Switching parties puts N.C. delegate in spotlight

Wilmington school board member left GOP over assignment plan

jfrank@newsobserver.comSeptember 2, 2012 

Elizabeth Redenbaugh, 44, of Wilmington. Redenbaugh received a JFK Profile in Courage Award for her work to keep school diverse last year.

COURTESY OF ELIZABETH REDENBAUGH

— Elizabeth Redenbaugh did what few elected officials find possible in this polarized political era: She switched parties.

A politician who makes such a leap is often held in high regard by her new party, as if they captured a player from the opposing team.

This week at the Democratic National Convention, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, once a Republican, will get a prime speaking slot to endorse the president – just as former Barack Obama-man-turned-Mitt-Romney-fan Artur Davis stole headlines at the GOP convention.

Redenbaugh, a 44-year-old mother of three and a Wilmington school board member, is getting her fair share of attention for crossing over to the Democrats.

What mostly pushed Redenbaugh to the other side: Republican efforts in Wilmington to draw school boundaries based on the notion of “neighborhood schools,” a move she considered tantamount to re-segregation.

She penned a passionate email to the school board as it considered the decision in 2009. She talked about how some parents had said they didn’t want their children going to class with rednecks or black students. “Such statements literally grieve my heart and beg the question: ‘Who is my neighbor?’ ” she wrote.

The email – and her opposition to the GOP-led plan, which passed without her support – earned her plenty of critics. But it also won her some recognition. Caroline Kennedy presented her a “Profile in Courage” award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in 2011. The other winner was honored for helping to spark the uprising in Egypt.

Her position didn’t represent a shift in thinking; she had run as a Republican opposed to neighborhood schools. But the party label helped get her elected, she believed.

Redenbaugh, a family law attorney, joined the Republican Party at age 18 at the urging of a neighbor. She felt comfortable in the party for a long time because of her strong Christian faith, and she feels Democrats need to embrace religion in a more public fashion.

But Redenbaugh’s vote on the school plan left her a political orphan.

She said the county Republican Party essentially kicked her out of the party, telling her she wasn’t welcome at their events.

Her former party had their own take on her switch. “I don’t know if it’s political opportunism – but we see that a lot,” said Rhonda Amoroso, the New Hanover County GOP chairwoman.

Migrating to the other side was easier than she thought. Redenbaugh still remembers her first Democratic Party meeting. “I felt that I came home,” she said. “The Republican Party has grown so extreme. There is so much hate.”

Redenbaugh is seeking a second four-year term on the school board this fall. If she wins, it’ll be her final term.

This week, she’s reveling in her status as a delegate in her new party. Obama is the first Democratic candidate for president she has ever supported.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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