Coastal sketch: Marc Basnight, squire of Manteo

By on February 13, 2012

By Jan DeBlieu
Coastal Review Online

On a mild December morning, Marc Basnight stood on the shore of his family restaurant, the Lone Cedar Café in Nags Head, showing off the post-hurricane improvements.

“Look,” he said, pointing to the newly placed riprap, “recycled concrete, crushed into small pieces. It cost me a fortune.” He pointed to the edge, where the rock met the lapping waves of Roanoke Sound.

“But late at night I have counted thousands of mullet down there,” he said “And we will have zero stormwater coming off this property.”

Basnight, 64, has avoided the press since his retirement from the N.C. Senate a year ago. He has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. In this country, it’s better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

First of two parts

Still straight-backed, dapper and very sharp, he stays out of the public spotlight, in part because of a slowness of speech and weakness that makes it difficult for him to stand for long periods.

“I must have turned down 15 interviews, maybe more,” he said, shaking his head to yet another request. Still, he couldn’t help giving a tour of the hardy roses that had survived a foot of water from Hurricane Irene. He proudly pointed out the restaurant’s water recycling system. He paused next to the back fences, fashioned from recycled cooking oil jugs and plastic drink bottles. A fence on the west side of the property consisted of carefully stacked wine and beer bottles.

“You should see that when the sun gets low,” he said, pointing to the glass assortment.

As pretty as the northern lights?

A big grin spread across the senator’s thin face. “Yes. Beautiful.”

And a few minutes later, “Do you have time to ride to Jennette’s Pier?”

The survivor

During his 26 years in the state senate—the last 17 as president pro tempore—Basnight grew to be the most politically powerful man in the state. He outlasted governors, opponents and many of his closest colleagues. He developed a reputation for ferociousness when it came to defending favorite causes—a number of which included protections for coastal waters.

He also grew beloved by his constituents, who knew him not only as the go-to man for solving problems, but as folksy and approachable, with disarming candor and charm. Basnight loved to chat with residents of District 1 whenever he stopped in a store or strolled the winter beach.

“I never wanted to be a leader,” he mused.

Really?

Marc Basnight (seated bottom right) joins other members of the Dare County Bicentennial Committee in 1976. Seated next to Basnight is Natalie Case Austin. Standing are Bobby Owens, then a county commissionor (left) and Carlisle Davis, then the Manteo mayor. (Outer Banks History Center)

“Never. I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal. I wanted to challenge people and get them thinking big, beyond the problems in their own districts, about problems in the world.”

It’s been an interesting ride for a small-town native and graduate of Manteo High School—his highest educational honor until the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill awarded him an honorary doctorate of law in 1999.

As a legislator, Basnight was known for his curiosity and thirst to learn about issues. Discussing problems with constituents, he would turn to a staff member and say, “We need to know more about this. Get me a report about it.”

That wasn’t always the case. As a boy Basnight was a middling student who loved to have fun and play jokes on others. One classmate remembered Basnight piloting a skiff through flooded Manteo streets during Hurricane Donna, scooping up baby dolls that had floated out of the Ben Franklin store.

There are also tales about an 11-year-old Marc organizing a town football team, with Saturday practices and occasional games against the rival Wanchese team. In high school he played on the football team and hung out with pals, including Charlie Fearing and the late Buddy Davis.

After graduating in l966, Basnight worked for the family construction business. Bobby Owens, Basnight’s brother-in-law and the long-time chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, remembers a shirtless Basnight riding a bulldozer with his father. “He came from a large family and always worked hard,” Owens said.

In 1968, Basnight married a local girl, Sandy Tillett.

‘Backwards dumb’
His interest in civic affairs led him to a post as the first chairman of the county tourism board. He soon attracted the attention of the late Walter Royal Davis, an oil tycoon and a major influence in state Democratic politics.

“Mr. Davis took a liking to him and in a sense Marc became the son Mr. Davis never had,” Owens said. “At the beginning Mr. Davis told him how backwards dumb he was.”

Davis started sending Basnight the magazine The Economist and suggested other reading material.

When he announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 1984, state Sen. Melvin Daniels asked everyone to support his cousin, Marc Basnight, who was then on the state Board of Transportation.

“It was a total surprise to Marc,” Owens said.

In such a strongly Democratic county, it was tantamount to Daniels anointing his heir. Basnight won the seat handily.

Why did he enter politics?

“Isolation,” Basnight answered immediately. “I wanted to change that for the Outer Banks.”

When the legislative term opened in 1985, he attended a Democratic Caucus meeting in Pinehurst, where freshmen senators were invited to introduce themselves and say a few words.

“I told them I’m from the Outer Banks, which you may not know about,” Basnight remembered. “Our roads were terrible, and our bridges. The highway to Hatteras was atrocious. I told them I felt like we should be part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. And I did feel that way.”

A wry smile creased his face. “But I paid the price. I didn’t get very much accomplished that whole first year.”

It was a lesson he took to heart.

Basnight was elected by business supporters, and everyone assumed it was to them he would pay his highest allegiance. But within a few years he developed an unusual interest in environmental issues.

Bill Holman, then the only environmental lobbyist working the N.C. Assembly, remembers trying to get Basnight to support a ban against phosphate laundry detergents in 1985. Basnight didn’t go for it.

“He was still very much in the mold of a DOT-construction guy,” said Holman, now director of state policy for the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.

Interest in environment

But a shift occurred after a group called the Friends of Hatteras Island began fighting development of a golf course in Buxton Woods on Hatteras Island, Holman said. The group feared that chemical fertilizers and herbicides from the course would pollute public drinking wells. Other residents complained of seeing pollution for the first time in local waterways.

“He talked to his constituents and found out how important clean water is to the economy,” Holman said.

Basnight’s first years in the Senate coincided with a legislative sea change. The old guard was retiring, and the new senators had environmental issues on their radar screen.

“They were more moderate,” remembered Tony Rand, a long-time Democratic state senator and the majority leader from 2001 to 2009. “They came of age when the environment was something to pay attention to.”

“Some people come to the legislature and have a world view and they never change,” Holman said. “Marc started reading stuff and was intellectually curious enough to pay attention.”

Basnight specialized in helping those he came to call “the little man,” people without wealth or political connections whose needs, he believed, had long been ignored in Raleigh. To make it easier for working folks, he had his staff open his office early, by 7:30 or 8 a.m. and keep it open at least until 6 p.m. There was no voice mail or email in those days; every caller spoke with an aide.

His style of constituent services was reminiscent of Jesse Helms, the Republican U.S. senator known for helping N.C. residents cut through government red tape. If you called Basnight’s office, you knew you would get a response—although Basnight would tell you frankly when he disagreed with you.

But Basnight took constituent services to a new level, Holman said. “Helms would solve problems, but he wouldn’t do anything about the policy that had caused the problems. Senator Basnight would want to fix the policy that had caused it. He wanted to change things. He worked his ass off. He was incredibly driven.”

Basnight never lost his Outer Banks hoi-toide accent, and the Raleigh press made much of his frequent malapropisms. Nonetheless, he quickly learned to maneuver through the Capitol. “He was comfortable in his skin,” Rand said. He became known as a forceful orator and political player.

Then in 1988 a Republican, James Garner, defeated Tony Rand in his bid for lieutenant governor. The election of a Republican to that office set the stage for a procedural change that a few years later would greatly affect the senator from District 1 — consolidating his power and thrusting him into the crosshairs of controversy.

Next: Marc Basnight’s rise to power

This story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.

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Comments

johnr

February 16, 2012 2:51 pm

The only point that I’ve attempted to make is Basnight exempted his town of residence, Manteo, from the plastic bag ban. Since Manteo has birds, turtles and other wildlife, it’s nonsensical that it was excluded from the ban.

I’m sure he did great things for eastern NC. On this issue, though, the Senator was truly the Squire of Manteo. Facts can be bothersome things.

Manteo Native

February 16, 2012 1:01 pm

The only people I ever knew to dislike Marc were the ones he couldnt manipulate into something that wasnt good for eastern nc, or republicans who didnt look at an outcome, just a political party. Marc Basnight stood for everyone, no matter what your political affiliation. To go from a contractor with a high school education to being state senate president pro-tem is remarkable. He delegated for NC on common sense. Take your negative remarks somewhere else, because I dont think anyone posting negatively can measure up in a debate concerning his foresight for the state and his love for Dare county and eastern nc. This man gave so many years to our state, taking time away from friends and family-including his wonderful wife (may she rest in peace). The world and politics would be much better if we had more Marc Basnights in control, standing up for each and everyone of us!

Mermaid

February 16, 2012 10:27 am

Bill, that just made me want to cry! Bless his heart! I wish him all the best!!! He’s done SO MUCH for Dare! Where’s the proof? Look at how good ya’ll had it when he was in the Senate! And what has your new representation done for you recently…? Allowed the Park Svc to rape, pillage and plunder Hatteras and Ocracoke? Charge absurd rates for a beach driving permit? Close old ramps and legendary surf breaks?

Yeah. We miss you Marc. You kept things afloat in Dare!

Paul

February 16, 2012 9:59 am

It’s men/women like Mr.Basnight and countless others who have helped make the Outer Banks the place where I want to spend the rest of my life . Thank’s for a great insight into a fine man !

johnr

February 16, 2012 9:12 am

I just called Piggly Wiggly in Manteo. They have paper, cloth, and, oh my, PLASTIC bags available. My homework was done correctly. Try finding the same on the beach—-good luck.

johnr

February 16, 2012 8:47 am

Rob Morris, perhaps you can clear up this issue. Does the ban apply to all retailers, irrespective of size, as stated in your story of 3-11-11? Is Manteo still exempted from the ban?

Thanks.

Sheila

February 16, 2012 4:13 am

I am a Dare County native and I am proud and honored to have been a friend and a supporter of Marc Basnight. The comment amount “the KING” was petty and uncalled for. I can tell that you did not live in Northeastern NC in the BM days (before Marc). There is always People out there waiting to jump on the band wagon to condemn someones actions without taken the time to look at the big picture. I know that I have a better life in Dare County because of Marc and all the improvements that came about with his help. Have I always agreed with all of his policies….No but when I look at the greater good…. I know that Marc and his office did everything they could to Help anyone in the state that had a need not just in District 1. Will there ever be as strong of a leader in the state that could walk freely on both sides of the aisle…..That remains to be seen…. I have my doubts. Instead of finding fault with him Thank God that we had him….THANK YOU MARC FOR ALL THAT YOU DID FOR ALL OF US!!!!!!!

Manteolocal

February 15, 2012 9:38 pm

I totally agree with Marie and Mermaid. John clearly did not do his homework about the plastic bag band. Im certain when he moved to the Outer Banks he liked the clean beaches that are free of plastic. KHresident must not have a clue on the expense of busting up concrete by hand and placing each piece to make sure it holds. The other option of course would be to take the bulk head way out which does nothing for the environment. Gosh if the people that always seem to have a negative comment would do their homework they may make a little more sense in the posts to the public.

Bill

February 15, 2012 8:29 pm

Heard a story today … Marc was telling a friend about his ALS. She was greatly saddened and told him how sorry she felt.

Marc said, “Don’t feel sorry for me. Somebody has to get it. It might as well be me.”

Wonderful article from Jan DeBlieu.

Maggie

February 15, 2012 8:07 pm

Marie and Mermaid are both correct. John R, you are totally incorrect in your statement.

We also have Mr. Basnight to thank for the fact that Rtes 64 and 158/168 are no longer 2 lane roads.

The list of good things this fine gentleman has done for Dare County as well as all of Eastern NC is too long for a post here. For John R to malign this man who has devoted his entire life to serving the interests of the people of this region is vicious and ignorant.

God Bless you, Mr. Basnight.

johnr

February 15, 2012 6:36 pm

Marie, I think you’re wrong. The ban applies to all retailers but continues to exempt Manteo. How one defends this is amazing.

Mermaid, the concept is good. My point is, why exempt Manteo, home of his Highness? I see water all around that island when I go there. It’s arrogant.

Mermaid

February 15, 2012 10:28 am

The plastic bag ban was a good attempt at saving the environment of the beach you moved to by eliminating pollution and saving the marine life who will eat the plastic bags floating in the water, mistaking them for jellyfish.

How is that selfish and arrogant??

Marie

February 15, 2012 12:21 am

The law on plastic bags is by business size, not excluding Manteo please know the law before you make a statement about it.
Rip rap itself is free however, having someone bust it up into very small pieces, remove the rebar and hand place it is not.
This is an incredible man who always tries to do the right thing. He fought and continues to try to fight for the people in the county where his family was born and raised

KH resident

February 14, 2012 8:38 pm

Whatever. Free rip rap from other people’s demolished houses does not cost a fortune. Kitty Hawk citizen here!

Terryobx

February 14, 2012 8:26 pm

5 years ago his office was instrumental in helping me negotiate the medical system for my husband. I will never forget how wonderful his staff was in helping me get our insurance carrier to approve the treatment his doctor felt was necessary for his recovery and was included in our plan.

Concerned

February 14, 2012 7:07 pm

Good article on a man I have met but do not know. I do know that he has been a gracious host at his fine restaurant. Very sorry to hear of his ALS diagnosis. That is one of the worst.

KDH Resident Evil

February 14, 2012 12:28 pm

Excellent article bringing to life a person who made a significant impact on our area. Public figures tend to become caricatures, punching bags, and symbols for people’s likes and dislikes. But there’s a human story behind each man or woman’s rise, and it’s nice to have a glimpse into their past.

johnr

February 14, 2012 11:33 am

I’ve only lived in Kitty Hawk 4 years so don’t have the historical perspective of Basnight that many have. Unfortunately, what stands out for me is how he exempted Manteo from the plastic bag ban. I thought that was extraordinarily arrogant and defined the man for me.

New to KDH

February 14, 2012 11:27 am

thank you for this- always wanted to know about his background!! I got to chat with him on New Years morning as we were both in line for our biscuits at Miss Helens- quite a humbling experience.

Mermaid

February 14, 2012 8:55 am

Miss you Marc! I was a Senate Page for him back in 2002, and he was a wonderful gentleman and leader!!!

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