A maverick Republican encourages the party faithful

by Jordan Green

The dozen-plus diners gathered in the partitioned dining area at a Golden Corral restaurant a stone’s throw away from Interstate 40 in Greensboro for the Saturday Morning Republican Men’s and Women’s Club included several unsuccessful candidates for local and state office, one of whom chairs the Guilford County Republican Party.

All were here to listen to US Rep. Howard Coble talk. Their plates piled high with scrambled eggs, bacon and fried potatoes, the local Republican faithful came to receive encouragement from a local party icon and an affable acquaintance with whom many share a first-name familiarity. When the invited guest pushed back his plate and gave his assessment of the election-year political landscape, the 76-year-old congressman who has represented the 6th District for almost a quarter century did not bother to rally the audience behind his reelection bid. Nor did Coble mention his likely Democratic opponent, a 34-year-old housepainter who recently made a public crack about the lawmaker’s age.

Notwithstanding the buzz of excitement about Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s victory in the Iowa caucuses and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s disappointing third-place finish, what the crowd – which included three former candidates for NC House, two former candidates for Guilford County Commission and the husband of sitting state House member – most needed to hear was reassurance about the future of the party and the prospects of candidates in local races.

“This year will not be a good year for us nationally – bad news,” Coble said. “Good news: I think it will be a good year for us state and locally. The main reason is that just as the scandals in Washington have hurt Republicans, the scandals in Raleigh, where the Democrats have held the majority for a long time, are going to hurt the Democrats.”

One former NC House candidate, Olga Morgan Wright, announced plans for a third attempt this year to unseat Rep. Alma Adams, who carried 65.6 percent of the vote in 2006. Wright, one of two African-American women at a breakfast otherwise attended exclusively by white men, pleaded with the other attendees for organizational support.

Coble named two issues he said caused the Republicans to lose control of both the US House and Senate in 2006, and a third that has recently bedeviled Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Many of our conservative base became annoyed with us for reckless spending,” he said. “We spent money like a drunken sailor.” Coble added a well-worn refrain that has burnished his image as a party maverick: The Bush administration’s lack of post-invasion planning in Iraq has made the war a mess.

If immigration is the Republican Party’s red-meat issue this year, Coble did nothing to whet local activists’ appetites. He acknowledged that his position on the issue might not be popular.

“I think we need to do two things about immigration,” he said. “A – secure the border. And I think there needs to be some kind of accommodation for guest workers. I’ve talked to farmers in general, and tobacco farmers in particular, and to landscapers. They tell me that if they didn’t have this arsenal to draw from, it would be devastating.”

Coble counseled the party activists to count out neither Clinton nor former North Carolina senator John Edwards on the Democratic side of the ledger in the presidential race, and then offered a handful of suitable Republican contenders.

“Let me give you some names with which I can live: Romney, Rudy, Huckabee,” he said. “And don’t y’all fall out of your chairs: Ron Paul. Ron says a lot with which I agree. He says a lot with which I disagree, but you know where he stands. I’ll say the same thing about Dennis Kucinich, the most liberal candidate (Ron Paul is the most conservative candidate). When you ask them a question, they speak from the gut and don’t stick their fingers in the air.”

The congressman acknowledged he’s taken some heat on his vote against funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, telling the group, “You don’t like voting against it because then you’re portrayed as being insensitive,” but defending his decision as consistent with his support of tobacco farmers since taxes on cigarettes would have paid for the program.

As for legislative priorities, Coble raised “two issues that plague me.” Addressing the first, vehicular and airport congestion, would seem unlikely to sharpen partisan distinctions. The second holds strong promise for building a coalition between fiscal conservatives and social liberals.

“Guilford County Jail is about to erupt,” he said. “State penal institutions are overcrowded too. Federal prisons are not as bad. This prison overcrowding must be addressed.”

Coble was a sponsor of the Second Chance Act of 2007, which passed the House and stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill provides grants for substance abuse treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration, along with residential substance abuse treatment programs for ex-offenders for up to six months after they leave prison. The proposed law would also grant money to set up state and local reentry courts for the purpose of monitoring ex-offenders; coordinating drug testing; providing housing, education, and employment assistance; and offering various types of counseling.

After some talk about rehabilitating prisoners and steering youngsters away from trouble, Coble excused himself, telling the diners he needed to stop by Wal-Mart to pick up a dust bag for a vacuum cleaner.

Marcus Kindley, who launched the Saturday Morning Club in 1999 and who relinquished chairmanship of the county party last March to Bill Wright, said later that Coble’s responsiveness to constituents and mental acuity give him confidence that the incumbent should be able to fend off challengers. He added that many federal lawmakers half Coble’s age are not half as active.

“Howard’s so good, I tell him he’d come to the opening of a pop bottle,” Kindley said.

The former Republican county party chairman added that constituent loyalty to Coble runs across party lines.

“People running against him are trying to run on a national Democratic platform and I don’t think that’s going to fly in the tobacco patch,” Kindley said. “There’s a guy I know who grows tobacco and he’s a registered Democrat because his granddaddy was a registered Democrat, but if you say anything negative about Howard he’ll run you over with his tractor.”

That cross-party loyalty extends beyond farmers, Kindley suggested, at least in part because Coble doesn’t always maintain a united front with his own party.

“He comes across as an aw-shucks good old boy, but he’s smart as a whip,” Kindley said. “He sees down the line. He’s not afraid to go up against someone if he disagrees. Take Iraq, for instance. I didn’t like what he said, to be honest. When he criticized the Iraq war, I had people calling me up and giving me flak. But he was right.”

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