Greensboro, N.C. — Sixth District Congressman Howard Coble, who has served in the U.S. House longer than any other North Carolina Republican, said Thursday that health problems will force his retirement when his term ends in 2014.
"We're going to be around a while. We're not going anywhere quickly," Coble, visibly emotional, told dozens of supporters in Greensboro. "For the time being, it's time for me to step aside."
The 82-year-old congressman's decision not to run for re-election puts to rest what has become a biennial guessing game about his political future, fueled by a spate of health problems.
Coble has been hospitalized at least three times in the past four years, including a bout with a respiratory illness that kept him sidelined for weeks in 2011.
But he held a fundraiser in September, which some saw as an indication he might run again.
In 2011, state lawmakers shifted his district to include parts of Person, Durham and Orange counties. It was December of that year before he made an announcement that he would seek his 15th term in 2012.
On Thursday, he cited back problems and skin cancer as being among the ailments that convinced him not to run for a 16th term.
"Campaigns have a way of demanding effectiveness, and given my back and skin cancer troubles, I just felt I would be limited physically and would probably serve no good purpose," Coble said.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope said Coble's departure will leave "a huge void" in the state's congressional delegation.
"Congressman Coble represented North Carolina’s Sixth District with great honor and integrity, dedicating his entire life to serving the public," Pope said in a statement. "The key to his success was that he was sincere, honest and authentic."
Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr called Coble "a steadfast voice for North Carolina in Washington."
"Having served with Howard for many years, I am proud to call him a friend and mentor," Burr said in a statement. "Brooke and I wish him all the best in his retirement and thank him for his service to our great state and the entire nation.”
Democratic 4th District Congressman David Price noted that respect for and admiration of Coble crossed the political aisle.
"Always ready with a kind word for everyone, from fellow representatives to Capitol police to constituents, it’s difficult to walk anywhere with Howard in Washington, D.C., or North Carolina without being stopped several times because he has so many friends who want to chat with him," Price said in a statement.
While in Congress, Coble has been most involved in transportation infrastructure issues and served on the Judiciary Committee. Despite not being technically included himself, he has chaired the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, a job that puts him at the center of trademark law and copyright protections for musicians.
In Greensboro Thursday, Coble said progress on intellectual property reform was among his proudest achievements.
He also said he regretted his vote to send troops into Iraq because of the lack of an exit strategy.
"It was inexcusable we had no better post-entry than we had," he said.
Politically, Coble has identified himself as a fiscal conservative, taking pride every year when he returns part of his congressional office's budget to the taxpayers. In recent years, he has faced challenges from candidates affiliated with the tea party, among others, which he easily turned back in no small measure due to his personal popularity.
"His philosophy is that everybody should have accessibility and everybody's voice should be heard," said A.J. Daoud, Republican Party chairman for the 6th District. "Because of that, he has been one of the stalwart people in getting a lot of things accomplished in this Congress."
A fixture in local holiday parades throughout his district, he is known for his gregarious style and ability to recall the mascots of local high schools. He has also been known to answer angry constituent letters with a personal phone call.
That sort of personal touch goes a long way toward combating criticism from constituents, Republican state Rep. John Blust said.
"If they can walk up to you and tell you why it was bad, they're a lot more forgiving than if they think you're hiding away and not listening to criticism," Blust said.
While he is a long-serving fixture on the North Carolina political stage, Coble has eschewed bids for higher-profile positions. National Republicans gauged his interest in running for U.S. Senate in 2002, a race that Elizabeth Dole ultimately entered and won. Also, his seniority made him a candidate to claim the chairmanship of the full Judiciary Committee. He explained in 2012 why he passed up that opportunity as well.
"That, by necessity, would have taken you away from a lot of your normal duties as a congressman," Coble said at the time, adding that he prized the ability to be accessible to his constituents.
He also never showed an interest in raising the outsized sums of campaign cash for national Republican efforts that have increasingly become expected of top congressional leaders.
"Howard went up there, and he stayed Howard Coble," Blust said. "The hoopla and being 'the honorable' and coverage didn't affect him personally. He was the same guy from day one that he is today."
While Coble said Thursday he wasn't ready to endorse a successor, he said he's in favor of a "big tent" GOP that includes diverse viewpoints.
"I've said before I believe our Republican tent ought to be large enough to accommodate Sen. (Ted) Cruz from Texas and Gov. (Chris) Christie from New Jersey," he said. "There ought to be enough room for both of those ideological statesmen to fit into the tent."
The 2014 Republican primary for an open seat that favors a GOP candidate is likely to be heavily contested. Among those most likely to run, but who hasn't yet filed, is Phil Berger Jr., the Republican district attorney of Rockingham County and son of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
The younger Berger has openly expressed interest in Coble's congressional seat before but pledged never to run against the veteran lawmaker. Political insiders expect an announcement from him in the next few days.
"Today I am at the Press Conference honoring the service of Congressman Howard Coble. His service to NC will never be forgotten," Phil Berger Jr. said via Twitter on Thursday.
His father also praised Coble for his service.
"For three decades, Howard Coble has been a leading voice for conservative North Carolina values in Congress, and for nearly as long, he has been my mentor and friend," Phil Berger Sr. said in a statement. "Congressman Coble’s leadership and legacy of public service will be sorely missed by the people of his district and all across our state."
Rev. Dan Collison also has filed paperwork to run in the district, according to Federal Election Commission reports. According to The News & Record of Greensboro, former Pleasant Garden Mayor Bill Wright may also consider a run.
Laura Fjeld, a former UNC system official, has filed paperwork to run as a Democrat for the seat.
"I got into this race not to run against Howard Coble, but because Washington is broken and we need to work together to fix it," Fjeld said in a statement.
"I applaud Howard Coble," she said. "He’s a dedicated public servant who has worked hard for North Carolina for over 30 years. I wish him a long and healthy retirement."
Before he career in Congress, Coble served as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Revenue from 1973 to 1979, and he served in the North Carolina House in 1969 and again from 1979 through 1984.
He is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. His last military assignment, which ended in 1982, was as commanding officer of the Wilmington Unit. He attended Appalachian State University and Guilford College and earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1962.