When the long session of the legislature began in January 1997, Democrats were riding high. Just two years earlier, Republicans had handed them a defeat that left the state House in Republican hands for the first time in a century and Democrats barely held the state Senate. The November 1996 election seemed to stem the Republican tide. Jim Hunt had been re-elected, the senate Democrats added enough seats for a comfortable margin and Democrats were just a few seat shy of taking over the House.
That’s when I met Martin Nesbitt. The GOP had given him a two-year vacation in 1994, but he came back with a solid victory in 1996. From what I could tell, he was not much concerned about losing again. On the contrary, he was more focused on retaking control of the House.
In particular, he was interested in wresting power away from House Minority Leader Jim Black. Martin and a group of House progressives saw Black as a man more interested in accumulating personal power than wielding it for the greater good. They believed that Democrats would regain power in the next election and wanted to make sure that the next speaker pushed a progressive agenda.
At that point, I had never spent much time in the legislative building. I had been running campaigns in western North Carolina in the early 1990s and working as a social worker to pay my bills. After helping Walter Dalton unseat an incumbent Republican senator, I decided to drop the social work, move back to the Triangle, and hang out a shingle.
Through my ties with mountain Democrats, I was introduced to Martin. I had an idea about an incumbent protection program that included letters-to-the-editor, regular press releases, quarterly newsletters and fundraising. Martin apparently thought it made sense and, for a year or so, brought me into an inner circle of progressive Democrats who were out of power both in the broader legislature and, to some degree, within their own party.
The fight within the Democratic Party was whether or not to move to the right. Martin and his band were adamant that the party hold true to its core values. They were pro-schools, pro-labor, pro-environment and pro-choice. They believed in standing up for average citizens and that government was still necessary to prevent discrimination.
Martin rarely minced words. You always knew where he stood and he was unwavering in his confidence and commitment to progressive politics. He could be blunt to the point of being insulting but he always maintained close enough relationships, even with his enemies, to remain influential.
After months of jockeying within the Democratic caucus, Martin and his fellow progressives became convinced that the only way to stop Black was to change the makeup of the caucus. They recruited primary challengers to some of Jim Black’s staunchest supporters and hired me to try to take them out. Unfortunately, most of the primary challengers were less than stellar candidates and the power of incumbency was a bit too much.
Democrats did take back the House and Jim Black became speaker. History tells us that Martin was right about him and his motivations. Martin went on to lead the Senate Democrats. Jim Black went to jail.
There’s not a whole lot of point to this story other than I’ve been thinking about it since I heard about Martin’s illness. Martin was a creature of the legislature. He and that group of legislators taught me about the workings of the North Carolina General Assembly. I learned that building relationships with staff is just as important as building relationships with legislators. I learned to take the long view of politics because what’s important today may not matter at all tomorrow. I learned that standing up for your political philosophy matters. I learned not to back down from a fight, and if you lose, get ready for the next one. And I learned that holding power should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
So long, Martin. Thanks for your service and thanks for the lessons.