I didn’t know him personally, but I had watched and listened to him. And I was moved. In a time when complacency and silence plagues much of mainstream political discourse, even in public service capacities, I had always been moved to listen to Sen. Martin Nesbitt speak. Not only did he speak, but also people listened in my home state of North Carolina. In a time where we are still fighting against the stereotypes associated with using a southern accent, he did not hide his drawl. As I think about how quickly and what a shock his illness and death occurred, I continue to return to Joan Didion’s words in The Year of Magical Thinking: “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
While life certainly changes fast, one thing that will steadily stay in my mind about Sen. Nesbitt is his work for keeping the people, the grassroots, at the forefront of the political and policy conversations for my state. He made strong statements in the North Carolina General Assembly during points when it would be easy to be silent, to feel silenced, to feel like it would do no good. Yet, he did not forget to speak up and speak up loudly. He will be missed. As I think about the upcoming elections and moving North Carolina forward, not just in a “is this candidate electable” way but in a “is this candidate electable AND gives a damn” way, I think about Sen. Nesbitt’s work; I hope that we carry his work with us as we press forward.
In the summer of 2013, the NCGA was debating adding anti-abortion legislation to the anti-Sharia law bill. The house then prior snuck in anti-abortion measures into a motorcycle safety bill (#Motorcycle Vagina), which Gov. McCrory approved and the U.S District Court later ruled some parts of it unconstitutional. During this initial surge of anti-abortion, anti-woman legislation in the Senate, Sen. Nesbitt stated:
“We’re sitting in here tonight, and you’re gonna win this debate and feel really good about yourself because all you big, grown-up, gray-haired men have beat three women. I wanna see what you do with about 10,000 of ’em – ’cause they’re coming. They’re coming. They’re not gonna put up with you doing this to them in the dark of the night in the middle of a holiday week.”
Indeed, as Sen. Nesbitt suggested, we showed up at the NCGA the next morning, driving from all over the state. The key with this statement is his focus on the people, voices, and the grassroots. He mentions the sheer number of women that will come to the NCGA because people’s lives will be affected. He never let the NCGA forget that the people of North Carolina are listening. As opposed to only quoting statistics or studies, Sen. Nesbitt truly heralded the voice of the people, placing the people at the helm.
I remember him best for his statements against all the discriminatory legislation against women during the last session and his statements during the Amendment One debates. As Sen. Nesbitt described the various economic issues that that the state had, he noted:
“We’ve had hurricanes and tornadoes we’ve done nothing about yet. In order to get some relief, we reach our and grab up some people and say we’re going to put you at the bottle of the barrel and declare you inadequate and not entitled to the protections that the rest of the people in this country have is obscene. And what it does, every time we do that and we find another crowd we want to step on so we can feel superior, it brings out the very worst in us when we do that. People become people that you don’t recognize anymore.”
When the Amendment One fight was happening, I remember repeatedly returning to this clip and watching it, fixating on the idea of what some do to maintain or gain power by pushing others down. Sen. Nesbitt once again brings out the human qualities not only to what happens to those being trampled upon, but also to those who do the trampling: It brings out the worst in humanity.
He stood up for our folks in the mountains, all too easily dismissed and left out of the conversation in Raleigh. He was a voice for the poor. He was a voice for those in rural areas. While he was a voice for these individuals, he put these voices first. He focused on these voices as actual human beings, not merely numbers or statistics within the state. That’s a voice of the people. That’s some mountain populism. That’s what we need. That’s why I’ll miss hearing Sen. Nesbitt so much, and I know so many who are grieving who knew him personally.
So much of the actual humanness is often neglected in policy, legislation, and budgets. People become numbers or statistics, voices as humans left out of the equation. But with the power from the mountains in him, Sen. Nesbitt did not let the NCGA forget that. I hope, then, that we as North Carolinians and those who are legislators remember Sen. Nesbitt’s work in the months and years to come. I hope we as a state remember, too, that our voices matter, as Sen. Nesbitt suggested. And we’ll be there at the legislature, fighting for the people of our state.
Life changes fast, and it changes in an instant. Do every thing you can everyday to make your community a better place.