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Longtime NC Senate leader Basnight dies

Posted December 28, 2020 6:12 p.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2020 8:25 p.m. EST

— Marc Basnight, a Democrat who who led the state Senate for a record 18 years and was considered among the most powerful politicians in North Carolina, died Monday. He was 73.

"North Carolina lost a giant today with the passing of my friend, Sen. Marc Basnight," Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. "His positive influence on our public universities, transportation, environment and more will be felt for decades. A man of great power and influence, his humble, common touch made everyone he met feel special, whether pouring them a glass of tea in his restaurant or sharing a pack of nabs at a country store. He believed in North Carolina and its people, and our state is stronger because of him. Our prayers are with Vicki, Caroline and the whole family."

A Manteo native, Basnight represented the Outer Banks in the Senate from 1984 to 2011. He served as Senate president pro tem from 1993 until Republican seized control of the General Assembly in the 2010 elections.

"I will always remember the grace with which Sen. Basnight conducted the 2011 transition. He spared no effort and denied no request. He could wage political battle with the best of them, but he always put the institution of the Senate, as a symbol of the people’s representative government, first," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who succeeded Basnight as Senate leader, said in a statement.

"Sen. Basnight and the institution of the Senate are in many ways inseparable. He left his mark on the body, and therefore the state, over his nearly two decades of leadership," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "Sen. Basnight loved people. I used to hear that he’d stop along the way from the Outer Banks to Raleigh just to speak to strangers and hear what they had to say. He loved people, and they loved him back. ... He’s one of a kind, and I will miss him."

Shortly before the 2011 legislative session began, Basnight announced his retirement, citing health reasons. A year later, he disclosed that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative illness commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease because it afflicted the former New York Yankees star.

“I never wanted to be a leader,” Basnight said in a 2012 interview with the Coastal Review Online. "I wanted to challenge people and get them thinking big, beyond the problems in their own districts, about problems in the world.”

It was his interest in his hometown, however, that gave him his start in public service. He was named the first chairman of Dare County's tourism board when he was in his 20s, and then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to the State Board of Transportation in 1977.

"Marc was absolutely authentic," Hunt once said. "He cared deeply about the people. He worked for them, and he was willing to fight for them."

When Sen. Melvin Daniels decided not to seek re-election in 1984, he threw his support behind Basnight, his cousin, to succeed him. Once in office, Basnight tackled an array of concerns on the Outer Banks from job creation to highway projects to environmental protection.

Hunt said Basnight would often stop during his commutes between Dare County and Raleigh to talk to people in various communities to find out what issues concerned them.

Former Sen. David Hoyle said Basnight would make lawmakers and other state officials wait while he spoke on the phone with fishermen and farmers, so he could help them with their problems.

"Marc would actually go visit some of these people who wrote him some of the darnedest things you've ever read," Hoyle said with a laugh in a North Carolina Chamber tribute video. "He'd go back in the backyard, in a man's garden, and say, 'I'm Marc Basnight, and I got this letter from you, and you seem to be upset about a lot of things. Let's talk about it.'"

Basnight rose quickly through the ranks, chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee and, in 1993, he made a move to become Senate president pro tempore, which had become the most powerful position in the chamber only five years earlier. Democrats shifted many of the powers the lieutenant governor formerly held to the pro tem post following the election of Republican Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner in 1988.

"He understood the way power works and the way personalities work,” Tony Rand, a former Democratic senator and Basnight ally, once said. “Marc is a natural leader. You don’t ascend to a role like that unless people are willing to go down the road with you.”

Basnight ruled the Senate with an iron grip, pushing his pet projects, dispensing favors – and campaign cash – to allies and punishing those who opposed him. Nicknames he picked up, such as "The Boss" or "The King," often carried a negative connotation.

Still, he was charismatic and well-respected, even among Republicans.

"Nobody could meet Marc and spend 10 minutes with him and not like him," said Sen. Phil Berger, who succeeded Basnight as Senate president pro tem after Republicans seized control of the chamber in 2011. "You just don't run the Senate of North Carolina for almost two decades and not have strong leadership skills."

During his tenure, Basnight created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to help curb pollution in North Carolina waterways and pushed for tighter regulations on sewage treatment plants, stormwater control and hog farm waste lagoons. He also exercised unwavering support for North Carolina's university and community college systems, championing a $3.1 billion higher education bond issue in 2000.

"Everything we did, if it wasn’t going to make the world a better place, we knew it wasn’t worth doing,” he said in the 2012 interview.

When his wife, Sandy, was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, Basnight funneled $180 million to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a cancer hospital and imaging center. For a decade after that, the hospital received a $50 million annual appropriation, putting it on the map as a leading cancer research center.

Shortly after her 2007 death, he began to have problems with his balance, and his speech became slurred. Doctors initially diagnosed it as a Parkinson's-type nerve disorder, but they later determined it was ALS.

“There’s nothing so special about me that I shouldn’t have this disease,” Basnight said after his retirement.