RALEIGH — The North Carolina Senate elected a new majority leader on Nov. 17. Sen. Martin Nesbitt, Jr. (D-Buncombe), who has been friendly on LGBT and other progressive issues in the past, will replace outgoing Majority Leader Tony Rand (D-Bladen, Cumberland).
Although Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight has not tapped the new leader as chair of the powerful Rules Committee, Nesbitt will nonetheless have plenty of influence over the chamber’s legislation. As majority leader he will help to decide which legislation is heard and which members oversee it. Nesbitt’s election represents a shift in the Senate’s traditionally Eastern North Carolina-held power structure.
The decentralization of power, however beneficial for the legislative process, could have an effect on pro- and anti-LGBT legislation.
“We are definitely monitoring to see who gets appointed to the other key positions [held by Rand] like Rules chair, which have a big impact on which bills come to the floor — both positive and negative,” said Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina (ENC). “There’s lots of rumors about who that will be and some of them are good and some of them are bad and all of them are unsubstantiated.”
Nesbitt has “been a good ally” to the LGBT community, Palmquist said. This year, he favored two pieces of legislation supported by ENC. Nesbitt was a co-sponsor of the Healthy Youth Act, which will mandate more comprehensive sex education in schools, and voted to approve the landmark School Violence Prevention Act requiring all public schools to adopt stringent, LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies.
Nesbitt was also a co-sponsor of a bill to prevent racial profiling in traffic law enforcement and the North Carolina Racial Justice Act, which set up protections to guard against racial bias discrimination in judicial decisions imposing the death penalty.
In 2007, Nesbitt co-sponsored a bill that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in state employment. Chad Nesbitt, the senator’s stepson and founder of the conservative website CarolinaStompers.com, wrote about the bill and said North Carolina LGBT advocacy groups were looking to “push [their] sex life on others.”
Of his stepfather, Chad Nesbitt wrote, “That means Martin Nesbitt is sponsoring a bill that would allow transsexuals or transvestites to teach his grandchildren and your children in drag in the public school classrooms. Teachers are state employees and in an area where disturbing homosexual castrations and the gay lifestyle is on the rise, this will happen if this bill is passed and there is nothing you or their employer can do about it.”
Looking toward 2010
Nesbitt’s election has sparked discussion on the future of the state’s Senate and House leadership and control. Given the economic downturn and general disapproval from voters, next year’s midterm elections are widely expected to be difficult for incumbents and controlling parties at all levels of government.
“Certainly the Democratic leadership is taking very seriously the possibility of losing seats and possibly losing the majority,” said Palmquist. “They are working hard to recruit candidates where they need to and make sure candidates are raising money in the districts in order to fend off the opposition.”
Palmquist warns that a switch in party leadership could result in tragedy for LGBT equality in North Carolina.
“Given the leadership of the Republican Party, with Paul Stam and Phil Berger, if either chamber were to switch it is very likely that we would see negative legislation move, including the marriage discrimination constitutional amendment, potentially negative legislation on adoption and probably a repeal of the enumerated categories in the [School Violence Prevention Act],” Palmquist said.
Officially non-partisan, Equality North Carolina seeks to work with all legislators regardless of party affiliation. “My concern is really about the leadership that would be elected, rather than about any specific, individual legislator,” Palmquist said.
Significant action is not expected on LGBT-related legislation in 2010’s legislative short session, although past short sessions have seen Republican-backed attempts to move on the anti-LGBT marriage amendment.