On visit to Rowan, Coble stops by Rockwell businesses, Miller’s Ferry Fire Department

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
ROCKWELL ó There’s a reason Howard Coble is the longest-serving Republican congressman in North Carolina history.
He knows everyone.
OK, maybe not, but it sometimes seems that way.
A visit Wednesday morning to the town of Rockwell’s administrative offices proved as much.
Less than five minutes into the adventure, the congressman greeted several Rockwell employees, then wondered aloud about Jack Taylor, a baseball player whom Coble remembered having pitched for Catawba College more than 50 years ago.
“Y’all know who he was?” Coble asked.
Police Chief Hugh Bost paused, then grinned.
“He’s my uncle,” he said.
“No kidding?” Coble replied, appearing genuinely surprised. “Tell your uncle I remember him very fondly.”
A few minutes later, as Coble left the building, Bost reflected on how the congressman has managed to remain a popular representative for more than 20 years.
“He’s been around,” Bost said. “He knows an awful lot of people.”
Coble visited Rockwell and other locations in Rowan and Cabarrus counties Wednesday as part of an informal tour of the district. Coble’s congressional district includes almost all of Rowan County, with the exception of the city of Salisbury.
While walking Rockwell’s sidewalks, Coble wore a straw hat, then fussed about the day’s heat.
“The sun is no longer my friend,” he said, pointing toward his balding head.
Ed McDonald, Coble’s chief of staff, was included in the entourage that accompanied the congressman. Also in the group was Fred Steen, a member of the N.C. House from Landis, and Terri Welch, who staffs Coble’s Rowan County office. “People want to see him, to know that he’s interested in them and their problems,” McDonald said, explaining the reason for Coble’s visit. “When Congress is on recess, he tries to get out and see the district.”
Coble seemed to enjoy the outing, speaking and waving to everyone who ventured within shouting distance.
If he had a nickel for every hand he’s shaken, Coble, 77, could have retired years ago.
“Y’all behaving today?” asked Pete Earnhardt, an employee of SupplyOne, which manufactures products for packaging, including cardboard, and was included on Coble’s itinerary.
“You’d better believe it,” Coble responded, as he navigated his way through a portion of the almost-20,000-square-foot plant.
He also visited a small, backyard hobby shop in Rockwell that’s owned by Randy McCombs before heading to Kannapolis for a tour of the N.C. Research Campus.
Coble ended the day with a visit to Miller’s Ferry Fire Department, where he met with Eddie and Lisa Monroe, parents of Justin Monroe, one of the firefighters killed in the March Salisbury Millwork fire.
At SupplyOne, Coble sat down to talk with George Ruth, the company’s vice president of operations.
Coble asked the number of employees at the business. When Ruth said about 140 people work for the company, Coble responded, “That’s a great number. You should be proud.”
Ruth said the company typically ships its products ó cardboard boxes and other type shipping containers ó in a 250-mile radius, largely along the Interstate 40 corridor toward Raleigh.
“Beyond that distance, we’re not competitive, especially with fuel prices what they are,” Ruth said.
He asked Coble to work to do something about the health-care crisis facing the nation. Ruth said SupplyOne pays 80 percent of its employees’ health insurance, a cost to the company of more than $50,000 per month.
As bad as that is for the company, he worries that as the price of health insurance continues to climb, the workers’ share will also spike and prompt more to drop coverage.
“They’re going to drop out of the system and wind up at the emergency room as their primary provider,” Ruth said.
Coble said he’s heard the same lament often through the years.
He became North Carolina’s longest-serving Republican congressman in July, passing a mark held by former Rep. James T. Broyhill. Coble was first elected in 1984.
He won that initial election by a paltry 2,500 votes and was first re-elected by a miniscule margin of 79 votes.
But since that time, Coble has seldom faced a serious challenger.
He joked Wednesday that he’d told people on Capitol Hill he had no plans to emulate former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who served until 2003, when he died in office at an advanced age.
Coble said one of his fellow congressman immediately asked which part of Thurmond’s record he wouldn’t duplicate: “You won’t try to stay in office until you’re 99 or you won’t father a child when you’re in your 70s?”
Coble said he laughed.
“Hopefully, neither,” he replied.