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Candidate Profile: Elizabeth Redenbaugh (D), NC Senate, District 9

Tom Fitzsimmons
John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
Elizabeth Redenbaugh accepting the JFK Profile In Courage Award

The race for North Carolina’s Senate District 9 is changing rapidly. 

On Friday, Republican Senator Thom Goolsby announced he wouldn’t run for re-election.  The next day, Democrat Elizabeth Redenbaugh declared her intention to seek that seat and represent New Hanover County in Raleigh. 

In a recent conversation, the native North Carolinian told WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn that she’s troubled by the actions of the state’s Republican-led majority – including the push for a Voter ID law, the refusal to expand Medicaid benefits, and shrinking funding for public education in the state. 


RLH:  Tell us why you’ve decided to run. 

ER:  I am a native North Carolinian.  I was born in Charlotte, raised in Winston-Salem, went to school in Chapel Hill – undergrad and law school – and, quite frankly, when I take a look around my state, I don’t really recognize it any more.  I’m concerned about the future of our state.  I want to see North Carolina turn itself around again and be a state that we can be proud of.  Right now, we’re a laughingstock around the nation. 

RLH:  Now, you started life as a Republican.

ER:  I did.

RLH:  You switched parties in 2011 and became a Democrat.  So your talk about the Republican-led majority… it’s sort of an interesting position for you. 

ER:  Absolutely.  I understand that it isLike you said, I originally ran as a Republican, and I actually registered as a Republican the very day that I turned 18 years old. 

When I jumped into the field in 2008 as a school board member, I realized some things about the Republican Party that I hadn’t before.  For instance, I took a very strong stance on racial and socio-economic diversity within the schools, and even though I presented my Republican colleagues with data that showed that high-poverty concentration within a school leads that school to only have a 1.1% chance of success based upon the data.  And I couldn’t imagine anyone that subscribes to a business model would actually try to put in place a school that has a 99% chance of failure. 

So that was the beginning of understanding – or realizing – that I needed to do some soul-searching.  I’m a very conservative person as far as my lifestyle goes.  But then, when I started looking at social and moral issues, I realized that I don’t want to use the political process to force other people to live the same lifestyle that I do.

I felt as though making that switch to the Democratic Party was the right choice for me and I also didn’t want to mislead voters.

RLH:  There was a recent study done by UNC’s Center for Civil Rights called “The Inclusion Project” and it was documenting racial disparities across the state in a number of different ways.  And one of the things they found was that 91% of residents in racially-excluded communities have a high-poverty elementary school as their closest school in New Hanover County.  New Hanover County had some of the highest rates of segregation.  Putting political correctness aside, why does that matter?

ER:  Actually, when I decided to run for the school board, because that was the issue that catapulted me into the race, so I thought, ‘Well, am I crazy? Because I’m not hearing a lot of people talk about this.’  And so I did my homework – you know – went on the web, found studies.  But then I also took the time to go and visit our high-poverty schools, sat in classrooms, I talked with our principals. 

Because of my stand on diversity and the controversy that ensued, I later won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.  And through that I’ve gotten to meet just amazing people – one of which was Deval Patrick, who is the Governor of Massachusetts.  And he had a similar background, you know, went from high-poverty to a school where there wasn’t a high-poverty concentration and he said to me, “Elizabeth, you can’t be what you haven’t seen.”

RLH:  You said earlier that having successful schools relates to a sound business plan.

ER:  If you’re following a business model, why wouldn’t you create a school where you know – based upon data – that you have set them up for success?  And that’s what we have not done here in New Hanover County.  The end result is when we have children that are failing, that are dropping out of school, then from a business sense, it’s going to hurt the economy.  These are those people that are going to end up on welfare.  They are going to end up in our prison system.  So, why do we want to create a population – or a subset of our population – that is on government assistance?  We want to build and grow good, productive citizens. 

RLH:  North Carolina was one of 24 states to refuse the expansion of Medicaid benefits. 

ER:  I think it’s horrible when you have taken away the ability of half a million North Carolinians to have health insurance.  That is – it’s unconscionable.  My husband was actually diagnosed with cancer in 2010.  He’s a cancer survivor now.  But I am very familiar [with] what people go through who have life-threatening illnesses.  We’ve been very blessed that he’s doing wonderfully right now.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be standing here today if he wasn’t. 

You know, I’ve also seen through that process when you’re a cancer patient, you have emergencies.  You end up in the Emergency Room.  And so many times we would see people in the ER that were using that as their primary care doctor.  It increases wait times, it drives up costs, and so it’s incumbent upon us to provide that health care – especially for some our neediest families and individuals here in North Carolina.

RLH:  One of the big pushes last year was tax reform, and along with that comes a hard look at incentives.  Film incentives – that’s a huge issue.  A lot of people have a lot at stake in this region.

ER:  They do.  They do.  That’s something that I feel very strongly in favor of.  I hope, when I get up there, to eliminate that sunset provision.  Currently, that law is set to sunset December 31st, 2014. 

That’s already turned away business from North Carolina.  Because when they are planning, whether it be a TV show or a film, that pre-production period is a year, year-and-a-half prior to the start of filming. 

It’s just part of how we do business right now, and we have got incredibly skilled tradesman that live here in New Hanover County that are a part of our community, that are invaluable to that industry.  And those jobs are incredibly important to them.  They add to our tax base.  So it’s incredibly important that we keep that.

RLH:  Thanks for joining us today, Elizabeth Redenbaugh.

ER:  It was a pleasure to talk to you.  Thank you. 


Listen to the short version here.

In 2008, Elizabeth Redenbaugh ran as a Republican candidate and won a seat on the New Hanover County School Board.  That’s when she says she discovered her positions on a number of issues – including diversity in schools – were not aligned with those of her Republican colleagues. 

After vocal opposition to a school redistricting plan that Redenbaugh feared would intensify segregation and set up high-poverty schools up for failure, she won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and switched her party affiliation to Democratic. 

If elected to the state senate, her first order of business, she says, would be increasing pay for public school teachers. 

“I join with former Governor Hunt in wanting to see our teacher’s pay reach the national average.  When we neglect our public schools we’re neglecting the future of our state…  I mean, I can probably list off ten teachers that have left or are leaving.  They’re going across state lines where they can make at least $10,000 more or they’re entering the private sector where they can make more money.” 

Part of a good state business plan, says Redenbaugh, is ensuring that at-risk children have a shot at becoming productive citizens.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.