ASHEVILLE, N.C. (ACT) -- N.C. Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a longtime Buncombe County legislator often described as a mountain populist and respected regardless of political party, died Thursday. He was 67.
The Asheville Democrat abruptly stepped down as Senate minority leader on Monday to seek treatment for cancer.
He came home to Buncombe County in an ambulance on Wednesday. Well-wishers lined Patton Cove Road in Swannanoa with signs to greet him and offer their best wishes for a recovery. He died early Thursday evening.
Nesbitt was appointed to his late mother's House seat in 1979, and he won re-election every two years except in 1994. He moved to the Senate in 2004.
He was Senate majority leader when his party was in power and most recently Senate minority leader under Republican control.
Nesbitt earned a reputation as a champion for the common man, his friends said, and always had what was best for the people of Western North Carolina in his heart.
"Martin was just a very good person," said fellow Democrat and former Sen. Steve Metcalf, a longtime friend of Nesbitt's. "He really believed that government could have a positive impact on somebody's life."
Former Democractic Gov. Jim Hunt credited Nesbitt with strengthening public education in North Carolina.
"Martin's mother was a great teacher. She was a great leader of teachers," he said. "And Martin has been in that mold all of his life. He has been, every year, one of the strongest voices for, and one of the most powerful forces for, education. And he is scrapper. Now you don't take him on lightly. You may beat him, but you'll have to beat him."
Nesbitt was remembered as a father, grandfather, husband, public servant and a storyteller who learned the political ropes from his mentor, House Speaker Liston Ramsey.
He was Ramsey's top deputy when the Madison County Democrat controlled the state House.
Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Asheville, said Nesbitt always told people he learned at the feet of Ramsey — even taking on his role as the official storyteller of the history of the General Assembly.
Nesbitt swore Fisher in when she was tapped to replace him in the House when he moved to the Senate.
"He always said that because he had been appointed to that seat his mother held until she died that he was really just keeping the seat warm for another woman and he was really glad to see me go into that seat," Fisher recalled.
One of Nesbitt's biggest accomplishments came with the 2002 passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act, forcing power plants to cut down on toxic emissions.
He is also credited with steep-slope legislation that made mountainside building safer.
His kind of practical politics was part of the reason public policy groups repeatedly ranked him among the Legislature's most effective members.
When he was not in Raleigh, or at his Asheville law firm, Nesbitt could be found on the track as crew chief for his son Mart's stock car racing team.
It was a good thing he enjoyed being behind the wheel. Nesbitt noted in a 2009 interview that he put 210,000 miles on his 1999 Cadillac DeVille, much of that making the 250-mile drive to Raleigh.
Throughout his career, Nesbitt pushed for better pay for teachers, more funding for schools and better outcomes for students.
He was a champion of the ideals of the Democratic Party, fighting sweeping changes to the state's voting laws in the final session of the Senate last year. But he also had many friends across the aisle.
"I'm going to miss him," said Hendersonville Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, chairman of the Rules Committee who battled with Nesbitt often last year on the Senate floor.
"We did what we had to in the session but we enjoyed each other's company out," he said. "He was one of a kind and will truly be missed."
Republican Mike Fryar, a Buncombe County commissioner, learned about Nesbitt's death Thursday evening. He said he met Nesbitt in 1963.
"I lost an awesome friend," Fryar said. "The county has lost a great senator."