Few people embody the true spirit of public service like Joan Bannan. A trailblazer who became the first Democrat to serve on the Bernards Township Committee in decades, as well as the first female Democrat ever elected to the governing body, Bannan’s resume reflects a tireless commitment to community and to breaking down partisan walls.
A Brooklyn native raised in the Bergen County borough of Dumont, Bannan was not particularly active politically while growing up. Politics, however, was in her blood. “I was the daughter of a politician,” she said, noting that her father was a two-term Republican councilman. “I always had an interest in it, and we always talked about politics.” Bannan herself was a registered Republican, as was the family practice.
After completing law school and beginning her career – she’s now of counsel at Morristown-based Porzio, Bromberg, & Newman, P.C. – she found herself thinking more deeply about her beliefs. “As I got older, I felt like the Republican party didn’t have a place for me, particularly as a woman,” she recalled, citing Republicans’ refusal to pass the Equal Rights Amendment or address disparities in pay between the genders. After the election of George W. Bush, and the decision to enter the Iraq War, she felt further estranged from the GOP. Bannan was also turned off by the acrimony she saw in politics, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s manipulation of the media to paint his colleagues on the other side of the aisle as enemies.
By the early 2000s, Bannan was living in nearby Bridgewater and a mother of four children when she began to look into relocating to Basking Ridge. Her older son had some learning disabilities, and she knew Bernards Township schools had the reputation of being proactive in this area. She and her family made the move in 2002. Bannan sent all of her children through the public school system, becoming a busy volunteer with all of their activities.
While Bannan hadn’t taken the dive into politics at that point, she was paying attention. Still smarting from Bush’s presidency, she read “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama, who at the time was not yet a presidential candidate. “He spoke to my concern about the state of politics, in which people seemed unable or unwilling to work together to find solutions and were taking a dangerous turn towards ideologic rigidity,” she said. “He also spoke about elected officials being of service to their community rather than their ego.” Bannan was so captivated that she bought all of her siblings Obama Christmas ornaments that year.
While not yet officially involved in town politics, over the years Bannan held positions on the Bernards Township Board of Health and on the Municipal Alliance. Under her leadership, Bernards Township joined a statewide movement and became a Stigma Free Town, one that declared itself free of stigma for people suffering from mental illness. She chaired this initiative, which provided educational programs and films for both adults and youths, and became a volunteer speaker on the subject of adolescent substance-use disorders. In 2017, Bannan became a Certified Youth Mental Health Instructor under the National Council for Behavioral Health, helping to train residents as well as many of the school district’s administrators and teachers. For this effort, and her other volunteer work, she was honored by the Somerset County Federation of Democratic Women with the Eleanor Roosevelt Volunteer Service Award.
Galvanized by the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Bannan had by then officially changed her political affiliation to Democrat, and she decided to make her years of community service the centerpiece of a campaign to win a slot on the all-Republican Township Committee. In 2017, Bannan teamed up with candidate Sally Booth to take on their Republican adversaries, but she fell short by 86 votes despite a promising effort.
Undeterred, Bannan ran again in 2018, this time with Bobby Mascia, prevailing over her closest Republican rival by 29 votes. With this victory, she served as the sole Democrat on the Township Committee from 2019 through 2021. She was appointed to several significant committee assignments, including the Planning Board, the Board of Health, the Municipal Alliance, the Sewer Commission, the Parks and Recreation Committee, the Environmental Committee, Farmstead Arts, and Public Works. The next year, she became the liaison to the police department.
One of her most significant achievements was the creation of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. In late 2021, despite the pandemic, the group held a well-attended event at the Bernards Township Library that spurred discussion about the experiences of residents of different religions, races, ages, and abilities. “One thing we discovered was a segment of the community who had adult children who were aging out of the special-needs programs and were in need of employment,” Bannan said. At the meeting, she recalled, a man from a local business group expressed his belief that his group could be of assistance, and a beneficial relationship was formed. (Unfortunately, after Bannan ended her term and the newly all-Republican Township Committee was sworn in, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee was disbanded.)
Bannan also orchestrated the purchase and display of banners in 2020, thanks to residents’ donations, to celebrate the centennial of women’s right to vote in the U.S. The following year, she encouraged residents once again to donate funds. This time, they were used to buy rainbow banners now displayed every June in front of Town Hall in honor of Pride Month.
When asked about her hopes and dreams for the Bernards Township Democratic Committee, Bannan was thoughtful. She acknowledged that while county, state, and national politics are important, it can be easy to get mired in those and neglect local races. “Our attention has to be on growing the party at the community level,” she stated. “We need to grow strong roots here first, otherwise we’re just a tree that’s going fall over.” Bannan recommended that BTDC members make it a practice to read the agendas for Township Committee and other meetings, as well as attend meetings from time to time or at least watch them remotely. “Given Ana’s win, and with Lily Wong having come so close, we know the votes are there,” she said, referring to newly elected Township Committee member Ana McCarthy, a Democrat, and her running mate. “We can build on this momentum by becoming well versed about local government and present or potential issues.”