Until last week, would-be congressman Paul Coble's political career could be dismissed as a colorless copy of his uncle, the late Jesse Helms.
He's the same right-wing conservative, but without Helms' penchant—or knack—for hot-button crusades. Helms, a five-term U.S. senator, had his trademark snarl and bite. Coble, in his years on the Raleigh City Council and now as chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, has relied on a closed-mouth scowl, signaling his interest or distaste for what others are saying with an almost imperceptible relaxing or tightening of his jaw.
Or if he senses that you're some sort of liberal, Coble will ostentatiously remember that, though you're talking to him, something is at hand that he absolutely must read right away. He pulled this on several folks who attended the commissioners meeting last week to speak against the anti-gay marriage amendment. Two of them called him on it, asking him to make eye contact with them. He did, peering blankly at them before returning to his notebook.
Charisma-challenged though he is, Coble is in a tough primary fight in the 13th congressional district against former U.S. Attorney George Holding of Raleigh, who's no ball of fire either, but he is extremely wealthy. (Holding elders control First Citizens Bank.)
At last report, Holding had raised $462,000 for his campaign, including $130,000 he loaned himself. Coble's total was $135,000.
Of late, Coble has been brushing up on the Helms brand of provocative paranoid politics. Thus, Coble orchestrated a 4-3 vote by the Wake commissioners in favor of adding the discriminatory Amendment 1 to the state constitution. The four Republicans members all voted yes; the three Democrats were opposed.
Like Helms, who fought minorities in his day, Coble is fighting gays.
At the same meeting, Coble hammered a Wake County citizens task force report on sustainable growth practices, suggesting darkly that the recommendations are traceable to an international conspiracy to replace private property rights with socialism.
Indeed, Coble seemed barely able to believe his good fortune at having the task force report available to flay so soon after the Republican National Committee, on Jan. 13, adopted a Helms-like resolution condemning the very idea of sustainability.
The county's 65-member task force, ironically chaired by Republican Commissioner Joe Bryan, finished the report in August, but it was shelved then at Coble's insistence until last week.
Whether Coble knew then that the RNC action was coming isn't clear. What is clear is that, by prescience or luck, he had it on the shelf to take down and pummel when his campaign needed a boost and tea party Republicans were rising up in defense of personal consumption.
The specific object of the RNC's ire, and the tea party campaign's, was a United Nations report called Agenda 21, which underscored the need to substitute sustainable economic practices for the carbon-heavy industrial and transportation systems that, if they continue, threaten to destroy the planet.
The RNC resolution "exposing" Agenda 21 as "a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control" also called on Republican officeholders and candidates to warn the voters about Agenda 21's "dangerous intent."
Agenda 21 was adopted at a U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil—in 1992. In the 20 years since, as flabbergasted Wake Commissioner Erv Portman pointed out to Coble, it's been signed by 178 nations and endorsed by the last four U.S. presidents, starting with George H.W. Bush.
Portman is a Democrat, as is Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, who chided Coble for seeing "black helicopters" threatening our American way of life. "I haven't had any foreign heads of government calling me and telling me I am doing things wrong in Wake County," Ward cracked.
Far from being embarrassed, however, Coble welcomed the mention of black helicopters, knowing it would resonate with Republican primary voters who, if not literally seeing socialist forces in the air, consider Obama administration policies the figurative equivalent—and who understand that defenders of liberty like Coble will be ridiculed for speaking out.
"I'm not running around hiding from people in black helicopters or blue helmets (meaning U.N. peacekeepers)," Coble told Ward. "But you cannot deny that these conversations are being had around the country, and there are great problems with these issues."
Which issues are they? The RNC resolution names them. Agenda 21, it says, "views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms [as] destructive to the environment." Agenda 21 stands for "social justice," the RNC warns, "described as the right and opportunity of all people to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment which would be accomplished by socialist/ communist redistribution of wealth."
Jesse Helms couldn't have said it better.
Sure enough, two days after the commissioners meeting, Linda Harper, president of Citizens for Constitutional Liberties ("aka, the Wayne County Tea Party"), welcomed Coble to Goldsboro, part of the newly configured 13th district. Harper wrote in her local newspaper that her group was "eager to hear" from Coble about how sustainable practices like reducing water and energy use may force people to share resources against their will.
Coble, who owns an insurance agency, started in local politics as an officer in the Wake County Taxpayers Association, where he played second fiddle to its outspoken president, Russell Capps. The WCTA never saw a bond issue or tax it liked.
When he was on the Raleigh council, Coble was again second fiddle to media-savvy Mayor Tom Fetzer. Coble once called smart-growth policies—now called sustainable development—"a baby that should be strangled in its crib."
When Fetzer stepped down in 1999, Coble was elected mayor for a single two-year term.In 2001, he was defeated by Democrat Charles Meeker, who supported the downtown redevelopment efforts that Fetzer and Coble disdained.
Coble staged a comeback at the county level in 2006, winning a seat on the commissioners board. But to get it, he had to swallow his tongue about the record $970 million Wake school bond issue on the ballot that year. Fellow Republicans Bryan and Tony Gurley were leading the campaign for passage. Coble grimly said he supported it too, but he wouldn't support the tax increase required to pay for it.
Re-elected in 2010, Coble is now the unchallenged leader of the Republican bloc on the Wake board, with tea party Republican Phil Matthews his vice chair. Gurley is running for lieutenant governor. Bryan, once a moderate voice, is rarely heard.
With Coble's opposition to it, the proposed half-cent sales tax increase in Wake for rail and bus transit, which voters would have to approve, can't be on the ballot. Budgets for Wake schools have been frozen for three years despite student enrollment growth and state funding cuts. At the most recent Wake school board work session, members were told by Vice Chair Keith Sutton not to expend any energy planning for another school bond issue any time soon.
Sutton and Board Chair Kevin Hill had met the previous week with Coble and Matthews. "I'm a realist," Sutton said dryly. "There's practical realities," meaning a bond issue is needed now because of the county's growth. "And then there's some political realities."
That would be Paul Coble, unless and until he's elected to Congress.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Helmsman for the GOP."