- By Samantha Schmidt The Washington Post
Ashley Bennett didn't make it to the Women's March on Washington in January. She badly wanted to be there, but couldn't take the day off her job, screening a 24-hour emergency crisis hotline in New Jersey.
Still, the 32-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident watched the march on television, inspired by the droves of women flooding the streets in protest.
Two days later, a friend emailed her a screenshot of the Facebook post that would change her entire career.
A local elected official, Atlantic County freeholder John L. Carman, had posted a meme on Facebook the day of the Women's March, showing a woman stirring a pot over a kitchen stove.
"Just asking?" Carman wrote above the meme, which said: "Will the woman's protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?"
In another post, he shared an image with the words, "There must be a large sandwich making class going on in DC today," according to Shore News Today.
Bennett was "furious," she said in an interview with The Washington Post. "It's 2017. Really? Is that what we're going to do?"
"How do you have the time to be on social media belittling and mocking people when there is all this work to be done?" she said.
The following day, she joined a group of 30 women who spoke up at a meeting with county officials, confronting Carman about the "misogynistic" post, which he later deleted, Bennett said. One woman showed up with a box of macaroni and cheese, telling Carman to "cook his own damn dinner."
"It was in bad taste, the joke I posted," Carman acknowledged to the crowded room. "But it was just that. It was a joke . . . nothing serious about it." He suggested that "strong, confident" women in his life "didn't get offended by this."
Bennett left the meeting dissatisfied, just as angry as before.
As she vented to her family at home that night, they asked her, "why don't you run?" Bennett recalled. "I thought, why don't I run?"
So she did. She campaigned for her first race ever, running as the youngest candidate on the county ticket.
And on Tuesday night, she won.
Bennett unseated Carman, a 58-year-old Republican elected in 2014 who has held various positions in local government for two decades.
She beat him as a Democratic challenger in a Republican stronghold, winning by nearly 1,000 votes out of the 14,000 cast for the seat, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A "freeholder" is an elected county commissioner in New Jersey responsible for legislation and oversees county budgets. Atlantic County has a nine-member freeholder board, with each freeholder elected to a three-year term.
"I never saw this coming, ever," Bennett said. "If you would have asked me back in November, would you run for office? I would have looked at you strangely," Bennett said.
"I surprised my family and I surprised myself," she added.
Politicians often toss around the concept of turning anger into action. During his farewell address, former president Barack Obama told Americans: "If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself."
But how many Americans actually follow through with that call to public service? Bennett's story serves up some concrete proof that emboldened, everyday citizens can run for office - and win, no matter the age or level of experience.
"Ashley Bennett's victory proves that democracy works best when ordinary people speak out, vote, and run for office," Caseen Gaines, her communications director, told the Associated Press.
"Ashley Bennett, you go girl! This is America!" tweeted Julie Brixie, a mother and municipal treasurer currently running for the Michigan state House.
"This is how our government is meant to work," another woman posted on Facebook. "What a breath of fresh air."
And Bennett is not alone. Farther north in New Jersey, a 93-year-old World War II veteran won a stunning victory over the incumbent mayor of Tinton Falls.
"I didn't think I had a chance," Vito Perillo told NJ.com. But he chose to run because he was "disappointed with the lack of transparency" in the town government, he wrote on Facebook. Two recent whistleblower lawsuits involving the police department cost the town $1.1 million in settlements, the Asbury Park Press reported.
And Danica Roem, a local journalist and rock band singer, became the first openly transgender person to be elected to Virginia's statehouse. She knocked out Robert Marshall, 73, who called himself Virginia's "chief homophobe" and referred to her with male pronouns throughout the campaign.
Why did Roem enter the race in the first place? "Because I'm fed up with the frickin' road over in my home town," she said after her victory.
Ashley Bennett's career path has been fueled by the needs of her community, she told The Post.
On Sept. 11, one of her relatives had been in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and another in a building next door. As Bennett waited to hear from them that day, in fear of what may have happened, she prayed to God.
"Please spare my family and I will serve to help people," Bennett prayed, she recalled. Her relatives survived. "And I didn't go back on my word."
Just before her 17th birthday, she became an EMT, and "discovered her passion to serve others in the back of the ambulance," she writes on her website.
She continued working in health care through her job in the crisis department at Cape Regional Hospital, working as a psychiatric emergency screener.
Now, she'll be overseeing government in a county of about 275,000 people, including the neighborhood where she was born and raised.
"I still live down the street from my high school," she said. Her neighbors have known her for her entire life. During her campaign, she knocked on the doors of former teachers.
Bennett canvassed the community from the beginning of summer up until Election Day, when she trekked door-to-door in the rain, asking neighbors to vote.
Campaigning in a Republican stronghold, she faced significant pushback from longtime supporters of her opponent. Last month, when Carman was photographed wearing a patch on his jacket with a Confederate symbol, Bennett was criticized for her response.
"As a woman of color, I had a deep, visceral reaction to the images I saw," Bennett said in a statement at the time, the Press of Atlantic City reported. "I honestly could not even believe it. The Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred, intolerance and bigotry. The fact that Freeholder Carman believes this is appropriate conduct for an elected official in New Jersey in the year 2017 is outrageous."
After her condemnation, Bennett was targeted on a white supremacist blog, she said.
"You have to just stay laser-focused on what is happening right in front of you," she said.
As freeholder, she hopes to end the rise of foreclosures in her community and help the thousands of residents left unemployed after the closures of some Atlantic City casinos. She plans to focus on the opioid epidemic, and on the county's outdated mental health plan.
Beyond that, she said, she wants to show other young people that "if you see something that you don't like, or that you think should be changed. . .then do it."
"Don't let anybody tell you that it's not your turn," she said. "If you're fearful about it, do it afraid and see it through. Because you never know what could happen."