Basnight was unique in NC politics

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 9, 2011

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press
RALEIGH ó Whether from his political passion for North Carolina or just raw power, Marc Basnight was like no other leader in the history of the General Assembly.
Sure, other legislative chiefs came from humble beginnings in far-flung areas of the state with little formal education like Basnight. They learned to pull the political levers and create a powerful Democratic machine that favored their constituents while promoting an agenda they believed was best for the state.
But no one did it for so long as Basnight, who announced last week a chronic nerve disease was prompting him to retire from the Legislature later this month after 26 years, a record 18 of them as Senate president pro tempore until Novemberís victories by Republicans ended his reign.
What makes the run more astounding is that the Dare County Democrat and his lieutenants extended the partyís centurylong majority in the Senate even as North Carolina evolved further into a two-party state. They won by raising millions of dollars more than Republicans for Senate races, winning over enough northern transplants moving to the Piedmont by adapting to the times ó for example, focusing more on high-tech as textiles and tobacco faded.
ěI have been surprised by the world as it has changed. It seems that change has been daily, not gradual,î the 63-year-old Basnight said in making his announcement to resign Jan. 25, but in part summed up his success this way: ěI always … would like to think large.î
The longevity allowed him to put his imprint on every major policy change over the past two decades, from teacher accountability in the public schools to dedicated money for water quality projects and an unprecedented building expansion on University of North Carolina system campuses.
ěHeís done so many remarkable things that are here forever,î said John Davis, a longtime North Carolina political consultant. ěI donít think thereís anyone in the (legislative) history of the state thatís done more.î
The Manteo sewer contractor arrived in state government in 1977 with little other than a high school diploma and his distinctive Outer Banks accent. Basnightís persona fed the supposition he was appointed to the Board of Transportation only as a favor for supporting Jim Hunt for governor. Basnight succeeded his uncle as a senator seven years later.
Basnight was an effective board member and senator for his district, and became a voracious reader, turning himself into an authority on the stateís environment and the UNC system ó two items that resonated with independent voters. And he made it a point of stopping to meet constituents on his weekly commute to Raleigh to learn about their needs.
Basnight rose to a co-chairmanship of the appropriations committee and won the president pro temporeís job in 1993, only a few years after Democrats shifted the power reserved for the lieutenant governor, who presides over the chamber, to the post.
ěIím sure he didnít threaten a lot of people when he initially came to the Senate, but he certainly proved what some hard work and drive can do,î said former Sen. Wib Gulley, D-Durham, who served in the Senate for 11 years with Basnight.
While no one had ever served longer than eight years as a leader at the Legislature, Basnight more than doubled that length, creating what looked like an unstoppable machine. Republicans were helpless during Basnightís era ó GOP senators complained Basnight had consolidated too much power and ran the chamber behind closed doors in the Senate Democratic caucus.
ěHe ran it with an iron fist,î said Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie. ěHe really held the Democrats together and really used his personality and those around him to really put on a solid front.î
Basnight doesnít buy that narrative, pointing out that he created more openness in state government. In the 1980s, the stateís spending plan was decided essentially by the so-called ěGang of Eight,î a de facto committee of House and Senate Democrats that controlled the negotiations.
ěIt was controlled at the top ó I did not like that,î he said.
Gulley praised Basnight for opening further the budget process to more senators but said he still limited who could make changes: ěI wish Marc had not played favorites to a few folks and a few friends quite as much.î
Basnight contends he only twice forced a vote on an issue: 2009 legislation that banned smoking in restaurants and bars and a final vote on creating the lottery in 2005, which he hastily assembled and won when two Republicans stayed away from the Legislative Building and now-Gov. Beverly Perdue cast the tie-breaking vote while lieutenant governor. Still, complaints were common to the end that Basnight got what he wanted.
Perdue, who got her big break when Basnight appointed her a budget co-chair in the mid-1990s, said she believed Basnightís heart was in the right place.
ěThere will be a lot of pros and cons about Marc Basnight written,î Perdue said recently, but ěI really can never tell you one time that I ever saw him or heard him do anything that he didnít genuinely believe was for the good of North Carolina.