EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. — It's been a year since Ashley Bennett stood in a light drizzle outside the Atlantic County building in Northfield, quietly disappointed that Freeholder John Carman had failed to apologize for mocking the Women's March with a joke on Facebook about whether the women at the march would be home in time to cook dinner.
The rest, truly, has become history.
Bennett, 32, a psychiatric screener at a Cape May County hospital emergency room who grew up in Egg Harbor Township, decided to run for Carman's Ward 3 freeholder seat, famously won election, and has become a celebrated symbol of the Run for Something movement that has empowered women and other first-time politicians like her to get themselves elected.
From the unexpected late-night results of the obscure Atlantic County election that went viral, to the calls the next day to appear on CNN and MSNBC, the casual mention by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, Bennett knew early on that things were going to get surreal. And they did.
Earlier this month, Bennett spoke to a crowd of hundreds of thousands at the Women's March in New York City in a speech described by local news as "rousing," was featured the next day on The View in an interview with Whoopi Goldberg, and was one of the women on Time magazine's recent cover depicting women getting involved in politics. She's been chronicled in the German media and celebrated by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (who mentioned Bennett in her speech at the Washington women's march this month, to broad cheers).
"I was glad I didn't pass out," Bennett said last week. "I was just excited to be a part of it."
But at nearly the same time that day, back home, Carman was still making mischief.
For reasons he described later as innocuous, he showed up at the women's march that was held in Ocean City and posted about it on Facebook, returning to the scene of his original meme misstep that cost the veterans advocate his seat on the freeholder board and made him into an international object of ridicule and anger (the "antichrist of the left," he says). The local women who bought boxes of mac and cheese to protest that night at the freeholders meeting a year ago were just the start of it.
Bennett said she was told of Carman's appearance at the end of the march, informed by her communications director. As is her way, she took it in stride.
"My communications director went on Twitter and he was like: `Listen, this is what's happening. Apparently John Carman's at the march in Ocean City,' " Bennett said in an interview at a table at the back of her local Egg Harbor Township branch of the Atlantic County Library, where she will sometimes go to work on her graduate studies or just read. "I was like, Really? OK."
She later posted that she hoped he was there to listen and learn, and Carman, in an interview, said he did not heckle as some accused him of doing, and said he really was there to listen.
"There was no heckling or bantering," Carman said. "I went to see what was going on. I'm not the guy I was painted to be. Let's put it this way: I don't disagree with everything they say. I'm a conservative Republican. A lot I do disagree with. As far as equal pay for women, that was all good stuff."
Bennett said she thinks she and Carman were both in shock over the results of the election, and maybe still are, especially with all the international attention that has followed.
"I have to give credit to him at least showing up and being willing to listen," she said.
But enough about Carman. The question Bennett gets asked most these days is what's next for her.
"I literally say, 'I've had the job for 2.5 seconds,' " she says. "What's next is doing the job, doing what's best for Atlantic County."
She's been appointed to the library and youth commissions and says she's eager to work on issues related to economic distress and opioid addiction in the county, for which her background in psychology and mental health makes her well-suited.
Asked about running for a bigger post in 2020, she says: "I'm not there yet."
Asked about whether her win might have coattails for a candidate such as Tanzie Youngblood, another first-time candidate and woman of color, now running for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Republican Frank LoBiondo and also featured on the Time cover, Bennett bursts out laughing. Coattails!
It seems preposterous, but it's not. As Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson pointed out to her, she is the first Atlantic County resident to be on the cover of Time since the current Egg Harbor Township mayor's father, Joseph McCullough, back in 1964. He was pictured behind Barry Goldwater, Levinson said.
Bennett hasn't endorsed anyone in that race, and certainly isn't running herself, but her success and affiliation with the Run for Something organization, which embraced her candidacy and others like her, including Danica Roem of Virginia, has left people wondering about her potential on a bigger stage. She's also a 2018 Fellow with the New Leaders Council Institute, which trains young people for political and other leadership careers.
But if the irresistible fable of her electoral victory is told over and over again (just listen to Gillibrand's delight as she draws out slowly the tale, Ashley Bennett in New Jersey who beat an incumbent who mocked the Women's March by wondering whether the marchers would be home in time to cook dinner), Bennett says she wants to make sure one part of her victory isn't overlooked: Ashley Bennett herself and her connection to the town whose voters quietly chose her over John Carman.
"It's not just the story of John Carman," she said. "I'm also a daughter of this community, I grew up here and went to school here. I have teachers who know me. I've always been in Egg Harbor Township."
Just ask Whoopi.