BY CLYDE HUGHES, AC JosepH Media
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Ashley Bennett has gotten comfortable with her job as Atlantic County Freeholder over the past nine months, away from the national spotlight that pushed her into the news media around the country.
Publications like the Washington Post and national networks like MSNBC all wanted to talk to Bennett after she defeated Republican freeholder incumbent John Carman, a man who made national headlines of his own by mocking the 2017 Women’s March on Washington after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
“I think things have settled down to a reasonable degree,” said Bennett, at 33 the youngest Atlantic County freeholder and quite possibly the youngest elected official in the entire county. “Every now and then (I will hear from the national media) if it’s a salient issue, something that is affecting New Jersey.
“Someone may want a quote from me or something of that nature. For the most part it’s been me just focusing on learning my job, making sure that I’m doing a good job,” she added.
Life has not quite been the same for the psychiatric emergency screener in the crisis department at Cape Regional Hospital who turned politician. Carman had insulted the Women’s March with a social media meme, then suggested at the freeholders meeting that “strong and confident” women weren’t offended by the joke afterwards.
Bennett attended that freeholders meeting to hear Carman for herself and admitted she knew the moment she left the meeting that she would run against him – to the utter surprise of her family and friends.
“My family was initially shocked I decided to run for office but they were very encouraging,” Bennett said, looking back over her campaign and election. “My brother and sister put up yard signs around the community. My mom knocked on doors with my petition to get my name on the ballot and came to events and fundraisers.
“My family donated to my campaign and my aunt and uncle came to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City to see me give my speech in the very beginning. Most of my family is in Atlantic County with relatives in our states along the East Coast. I attended Rutgers University and came home to Egg Harbor Township to work within the mental health field and to help my mom who raised myself and my siblings as a single mother.”
And while Bennett has been studying at times the boring nuts of bolts of county government, she said she realizes that she is a role model for women and other minorities along with millennials who may want to take a look at a role in government themselves.
“I think I’m proud of (being a role model),” Bennett told FrontRunnerNewJersey.com. “My most concerning thought is, ‘Am I doing a good job?’ because that’s a part that I think about in regards to being a role model.
“Sometimes you have to make hard decisions. Sometimes you can’t always be emotional about those decisions, showing that in leadership, it’s more than just gaining a title. There’s a level of responsibility that goes along with that. I’m very humbled by the fact that people think of me as a role model. I don’t take it lightly. That even more so fuels me to be able to do a good job,” she added.
Even more so than being a role model, Bennett said she hopes she can change the perception of what a political official stereotypically looks like.
“What we would think of an elected official and what that person would look like in make of gender, race, or background is changing,” Bennett said. “I think that’s starting to change and I’m glad to be a part of that; that you don’t necessarily have to look or be a certain way to hold that particular office and to engage in public service.
“I like the fact that more and more millennials are involved because I feel like we bring something to the table. There’s a uniqueness about our age group and our desire to want to be engaged but also to solve problems,” she continued.
As far as the nitty gritty details of being a freeholder, Bennett said that she would like to use her professional background to bring issues of barriers to mental health treatment to the foreground, along with access to proper health care and services.
Bennett has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University, a master’s in community counseling from Georgian Court University and a post baccalaureate certificate in clinical psychology from Fielding Graduate University. She also has earned a minor in organizational leadership and was a Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program Scholar.
“I want to help people who have been in the patient or consumer role because you speak directly to that and the challenges that you know that they face,” Bennett said. “I’ve worked in the field for a decade now in a lot of different capacities. So you can talk about the nuances and the care, and what that looks like.”
As one of two African-American freeholders on the nine-member Atlantic County board – Ernest Coursey is the other – Bennett said she feels she has been accepted.
“I haven’t had any adverse experiences, but I think my approach is to come in and try to solve problems for the community,” Bennett said. “I think that’s respected and well received. I just want to do a good job, number one; and I want to solve problems. I don’t think that anyone, regardless of whatever side of the aisle you fall on, could take issue with that.”
Despite working full-time along with her duties as a freeholder, Bennett said she still tries to get out into the community and meet people regularly outside of meetings.
“I am very excited to see that and to be a part of it,” Bennett said, added that she has enjoyed being the freeholder representative on the county’s youth services commission. “There’s a lot of different things that I’ve been able to do that I enjoy.
“I want people to know that I’m in my first year doing what I need to learn my job and to be effective, and be impactful in a positive way. That’s where my focus is right now,” she added.
Political plans for the future? Bennett said she is simply taking things one step at a time.
“For me, everything has been such a whirlwind,” Bennett said. “I haven’t had that moment to sit down and reflect as of yet to be like what is the next step. My main concern is how do you navigate your first year and how do you get really immersed in your role and start to work on the problems that you know are there?
“I think as I do that, I think what will happen later will work itself out. It’s not necessarily not an option, or something that I haven’t considered or not given that much concern about. It’s just not the immediate pressing issue for me,” she said.
Bennett, though, has quietly made the most of that time so far.