So long, Martin

by | Mar 7, 2014 | Editor's Blog | 14 comments

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.


  1. Andy D

    I think we must look at the current place the Democrat Party finds itself. Moderate to conservative Democrats like myself have been rooted out of the GA. We were the ones who raised most of the money and that is why both e the state party and caucus’s have very little money. People running in safe minority and liberal places such as Chapel Hill and Durham do not need nor know how to raise money. We can never regain control without folks like me but we are not welcome anymore. Sad times for my party

    • Thomas Mills

      You’re right, Andy. We need to get back to a big tent. Unfortunately, the redistricting process is making moderates rare in either party. Without them, we’re doomed to fight at the extremes and live in a hyper-polarized world. Thanks for reading. Good to hear from you and stay in touch.

  2. Don T.

    One of the reasons Rand retired is Nesbitt had successfully done to him what he failed to do to Black within the Democratic caucus. So it is not possible for Rand’s retirement to be a distinct event separate and apart from the ascendency of the very liberal element of the Demcratic caucuses (Nesbitt in the Senate and Hackney in the House).

    That being said one could argue that Nesbitt fought Rand for the same admirable and principled reason he fought Black: he did not believe in power for the sake of power.

    If you look carefully, similar battle lines are becoming perceptible within the GOP caucuses in the current legislature.

  3. Mike Philbeck

    Mr. Mills, your comments are interesting. And of course Jim Black did go to jail. i just wonder if the reason for the 2010 downfall of state dems was as much because they moved too far to the left for the voters, and enough of the more centrist dem and unaf voters found themselves voting repub to create the R majorities? i know part of it was the backlash against the Affordable Care Act and the then recession, but it seems to that by giving up the middle they went further left as a party than NC’s general voting population. When you are in Shelby look me up sometime! And P.S.: There is little doubt that some of the current GA actions are futher to the right than the overall population is comfortable with, but the districts are such that it will likely take awhile to show up, at least at the GA level.

    • HunterC

      Mike, your comments are not interesting. The idea that state Dems have moved to the left of anything is preposterous. The NC Democratic failure of 2010 was a failure of infrastructure — including Tony Rand’s retirement and all that wrought.

      The 2012 vote for McCrory was an unsurprising voter “I’ll try this one for now” test (overdue only because of pitiful GOP ineffectiveness at the state level for several cycles before) that a majority of voters now openly regret. All that’s missing are the “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Dalton” bumper stickers.

      Thomas, save yourself and don’t look Mike up.

      • Mike P

        Hunter C: a lot of rural pro business dems who have been defeated would not agree with you. My comments were simply meant to be respectful. Your tone does not seem so.

        • HunterC

          I’ll leave cloaking condescension in transparently false civility to you. Being blunt to the point of insulting and standing fast for one’s philosophy are traits I’m happy to honor today.

    • Thomas Mills

      Thanks for reading, Mike. I don’t think it had to with ideology at all. 2010 was the largest national Republican wave election in more than 70 years. In North Carolina, Democrats didn’t vote Republican. They just didn’t vote at all, while Republicans came out in comparatively large numbers. Thirty-eight percent of the electorate that year was Republican even though they only made up 31% of registered voters. Unaffiliated voters broke heavily for Republicans but that was based more on the economy and the debate over the Affordable Care Act than an overall sense that the state was too Republican.

      • Mike P

        Thanks Thomas, and best wishes.

      • Unaffiliated Voter

        SMART UNaffiliated voters will NEVER vote for criminal democrackkks…WE the PEOPLE have awakened and WILL take back our STATE !

  4. Unaffiliated Voter

    Yep, RIP Martin… BUT, he blew into Rawleigh on mama’s dresstail and never left…never had a real job like Obongo, but he DID have a law degree (Big Sht) …

    And remember, he never got popped but he sat there nodding YES too ALL the democrackkk corruption and criminality of the Hunt, Sleazely and Dumplin regimes so
    don’t think he was so dang innocent…he, Basnight, and Tonette Rand operated an EVIL
    ring of fire…

    • Thomas Mills

      You must truly have a pathetic little life. What a small person you are.

      • Unaffiliated Voter

        I live in WNC and KNOW the TRUTH about all your criminal democrackkks who have desecrated NC for DECADES !!!

  5. nancy g. rorie

    I never had the opportunity to meet Senator Nesbitt but I heard him speak on occasion and observed him at the Western Gala. He impressed me and I had a lot of respect for him. May he rest in peace.

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