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By Rose Hoban
North Carolina Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, known for his slow drawl, folksy turns of phrase and occasional flashes of sharp humor during floor debates, died at home in Swannonoa on Thursday, March 6, after a brief illness, his family announced. He was 67.
On March 3, Nesbitt, a Democrat who represented Buncombe County, announced he was stepping down from his ranking position, saying that it had “become clear that I will need to take some time in the coming weeks and months to focus on my health.”
As reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times on March 4, a bipartisan group of well-wishers lined the roadways as Nesbitt returned home in an ambulance earlier Tuesday. His popularity on both sides of the aisle has been underscored by the tributes that came swiftly after the announcement of his death Thursday afternoon.
“We are terribly saddened to hear of Senator Nesbitt’s untimely passing. Although we may have disagreed on some issues over the years, Senator Nesbitt was an honorable and dedicated public servant who worked to improve the lives of North Carolinians,” wrote Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope in a statement late Thursday.
In a separate statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) wrote, “Sen. Martin Nesbitt cared deeply about people and spent a lifetime fighting for what he believed would make North Carolina a better place. His passing leaves a deep void in our Senate family.”
“The citizens of the State of North Carolina have lost a leader and champion of exemplary and distinguished public service,” read a statement from the North Carolina Democratic Party Thursday evening.
Nesbitt, an attorney who attended law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, gained his first appointment to the legislature after his mother, Mary Cordell Nesbitt, died, in 1979.
“I’m probably the only person down here who got into office through my mother. My mother served down here for five years. I was appointed to office to replace her,” Nesbitt told UNC-TV’s Kelly McKullen in 2011.
Except for an election loss in 1994, Nesbitt has served ever since. He moved from the House to the Senate in 2004.
in the early 1980s, he championed a room tax that helped funnel money to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, allowing Asheville to position itself as a tourist destination. For his help in passing the levy, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce honored Nesbitt in 2009.
“You get it, you’ve always been a straight shooter, and I know we can always pick the phone up and get exactly what’s happening at any given time down in Raleigh,” Kelly Miller, executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said at the time.
Nesbitt also championed passage of a bill that became known as the “Clean Smokestacks Act,” in 2002, which compelled power companies to significantly cut nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-powered plants. Environmental-health experts credit the law with reducing ozone levels throughout the state.
As co-chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services, Nesbitt was involved in setting health policy for the state for years and had an encyclopedic memory of health care legislation over the past two decades.
After Republicans took over the General Assembly in 2010, Nesbitt continued on the health and human services committee, providing sharp critiques, which also frequently aroused laughter from both sides of the aisle.