Raleigh, N.C. — Politicians from both sides of the aisle Friday praised Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, for his service to the state, calling him a leader who was committed to his constituents and to improving North Carolina.
Nesbitt, 67, died late Thursday in Asheville, a week after being diagnosed with stomach cancer and two days after stepping down from his post as Senate Minority Leader.
Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, who has succeeded Nesbitt as Senate Minority Leader, said a funeral service is planned for Tuesday in Asheville. There was no word on any memorial service in Raleigh.
Flags at state offices have been lowered to half-staff in Nesbitt's honor.
"He's just a very decent guy, kind of larger than life, a big mountain guy, but he had a huge heart, treated everybody very kindly, just a gentle guy," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, who served as Nesbitt's right-hand man in the Senate in recent years.
Nesbitt came to the state House in 1979 to finish the term of his mother, Rep. Mary Nesbitt, after she died. With a quick sense of humor and even quicker wits, he rose quickly.
"He would take up a cause, whether he was going to win or lose, if he thought it was the right thing to do. There are very few people like him," said Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, who served with Nesbitt in the House for years.
In 2004, Nesbitt moved to the Senate. He became minority leader in 2011, after Republicans seized control of the chamber.
Stein said Nesbitt's tenure in Raleigh provided Democrats with critical historical background on various issues.
"With the new leadership, they’ll bring up a bill, and he’ll say, 'Look, the reason we passed this 20 years ago was this reason, and there’s an unintended consequence about what your about to do here,'" Stein said. "That kind of historical knowledge is really priceless. So, that will be a big loss."
Even after 33 years in Raleigh, Nesbitt never forgot his roots – on weekends, he was crew chief for his son's racing team.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, who served with Nesbitt in the state Senate for four years, said she loved being on his team after he started a "Pit Crew Challenge" event in the General Assembly.
He also was famous for his mountain drawl and for being polite, but direct, in floor debates.
"I was convinced that you were going to have to poke them in the eye with a stick to wake them up to what's going on down here. Well, you did," he said last summer during a debate over abortion restrictions.
"Surely, we are better than this. Surely to goodness, we're better than this," he said during a 2011 debate on an amendment to the state constitution that would effectively outlaw gay marriage in North Carolina.
On Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans crowded together in Asheville to welcome Nesbitt home for what would be the last time.
"That kind of affection comes from somebody sincerely putting in the work for a long time," Stein said.