less regulation and fewer taxes. But he fretted about the direction.
"I expected solutions from Phil," he said. “I expected him to make goverment better and leaner, and there are plenty of places to do that, but what we have seen instead is a lot of dismantling."
What there was not, he thought, was a cogent plan about how that would help improve things. "I asked them 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 1 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?"
And he thought this: "When they started doing all this stuff, their polling looked pretty good. But as all of us know in politics, you better keep listening. You might look around and find out nobody is following you."