End of an era: Congressman Coble retires

by Jordan Green

Howard Coble is an institution, and his retirement is the end of an era.

A genial bachelor with a folksy manner armed with a humorous anecdote to illustrate a point or merely charm an audience, the 10- term Republican congressman harks back to a gentler era in American politics.

His refusal to accept the congressional pension was for decades the stock in his political brand. And he skillfully co-opted the haters’ cynicism by adding it to his bag of disarming anecdotes. That tack was on display in December 2011, when the octogenarian lawmaker summoned reporters for a press conference and then defied expectations by announcing that despite health challenges he was planning to seek another term. Coble recounted to the press about how a young woman had thanked him for refusing the pension during a candidate forum at GTCC, prompting his opponent to say, “Of course Coble’s turned down his congressional pension; he’s never going to retire.”

Well, now he’s retiring. As a Guilford County native and Guilford College alum, Coble has been Greensboro’s hometown congressman. Democrat Mel Watt, who represents the 12 th District is from Charlotte. And before the Republican-controlled NC General Assembly redrew congressional districts in 2011, part of Greensboro was represented by Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat. Neither could touch Coble’s personal touch in Greensboro.

Long since Coble nailed down the 6 th District seat, the rules for how state and national politics are played have been rewritten, with both supercharged partisanship and vicious internecine warfare within the GOP replacing the adroit dealmaking that was the hallmark of the US House when Tip O’Neill ran the show.

As an aside, Democrat Mel Watt is expected to announce early next year whether he’ll seek reelection, if his appointment to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency is torpedoed. The Piedmont Triad could conceivably have two open congressional races next year.

We won’t see the likes of Howard Coble and maybe Mel Watt ever again. Both Coble and Watt are eminently practical, while Coble’s personal touch contrasts Watt’s wonkery. Washington these days is more hospitable to ideological warriors who stick to partisan talking points and avoid speaking off the cuff.

If you wanted to find someone to play a politician on say, “The Andy Griffith Show,” you would cast Howard Coble. Throughout his career, his personal manner was so warm, self-effacing and charming, it was easy to forget what his positions were. He was always quick to say that constituent services were his most significant contribution.

Coble’s tenure in Congress has been distinguished by staunch conservatism, but no more or less than the Republican delegation from North Carolina as a whole. He’s less of a maverick than Rep. Walter Jones, who has broken ranks with his fellow North Carolina Republicans to vote for the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, whistleblower protection for offshore oil workers and for the Mine Safety Act. And though much of the difference is in tone, Coble is not quite as conservative as Rep. Virginia Foxx, who stood alone in the delegation in voting against emergency employment benefits when the economy was on the verge of collapse in October 2008 and opposing funding for Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005.

Coble’s folksy humor was so effective during his visits back home that it was easy for liberal constituents to forget that they disagreed with him. An exchange with Dr. Teresa Sue Bratton, his Democratic opponent during the 2008 campaign, on the topic of public financing of elections was masterful.

“Money in politics is an obscenity, as far as I’m concerned,” Coble said. “I remember when I first ran, Teresa Sue, I’d rather take twenty lashes across the back than ask someone for a fifty-dollar contribution. It’s gotten out of hand, but I don’t think it’s going to be cured by public financing. I would still rather have the private sector involved more prominently in the financing of campaigns.”

Compared with his constituent services, Coble’s policy work on intellectual property protections attracted little notice back home. That might be because its impact was as significant for the software industry in Silicon Valley or the motion picture industry in southern California as it was for the diminished textile and furniture industries in his district.

But as often as Coble was fighting to protect the copyright for recording artists, he also hitched his passion for intellectual property rights to an ultraconservative agenda of resisting corporate reform.

Speaking on the House floor in 2010, Coble opposed the CLEAR Act, which was written in part to respond to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

“Its mandatory publication requirements for chemical dispersants will eviscerate a number of trade secrets and undermine competitiveness in the chemical industry,” he said.

Speaking to fellow Republicans during a breakfast at the Golden Corral in Greensboro in 2008, Coble struck what sounded like a moderate position on immigration. But it was entirely consistent with his vote three years later against the DREAM Act, which was designed to ease the burden on undocumented young people.

“I think we need to do two things about immigration: A — secure the border,” he said. “And I think there needs to be some kind of accommodation for guest workers. I’ve talked to some 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.”