By David Rice
Higher Ed Works
Marc Basnight was not formally educated. But Marc Basnight was a learned man.
Basnight, the former NC Senate president pro tempore who died Monday (Dec. 28) after a long battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), regretted his entire life that he didn’t go to college.
But Basnight was a voracious reader, devouring issues of The Economist that oil magnate and mentor Walter Davis supplied, several newspapers and books like David McCullough’s biography of John Adams.
He understood what an education could mean, both for himself and for every North Carolinian. And that translated to strong, steadfast support for higher education in North Carolina.
“In everything he did, his focus was on how this project would move North Carolina forward, how it would improve the lives and economic opportunities of ‘the little guy,’” said former UNC System President Erskine Bowles.
In 2000, Basnight pushed through a $3.1 billion bond issue on behalf of UNC institutions and NC community colleges – the biggest higher-education bond issue in U.S. history at the time.
He absorbed the world around him.
When his wife Sandy was battling cancer, he described her visits to “the people’s hospital” in Chapel Hill and how she would wait beside inmates in orange jumpsuits for treatments at an outdated 1950s tuberculosis sanatorium.
Those visits and his wife’s extended battle led to a new, $180 million N.C. Cancer Hospital, the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (now Marsico Hall), and an extraordinary commitment of $50 million a year for UNC cancer research – the equivalent of a billion-dollar endowment paying 5 percent a year.
He also believed in infrastructure to connect remote parts of North Carolina with urban centers. Basnight first came to Raleigh as Gov. Jim Hunt’s appointee to the NC Board of Transportation. The 2.8-mile, $254 million bridge over Oregon Inlet named for him last year was 30 years in the making.
“Bridges bring people together. They never divide,” he wrote in a message his daughters delivered at the bridge’s dedication.
Basnight even insisted on building underpasses for bears at $1 million apiece under the widened U.S. 64 in Washington County – not necessarily out of concern for the bears, but to secure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s sign-off.
Growing up on the tourism-dependent Outer Banks and representing rural eastern towns, he deeply understood the importance of clean water.
So after a wave of hog-lagoon spills and fish kills, in 1996 he created the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which eventually grew to $100 million a year to protect streams and watersheds across the state. All those streams flow to the sea, after all.
Basnight was elected to the NC Senate in 1984 and elected President Pro Tempore in 1993. As others have noted, he consolidated power in the President Pro Tem’s office after Democrats stripped the Lieutenant Governor of many powers following Republican Jim Gardner’s election in 1988. He served in that role for an unprecedented 18 years. And that model persists today.
But in contrast with how things seem to operate today, Basnight had good relations with some Republicans. He made Richard Stevens Co-Chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and he made sure Peter Hans – now President of the UNC System – was named to the UNC Board of Governors.
IT’S THE COMBINATION of Basnight’s sweeping vision and his ability to relate to the common man that made him unique, though.
“Nobody could meet Marc and spend 10 minutes with him and not like him,” said current President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden.
While he spoke with billionaires like Jim Goodnight or David Murdock, those stories about Basnight stopping to visit store owners or farmers who supplied his Nags Head restaurant, or pouring tea for diners at the restaurant, are true. He hated voicemail – he considered it a bureaucratic dodge.
On one occasion when I brought my elementary-age kids to the Legislative Building, he dug into his pocket, gave them a handful of change and encouraged them to toss it into a first-floor fountain from the walkway outside his second-floor office.
With his “hoi toider” Outer Banks brogue, Basnight could mangle the language – which sometimes served to make him seem more endearing. He could speak with great passion about the “scrooge” (scourge) of cancer.
Many of his expressions, though – such as “It weren’t a problem” – are regular features of Outer Banks speech, as documented by NC State linguist Walt Wolfram.
From his modest origins, his relentless reading, his chats with farmers and fishermen and what he observed in a cancer hospital, Marc Basnight saw what North Carolina could become. And he acted on it in ways North Carolinians will feel for generations.
It weren’t a problem.
David Rice covered the NC General Assembly for the Winston-Salem Journal from 1994-2006. He is now Executive Director of Higher Ed Works. This column was first published in The Charlotte Observer, The (Raleigh) News & Observerand The (Durham) Herald-Sun.