When Democrats Ashley Bennett and Caren Fitzpatrick are sworn in as freeholders in January, they will join a record 41 women from both parties serving on freeholder boards across the state.
In 2018, the nine-member Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders will have, for the first time in its history, four women members. And across local politics, more women are getting into the race, particularly Democrats, who have cited the 2016 presidential election as the impetus for running, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“Obviously the 2016 election was the big thing, the big giant moment,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the center. “We noticed it immediately after the election.”
Sinzdak said the number of women who attended the 2017 Ready to Run program at Rutgers in the spring skyrocketed from the normal 150 attendees to 270. The center ended up having to cap the number of attendees, although there was a wait list.
Was it Hillary Clinton’s loss or Donald Trump’s win that prompted these women to run? Sinzdak said political scientists are studying that question.
“It’s hard to completely disentangle people’s disappointment at Hillary Clinton’s loss to their disappointment at Donald Trump’s win,” she said.
Sinzdak said most of the energy among new women candidates is on the Democratic side, with few new women candidates emerging on the Republican said.
“Many of them were challengers,” she said.
Bennett and Fitzpatrick were joined in the freeholder campaign by Democrat Thelma Witherspoon, who was defeated by incumbent Republican John Risley. On the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders, where Republican E. Marie Hayes is the lone woman on the five-person board, Democratic challenger Danielle Davies lost her first bid against two male Republican incumbents, Jeffrey Pierson and Will Morey.
Both Fitzpatrick and Bennett said they decided to run after the 2016 election and in response to a meme Atlantic County Freeholder John Carman posted to Facebook about the Women’s March in January that questioned whether the women would be home in time to make dinner.
Fitzpatrick, 58, grew up in Somers Point and now lives in Linwood. She is the director of finance and administration at Meet AC, Atlantic City’s convention marketing bureau. This was her first run for political office.
“I never ever considered running or being part of government myself until I was very unhappy when Hillary Clinton lost the election last year,” she said. “Then John Carman put his meme (on Facebook) and I sent in my resume the next day.”
Egg Harbor Township native Bennett, 32, had never considered a political run before the 2016 election. The psychiatric emergency screener at Cape Regional Medical Center said the election made her want to become involved in the Atlantic County Democratic Party. After the Women’s March, she received an email from the local party informing her of Carman’s Facebook post.
Bennett ran for and won Carman’s seat.
“I was not even 100 percent sure of how this would turn out, but I made a point that I wanted to stand for something,” Bennett said.
She hopes her run will show other young people they can stand up for what they believe in.
On the Republican side this year, Mary Gruccio was the lone female candidate running in New Jersey’s 1st Legislative District race for state Senate. Gruccio, a Republican from Vineland, faced incumbent Democrat Sen. Jeff Van Drew. As a Cumberland County freeholder from 2002 to 2008, and again in 2012, this wasn’t Gruccio’s first or even her second race.
Gruccio, 64, also superintendent of the Vineland School District, said politics, especially in South Jersey, is a male-dominated field.
“I think we need more women, and hopefully women can bring a different kind of change,” she said. “Sometimes women have a different perspective on things.”
Sinzdak said this moment could be considered a spike in women’s political participation. And although there might be a dip in future years, she believes there will continue to be increased female participation.
“Once you get people involved, they tend to stay involved,” she said. “People are recognizing that the democratic process is for all of us and the way you make a difference is by participating.”
Fitzpatrick was the top vote-getter Nov. 8, which she said is a “vote of confidence.”
“I’m not the first one, but the ice was broken in such a big way that people want to know that there’s a chance they’ll be successful,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think people will see that yes, if you can connect, you can be successful.”
Bennett said her win speaks to “a pushback against this divisive rhetoric coming out of our White House.”
“We’re fighting for the future that we want to see, not only for ourselves, but for generations behind us,” she said.
Looking ahead to 2018, Sinzdak said, interest is high, already four times that of two years ago.
“We have to wait and see how many of these people who have expressed interest actually run, but certainly the numbers are trending to be pretty dramatic,” she said.
Already one woman is seeking the congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd. Democrat Tanzie Youngblood, of Woolwich Township, Gloucester County, will face off in the primary against the favorite, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who has the backing of New Jersey Democratic political boss George Norcross. If elected, Youngblood would become the first woman representative from New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers most of South Jersey.
“We need more women because they actually will change the policy-making process by bringing all of their life experience to bear on the process. And any time you don’t have a segment of the population represented in government, you’re missing a whole set of issues and perspectives you need to have,” Sinzdak said.