Bittersweet win for Basnight

Published 3:08 am Thursday, November 4, 2010

Staff Writer

Dare County Democrat Marc Basnight, the longest-serving state legislative leader in North Carolina history, easily won re-election to his state Senate seat over his Republican challenger Tuesday night.
Basnight carried six of the eight counties in the 1st Senate District and garnered 31,096 votes, or 55 percent of votes cast, to 25,028 votes, or 45 percent of votes cast, for challenger Hood Richardson of Beaufort County. Richardson is a Republican county commissioner.
Vote totals are unofficial until ballots are canvassed by boards of elections Nov. 12.
Tuesday’s election saw the GOP winning 30 of 50 state Senate seats, and seizing control of that chamber, according to returns provided by the N.C. State Board of Elections. That likely brings to an end Basnight’s nearly 18-year tenure as Senate president pro tempore.
When the Legislature convenes in January, the new Senate leader is expected to be Sen. Phil Berger of Eden, and Basnight is expected to take on a new role as one of the members of the Senate’s minority party.
That transfer of power will have tremendous repercussions for northeastern North Carolina, leaders across the region and Basnight said Wednesday.
“I will not be very influential at all,” Basnight said in an interview with the Washington Daily News. “Can I any longer just make a statement that the dental school (at East Carolina University) will be built? No. That is over.”
“I will have to find a new way to affect the good fortunes of the state,” he said. “And that is OK. We adjust to what we have to adjust to.”
Attempts to reach Richardson for comment were unsuccessful.
Beaufort County Commissioner Robert Cayton, a Democrat who has worked with Basnight on issues affecting Beaufort County Community College and transportation throughout the region, said that Basnight’s power and influence in Raleigh will be missed.
“The loss of Marc Basnight as president pro tem is a tragic blow for northeastern North Carolina — for the transportation needs and the economic needs of the region,” he said.
Basnight has “an understanding of what the needs of this part of the state are and being from our region he is able to tell our story in the General Assembly,” Cayton said.
State Rep. Bill Owens, a Pasquotank County Democrat, has served in the state House of Representatives for much of Basnight’s legislative career.
He agreed with Cayton’s assessment.
“Marc Basnight has done more for eastern North Carolina than anybody in the history of the state,” Owens said. “Obviously, his not being head of the Senate will affect all of us.”
Basnight’s political star began to rise in 1984 when he was elected to the state Senate. He was later tapped to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee by then-Senate President Pro Tempore Henson Barnes of Goldsboro, and when Barnes chose not to seek re-election in 1992, Basnight was tapped to succeed Barnes.
As president pro tempore, Basnight became one of the most powerful — if not the most powerful — politicians in the state, and the fortunes of northeastern North Carolina, home to his 1st Senate District, rose with him.
Although considered to be a pro-business Democrat, Basnight also has garnered praise as a leading voice for environmental protection in the Legislature.
Basnight was the force behind the establishment of The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the state’s first and only dedicated source of revenue that preserves environmentally sensitive areas. This fund helped pay for renovation of Washington’s waterfront.
Although Basnight never graduated from college, he is considered to be one of the General Assembly’s strongest supporters of the state’s higher-education system. He helped push $3.1 billion in bonds for the state’s public colleges and universities, led the effort to create a dental school at ECU and pushed for funding for a cancer center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
During his tenure as leader of the Senate, he obtained state funds for many regional projects, including the Partnership for the Sounds and its N.C. Estuarium in Washington, the Vernon James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth, the Sen. Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center in Williamston and improvements to the Mattamuskeet Lodge in Hyde County.
In the coming weeks, organizations and projects supported by Basnight will have to work to find new friends among the legislative leadership.
Jackie Peoples Woolard, executive director of the Partnership for the Sounds, said Wednesday that she hopes she will continue to find support for that organization in the Legislature.
“We will be actively contacting the people in the leadership trying to convince them that the partnership is doing good things that crosses party lines,” she said.
For his part, Basnight said he has concerns that GOP campaign promises to cut state spending will disproportionately affect the rural areas of the state that he has worked so hard to advance.
He told the Daily News that he will not seek a post in the Senate’s new minority party.
But he has pledged to do whatever he can to help with the transition of power.
“The new leader is a very good man. He is a good friend and is not difficult to get along with,” Basnight said. “We’ll just see how the majority of their caucus moves the debate.”