As expected, 15-term U.S. Rep. Howard Coble said Thursday that he will not seek re-election next year.
The announcement opens the doors for what is already a crowded field of prospective and confirmed candidates to replace the Republican representative from the 6th Congressional District.
Coble, 82, made the announcement at a news conference at the Guilford County Republican Party headquarters in Greensboro, where about 200 people gave him a standing ovation, The Associated Press reported.
He is the longest-serving Republican in North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
“Being asked to name a greatest accomplishment during my three decades in Congress, I would have to say that it is the countless thousands of people we have been able to assist throughout the 6th District,” Coble said. “Having been blessed with a dedicated and talented staff, residents of the 6th District have long known that if they had a problem with the federal government, they could turn to our offices for assistance. I think it is important for elected officials to be visible and accessible and, pardon my immodesty, I feel I have lived up to that goal.”
He said chronic back problems and a longtime battle with skin cancer were the reasons for winding down his political career.
Coble has always been a busy politician when back home in North Carolina, making appearances at community organizations and special events.
But he has been hospitalized several times in recent years for various ailments: hernia surgery in July, dizziness in February, back surgery in June 2012, and respiratory infection in January 2012.
“Campaigns have a way of demanding effectiveness,” Coble said, the AP reported. “I just fear that I would be limited physically and would probably serve no good purpose.”
Immediately after the news conference, the congressman headed back to Washington for a Friday appointment with skin cancer doctors at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland to have stitches removed from surgery on his ear, according to his office. Coble planned to return to North Carolina on Friday afternoon and resume a full weekend of appearances.
One of the anticipated front-runners in the 2014 GOP primary for the seat, Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr., attended Coble’s announcement and tweeted from the news conference: “His service to NC will never be forgotten.”
Other politicians were quick to follow suit with tributes.
Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem who was in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2005, issued this statement: “Congressman Coble has been a steadfast voice for North Carolina in Washington for nearly 30 years and he will be sorely missed. Having served with Howard for many years, I am proud to call him a friend and mentor.
Meanwhile, Democrat David Price, who has served with Coble in the House for 24 years, called him one of the best-liked members of Congress.
“While we have sometimes disagreed on politics and policy, we have also had fruitful bipartisan collaborations on issues important to North Carolina ranging from textile research to disaster relief,” Price said. “Over the years, I have valued his friendship immensely, and greatly admired his attentiveness to constituents and his dedicated service in the House. Howard reminds us of a time when our politics were less hard-edged.
Under GOP redistricting, Coble’s 6th District now includes parts of Durham, Orange and Granville counties. It was drawn slightly less Republican in order to bolster Republican voters in other nearby districts.
But there is no shortage of GOP contenders hoping to succeed him.
Besides Berger, other potential or committed Republican candidates are Nathan Tabor, a former Forsyth County GOP chairman; Mark Walker, a Greensboro minister; Tom Manning, chairman of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners; and Bill Wright, former mayor of Pleasant Garden.
On the Democratic side, Laura Fjeld, a former top official with the UNC system, is running. She issued a statement Thursday:
“I applaud Howard Coble. 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.
“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.”
Coble has been a consistently conservative congressman who has not been threatened by tea party-affiliated challengers. In October, though, he was one of three of North Carolina’s nine GOP House members to vote to end the federal shutdown and avert a default. Patrick McHenry and Robert Pittenger were the others.
Coble served in the U.S. Coast Guard, was an assistant federal prosecutor, and was North Carolina’s revenue secretary. He served in the N.C. House of Representatives in 1969 and from 1979 to 1984.