Jo Ann Nardelli says she feels like she lost part of her family.
The longtime Democrat from Blair County quit the party and registered as a Republican, and then boldly walked in a Memorial Day parade in support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“A couple of people who I thought were friends turned their backs on me, literally, as I was walking in the parade,” she said on Tuesday. “I have to admit it made me sad, but that is the way it is.”
Nardelli, 59, a former borough council member in Newry, outside Altoona, registered as a Democrat after high school and rose to the party’s executive board. She was vice president of the women’s caucus and first vice president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Democratic Women when she quit last week.
“This was not an easy decision,” Nardelli said. “I prayed over it.”
She is among several high-profile Democrats — including former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former state party chairman T.J. Rooney and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark — finding fault with President Obama’s policy decisions and the direction of his re-election campaign.
Booker’s communications director, Anne Torres, resigned yesterday, slightly more than a week since the mayor drew flak from fellow Democrats for criticizing Obama’s campaign.
Rendell, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, last week expressed his displeasure with the campaign’s attack on Bain Capital, the Boston private equity firm that Romney once led. The campaign has portrayed Romney as a heartless profiteer who enriched himself with corporate buyouts that led to bankruptcies and layoffs.
“I think they’re very disappointing,” Rendell said of the ads in an MSNBC interview. Asked whether he is for or against the Obama campaign, Rendell answered, “Neither.”
Romney has dismissed the attacks as assault on free enterprise, saying not every deal is successful but most Bain-engineered buyouts during his tenure produced thousands of jobs.
Rooney, meanwhile, has voiced frustration about the administration’s push to more heavily restrict emissions from coal-fired power plants, saying “there needs to be a better balance.”
Some Democratic leaders, though, say they hear little resistance among the party faithful to Obama’s re-election strategy. To reconsider such a line of attack would be a mistake, said Jim Burn, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. The Obama campaign has said it will continue to roll out more anti-Bain stories in coming weeks.
“This is the exact conversation we should be having,” Burn said. “Romney invited this conversation, and we should go at it.”
Nardelli said she quit the party not because she lost an election for county commissioner, as her critics contend, but because the party is moving away from her values.
The final straw was Obama’s support for gay marriage, she said. “That, and the tug-of-war between the Catholic Church and the administration over the (health care) mandate have pushed me over the edge.”
Last week, Roman Catholic leaders in eight states and the District of Columbia filed federal lawsuits over a provision in the affordable health care act that mandates employers to cover birth control costs for workers, arguing the requirement violates religious freedom.
Patty Flanagan, a Democratic State Committee member from Altoona, said the Republican Party “has hit the lottery (by gaining) Jo Ann Nardelli. She is an incredibly hard worker, passionate and loves people. Sometimes, I swear she doesn’t sleep.”
To lose friends over party affiliation isn’t fair, Flanagan said.
“Is this what our country has come to? You won’t see me doing that,” said Flanagan, who invited Nardelli and her husband over for a barbecue after the parade.
Washington-based Republican strategist Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies finds the criticisms of the administration stunning.
“Even George Bush, at the bottom of his unpopularity, wasn’t seeing defections in his own party,” Haynes said. If people switch parties not for political expediency but because of conviction, he said, “It is more evidence of how out-of-step the president is with the cultural norms of centrist and independent voters and the people who see themselves as speaking for them.”
But Democratic strategist Dane Strother, of Strother Strategies in Washington, cites the adage: “You can’t please everyone.”
“Pennsylvania has a long history of Democrats who aren’t in lockstep with the national platform,” said Strother, pointing to the late Gov. Bob Casey, a pro-life advocate, and his son, Sen. Bob Casey Jr.
The fact that the president is still ahead in the polls indicates his positions aren’t overshadowing the fact that “it’s the economy, stupid,” Strother said.
Nardelli said she screens phone calls because some former peers reacted badly when she announced she changed parties.
“But I guess I have been adopted by a new family,” Nardelli said. At least one person, she said, wrote her a letter acknowledging intent to quit the party, too. “They called me a hero.”