RALEIGH, N.C.—Former state Sen. Marc Basnight, a Democrat from North Carolina’s barrier islands who became one of North Carolina’s most powerful contemporary political leaders while serving a record 18 years as Senate leader, died Monday. He was 73.
Basnight, who was ill for years with what was later diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, died at his Manteo home with family members present, according to Amy Fulk, Basnight’s chief of staff while he held the chamber’s top job.
Despite humble beginnings and little formal education, Basnight rose through state politics to serve in the Senate for 26 years. His nine two-year terms as Senate president pro tempore made him the longest-serving head of a legislative body in North Carolina history.
Basnight was a legislative powerhouse involved in enacting every significant state policy of the 1990s and 2000s, including passage of the state lottery, a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, and public education and ethics reforms. And he made it a point of stopping to meet constituents on his weekly 190-mile (305-kilometer) commute between Raleigh and the coastal Outer Banks to learn about their needs.
He resigned his seat in early 2011, announcing his decision weeks before Republicans took over the chamber for the first time in over a century due to electoral wins the previous November. Basnight told reporters at the time that he was already struggling with a degenerative nerve disease that affected his balance and speech.
Democrats who served and learned as lieutenants under Basnight in the Senate are numerous and included a future governor, Beverly Perdue; the late U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan; and current Gov. Roy Cooper, who was Senate majority leader in the late 1990s.
“North Carolina lost a giant today with the passing of my friend,” Cooper said in a news release. “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 ... He believed in North Carolina and its people, and our state is stronger because of him.”
The Manteo sewer contractor arrived in state government in 1977 with little other than a high school diploma and his distinctive Outer Banks accent. Then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to the Board of Transportation. Basnight succeeded his cousin as a senator seven years later.
Basnight was an effective board member and senator for his district, and became a voracious reader, turning himself into an authority on the state’s environment and the University of North Carolina system. Basnight rose to a co-chairmanship of the appropriations committee and won the president pro tempore’s job in 1993.
For several election cycles the Dare County Democrat and his allies extended their party’s majority in the Senate even as North Carolina evolved further into a two-party state. They won through a highly professional campaign and fundraising operation and an agenda emphasizing North Carolina’s high-tech future even as traditional textiles and tobacco faded.
Though he never attended college himself, Basnight made it a mission to keep the UNC system a national leader in higher education. Basnight was perhaps proudest of passage of a $3.1 billion higher education bond package in 2000 that was approved later that year in a statewide referendum.
While Senate leader, GOP senators complained Basnight had consolidated too much power. But members of both parties said his embrace of the average person and loyalty to the Senate were unquestioned.
“He loved people, and they loved him back,” said Sen. Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican who succeeded Berger as Senate leader and remains at the post. “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.”
After Basnight left office, his family still operated the Lone Cedar Cafe on the Outer Banks. The new bridge over Oregon Inlet, connecting Hatteras Island to the Outer Banks mainland, was named for him.
“He’s done so many remarkable things that are here forever,” longtime North Carolina political consultant John Davis said a decade ago as Basnight departed the Senate.
His wife, Sandy, died in 2007 after being treated for leukemia. His survivors include two daughters, Vicki and Caroline, and grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Monday. A memorial service will be held later.
Basnight’s death marks the passing of another heavyweight in state Democratic politics during 2020. Former Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan died in February, while Sen. Tony Rand, who was majority leader and rules committee chairman under Basnight, died in May.