Photo by Michael Halminski

Former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight died yesterday after a long illness. Basnight was the longest serving leader of the state senate in North Carolina. He also essentially created the position as it is today and he transformed the way legislative campaigns are run in the state. 

Basnight led a remarkable life. He grew up on the Outer Banks and never went to college. Instead, he became a successful businessman who owned a seafood restaurant and was involved in real estate development at a time when the coast of North Carolina was transforming. He brought to the legislature a compassion for working people, a belief in the power of the free market to improve lives, a strong support of public education from childhood through college, and a sense of stewardship toward the environment, especially protection of our water resources. 

Basnight’s benefactor in politics was Walter Davis, an oil tycoon who was born and raised in Elizabeth City. Like Basnight, Davis had no formal education but valued and supported the university system. He mentored Basnight, encouraging him to become more involved in state politics. He also helped Basnight with connections that would make him a powerful man. 

Up until 1989, the state senate was led by the lieutenant governor. However, when Republican Jim Gardner won the post in 1988, Democrats in the senate stripped away powers from the lieutenant governor and gave them to the president pro tem.  When Basnight became President Pro Tem of the Senate in 1992, he shaped the job to make it among the most powerful positions in Raleigh.

Before Basnight, most legislative campaigns ran their own operations, even if money was directed from lobbyists and other members to certain candidates. In 1996, though, that changed. After the wave election in 1994 left Democrats with only a two-seat majority, Basnight introduced the modern caucus system that both professionalized legislative campaigns and shifted the way money was spent. Instead of direct donations, a professional caucus operation offered services like polling, targeting, and communications. 

To fund these operations, Basnight became a massive fundraiser, leveraging the connections he had made through people like Walter Davis. Increasingly, Democratic state senators owed their success to Basnight and his operation. The system he built is still largely intact today, though it arguably needs some updating. 

Basnight built a powerful political machine. And he knew how to pick candidates. Until the 2010 wave, he maintained a solid majority in the senate. 

Basnight also knew leadership when he saw it. Many of the state’s most successful Democratic politicians in the late 1990s and first decade of the 21st century came from the senate. After the 2008 election,  U.S. Senator Kay Hagan, Governor Beverly Perdue, Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton, Attorney General Roy Cooper and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall all served under Basnight’s tutelage.   

Basnight governed as a pragmatist and he gave every member of his caucus a voice. While progressives often thought he was too friendly to business, he passed some of the most lasting environmental policies the state has known. His commitment to education mirrored that of Governor Jim Hunt and the two of them reformed our K-12 schools, improving teacher pay and reducing class size.  He was also committed to the UNC system and believed that education was key to upward mobility. In 2003, at the urging of Ellie Kinnaird, the senate’s most liberal member at the time, Basnight supported a moratorium on the death penalty that passed the senate but died in the house.

He was biased toward the Outer Banks, though. When the state four-laned and straightened Highway 64, people called it Marc Basnight’s driveway since it went from Raleigh to his home in Manteo. Projects and money flowed to the Northeast corner of the state when he was in power, helping it become a tourist destination and playground for the rich and famous.

Basnight was a transformational leader. He took over the position of President Pro Tem when it was still ill-defined. Phil Berger, the current President Pro Tem, has clearly used Basnight as model for running his office. Campaigns for legislature are now more centralized, for both better and worse, because of Basnight’s embrace of the caucus model. The Outer Banks got the infrastructure it needed to develop and thrive economically. And our waterways are cleaner today because of his commitment to protecting them. 

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