Coble says this will be it for him in Congress
GREENSBORO — U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, the longest-serving Republican House member in North Carolina history, said Thursday that his 15th term in Congress will be his last, citing nagging health problems.
In announcing his decision not to seek re-election in 2014, Coble, 82, said he's mentally sharp, but recent back problems and skin cancer worry him about whether he can keep up with a 2014 campaign. He has been in and out of the hospital for the past few years for a variety of ailments, including a respiratory infection and dizziness.
"Campaigns have a way of demanding effectiveness," Coble said at a news conference at Guilford County Republican headquarters, where an audience of about 200 supporters gave him a standing ovation. "I just fear that I would be limited physically and would probably serve no good purpose."
Coble withstood physical challenges and overcame political ones in recent years in the north-central 6th Congressional District. In 2010, Coble faced several primary challengers who felt he wasn't conservative enough in a Democratic-led Congress.
Two years later, with state legislators turning his Triad-area district upside down in redistricting, he cruised to primary and general election victories again. He won in November 2012 with 61 percent of the vote. With the seat open for the first time in almost 30 years, several Republicans are likely to enter a primary in the GOP-leaning district.
A Greensboro attorney whose parents were Democrats, Coble is probably best known for refusing to take a congressional pension in the name of fiscal conservatism — a move he said Thursday he now regrets — and leading a subcommittee on intellectual property issues and the Internet in the web's early heydays.
"Intellectual property is a subject that induces sleep when you read about patents and trademarks and copyrights," Coble said to laughter, but "it's vitally important."
Coble is considered an old-school politician, often seen wearing a trademark fedora and mosaic sport jacket while shaking hands with constituents and touring local plants. Coble, who was born in Greensboro, has an intimacy with the region — liking to ask voters where they went to high school and proceeding to recall the school's mascot. He said he's proud of his accessibility to voters, noting that he's participated in more than 200 local Christmas parades and 200 Boy Scout Eagle Scout ceremonies.
He voted against the 2010 health care overhaul law and a pair of stimulus packages during the recession but ultimately supported the 2008 bank bailout after initially voting against it.
Coble would have earned more than $2 million over his lifetime had he enrolled in the pension plan but refused on principle, once calling it a "sweetheart deal."
On Thursday, Coble said refusing the pension is "the most stupid financial decision" he ever made but still argues the retirement is too generous for members and should be reduced. He also said he regretted his vote to send troops into Iraq because "we had no post-entry strategy. Go in and get out — that was it."
In Congress, Coble also focused on protecting the textile industry, which was still a dominating force in the Triad when he joined Congress but has waned due to overseas competition.
Coble took broader criticism from Japanese-Americans in 2003 for saying on a radio show that the World War II internment of citizens of Japanese descent was for their own protection. He resisted calls for his resignation and said he regretted that his comments caused offense.
Coble, a longtime bachelor, previously served in the Coast Guard for nearly 30 years He was an assistant federal prosecutor, state revenue secretary under Gov. Jim Holshouser and state House member before his initial 1984 congressional victory by less than 3,000 votes. He won his 1986 re-election — a rematch with Robin Britt — by just 79 votes.
At least one Republican already had announced plans to run against Coble regardless of his decision. Two others have said they would get in if he decided not to run, including Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr., the son of state Senate leader Phil Berger. The younger Berger attended Thursday's event. Democrat Laura Fjeld, a former UNC system attorney, is also running for the seat.
Coble, who didn't make any endorsements Thursday, said he'll spend his last year in office working on copyright law reforms and transportation issues.
"It's a bittersweet day. I'm proud of what he has done. He has stuck to his commitments. He put his heart and his life into this work," said Marshall Hurley, who was Coble's chief of staff in his first term and ran his 1986 re-election campaign. "People are going to be looking long and hard to fill the shoes."