SETH EFFRON: How Basnight ushered in new era of legislative clout

Posted December 30, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is by Seth Effron, opinion editor for Capitol Broadcasting Company. He's reported on North Carolina government and politics since 1985.

To the degree that Republican Sen. Phil Berger has emerged as a very influential and powerful public officeholder in North Carolina, he has Democrat Marc Basnight who died Monday, to thank. Basnight -- the largely self-educated rural legislator with the "high-tider" accent -- reshaped the North Carolina Senate at the end of the 20th century by transforming the largely ceremonial office of Senate President Pro Tempore into a power center that he held for 16 years.

Basnight instinctively understood the nature and value of relationships in politics and the legislative process – and was mentored and encouraged by Walter Davis, a state powerhouse with a very similar background, according to Ned Cline, who wrote a biography of Davis. Davis, an eastern North Carolina farm-boy who didn’t acquire much formal education, eventually became one of the biggest oil tycoons in Texas, a behind-the-scenes power in N.C. politics and one of the University of North Carolina’s most significant benefactors.

That critical relationship began when Davis, returning to North Carolina after making his fortune in Texas, hired Basnight’s construction company to build a fireplace and chimney in a house being built on the Outer Banks. Davis thought there was something amiss with the construction and demanded Basnight rebuild it. Basnight did. The two recognized in each other many similar traits and backgrounds and Davis became a critical mentor and advocate – providing Basnight with critical entre into politics and public life. The two – both with little formal education – made support of the University of North Carolina a hallmark of their legacy.

When Basnight arrived at the state Senate after his election in 1984, legislative power was in the hands of the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor – who has the constitutional duty to preside over the state Senate.

Basnight was no neophyte to politics or the operations of state government. He’d been a key player during his time on the State Board of Transportation under then Gov. Jim Hunt.

With the election of a Republican lieutenant governor in 1988 (Jim Gardner) and the Democrats in firm control of the state Senate, it was the first time that the Senate President Pro Tempore took command of the chamber. Henson Barnes, the first to take on such a role, was low-key in his leadership style and served just two terms (four years) in the post.

Basnight, with his personal instincts and Walter Davis mentoring, quickly learned from Senate power-players like the late Kenneth Royall (D-Durham) to consolidate experience and alliances (particularly with the late Sen. Tony Rand). After being elected to the top Senate leadership post in 1993, he kept it for eight terms (16 years).

North Carolina’s governor has a bully pulpit and a veto that must be sustained by the legislature, where laws are made. Basnight’s understanding of both the legislative process and the way the state’s administrative bureaucracy worked gave him power and influence that stretched well beyond the halls of the General Assembly – even as Democrats Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue occupied the governor’s office.

He ushered in the techniques and styles of legislative operations seen today where – to a far greater extent than in earlier years – budget committees are token formalities and spending plans are concocted fully and completely behind the scenes by the Senate’s leadership.

He was staunchly partisan – as would be expected. Even as there were strong partisan lines in the Senate, it was a generally collegial atmosphere – as much the product of Basnight’s temperament as it was the less acrimonious times that now have given way to hyper-partisanship and an iron curtain between the two-party caucuses.

Basnight’s lasting power came from his longevity. Governors came and went, but he continued to command the Senate.

But even a powerhouse like Basnight could be brought down a notch or two – and it could come from unlikely sources.

During his reign over the Senate, the corner suite of offices he occupied in the Legislative Building were being renovated. An “executive washroom” was to be installed.

The workers near the point for construction to start and needed to have the go-ahead to start on installation of the “facilities.” Basnight kept changing his mind on where the bathroom was to be located. Finally, it came time to get started. Construction workers were in the office – which overlooked the parking lot opposite the state Library and Archive Building. The parking lot provided construction staging and holding area for much of the materials being used for the work – as well as Port-a-Johns for the crew.

Basnight just wouldn’t make up his mind. Finally, in exasperation, one of the construction workers blew up.

“Listen up, you,” the worker said. “What I’ll do is bring up one of those (pointing to the Port-a-Johns) and you can move it anywhere you damn-well please.”

In rather short order, Basnight determined the final location for the restroom – and work continued.

As Basnight well knew, sometimes it takes applying some pressure, in just the right place and at just the right time, to get things done.

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