Colleen Bianco Bezich has yet to meet a challenge she doesn’t want to tackle head on — and succeed at when she does.
The next challenge is her role as the newest member of Haddonfield’s board of commissioners. Selected by borough voters on Nov. 5 to fill the unexpired term of departed public works head John Moscatelli, Bezich will take over for Bob Marshall, who was appointed to the post back in July.
“Why I’m so interested in serving here is due to the fact that I have a ton of practical experience and I’m a total nerd for policy,” Bezich admitted in a conversation with the Sun this month.
“I thrive on being thoughtful, diligent and intent on listening for the minutiae: snowplows, leaves, speed bumps.”
Raised with the principles of the Democratic Party thanks to a father in the unions and a mother whose Irish-Catholic roots were energized by JFK, Bezich received her first lessons outside the home at Camden Catholic High School, whose diversity she credits for her desire to engage in public service.
A double major in journalism and anthropology at Ithaca College, Bezich then earned a dual law degree and master’s degree in public administration at Rutgers-Camden.
An apprenticeship in local governance began while she was an undergrad, when her then-boyfriend (now husband) Anthony’s father ran a company on Tanner Street that served 25 South Jersey municipalities as an outsourced resource for actions such as grant writing and oversight of economic development projects.
“I was coming home on breaks and working in the office,” she recalled. “The first two years I was a glorified administrative assistant. Due to my journalism (courses), I was also writing the press releases. I started doing the everyday work that various mayors’ offices didn’t have time to do.”
Following graduation and another stint in her future father-in-law’s office, Bezich worked for a year in development for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, then for a spell at Philadelphia’s Commerce Department.
Eventually, she was accepted into Temple’s Master’s in Urban Planning program, but before matriculating, she received a letter from Rutgers courting her for its law school. She deferred Temple for a year, started at Rutgers, loved it, and pursued the dual degrees there instead.
At the same time, she searched for municipal oversight jobs and found one in South Harrison Township, Gloucester County. Bezich served as business administrator and chief operating officer and oversaw a budget of $1.6 million, promising to secure enough funding to compensate for her salary.
“I ended up becoming the youngest female manager of a municipality in the state, at just 24 years old,” she said. “It was shocking to find no other woman even as young as 30 in that position anywhere.
“I was driving from South Harrison to Rutgers, learning the theory and practice of law each night and putting it into practice each day.”
Bezich also learned first hand about simmering racial tensions. South Harrison’s mayor was the first African-American to serve there, around the time of Barack Obama’s first candidacy for President of the United States.
“I had the FBI tapping phone lines because he was receiving death threats, and had his tires slashed,” she remembered. “I would get calls for death threats to him on my own phone line. It was a stressful time but an unbelievable learning experience. It opened my eyes at a larger level as to how race relations impact communities.”
As a result, addressing diversity, equality and inclusivity in meaningful, substantive ways became a cornerstone of her campaign.
“If you listened to one part of our debate, the question about diversity, the answers that were given were embarrassing and all the same,” Bezich lamented.
“We have to engage constituents of various race, age, and gender groups. We have to do a better job of making our children understand the community is made up of different perspectives and backgrounds and we should be embracing it. We lost opportunities with the lacrosse incident and comments made about affordable housing.”
Having first lived in Gloucester County, then almost 10 years in Philadelphia, the Beziches always knew Haddonfield would be the place to raise a family.
“We did it for the schools, for the business community and for the ease of transit into the arts and culture of Philly,” she said. “It was a no-brainer. When we found out we were going to have our son, we actually made an offer on our house from Mexico. I’m a sucker for character and charm and historic resources.”
It’s not all work and no play in the Bezich household. Between managing separate businesses and raising their craft-loving, 4-year-old son, there’s time enough for travel: places as distant as South America and Europe, or as comforting as Cape May and Sea Isle City.
By bringing home lessons of culture and experience, Bezich feels she can be successful in Haddonfield going forward.
“I’m committed to representing everyone, regardless of political affiliation, residency status, whatever,” she insisted. “This is a very short term, but over the next 16 to 18 months, I’m working for residents and here for our best interests.”