In the wake of Martin Nesbitt’s recent passing, there will be many columns and articles about our great and honorable friend’s extraordinary contributions. His loss will leave a huge void in the lives of so many friends and constituents. Still, I felt that giving a bit of my personal history with my dear friend Martin and our wonderful shared experiences over the years might provide some insight.
I met Martin shortly before his mother, Mary, passed away. She was a state representative, but when he was appointed to serve out her term in 1979, I don’t think any of us, including Martin, knew that he was a true political savant.
At the time, I was living in the Sheraton Hotel on Woodfin Street, whose restaurant was a popular gathering place for politicians. Martin and other state officials frequently stopped there for dinner to unwind after the week in Raleigh. At closing time, they weren’t always ready to end their evening, however, and someone would say, “Let’s go up and see ol’ Jerry — he’ll have refreshments.”
I was always delighted to host such high-ranking political lights as Bob Swain, Liston Ramsey, Zeb Alley and others who were Martin’s friends and mentors. For an insatiable political junkie like me, it was like snorting political cocaine to be on the inside of discussions about the governance of our state.
I also enjoyed our weekend golf games with our mutual friend Bill Stanley and others, including a long list of politicos.
Martin played golf well considering the time he had to put into the game, but his greatest concern was seeing just how far he could drive the ball off the tee. He had a trunk full of clubs that he was constantly swapping and trying out in his quest for the ultimate driver.
He would hit the ball so far that he often lost it, which should have meant a penalty. But Martin would invariably invoke the Nesbitt Rule, claiming that the pros had a caddie to keep up with the ball, and since he didn’t, there was no penalty. When this happened, we would deliberately challenge him, just to hear him sincerely and eloquently defend his position. I don’t think he ever caught on.
I always had a long list of questions about the goings on in Raleigh as well as his insight into local politics. Martin unwearyingly answered my questions and, quite often, his answers would differ substantially from the press accounts.
I would also share with him my many valuable opinions on how the state should be run and, with great patience and the gentleness of a father, Martin would explain to me that I really didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. We did agree that the educational lottery was a tax on the poor, and that it wouldn’t take long before those funds would be diverted to general use.
After the lottery bill passed, with the help of some shameless chicanery under the leadership of House Speaker Jim Black, I was shocked and disbelieving when Martin told me, with great sadness, “Those fellas are going to jail.” A year later, it unfortunately came to pass.
In time, however, serving as crew chief for his son’s racing car became Martin’s real recreational passion, supplanting golf, so we didn’t see him as much as before.
Another ritual we shared with Bill Stanley and other friends was enjoying a glass or two of holiday cheer at a local bar on Christmas Eve. This past December, as always, I came loaded with questions. My main issue was that when I asked Asheville City Council members why the city couldn’t raise hotel taxes to bring in more general revenue, I was told it was because Martin did not support the idea.
I asked him about it, and he quite frankly said he’d had a very hard time selling the existing tax to the lodging industry, with the revenue going to the Tourism Development Authority. “I promised those fellers I would never vote to raise it,” he explained. Perhaps a bad bargain, but in typical Martin Nesbitt fashion, he stood by his word.
Unlike many of today’s politicians, Martin was never rancorous or hateful. He did not believe that might was right: He believed that right was right.
In closing, we can only say, “Hit that ball long and straight off that golden tee, and keep that car sailing around that heavenly track.”
We will sorely miss you, Martin.
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.