Cranbury’s Candidates Night, occurring less than a month before Election Day, gave two candidates the chance to directly answer questions from voters, as they vie for one seat on the Township Committee.
The Cranbury tradition took place for the first time virtually on Oct. 7, featuring Republican candidate Joseph Buonavolonta and incumbent Mayor Matt Scott as the Democratic candidate.
Sponsored by the Woman’s Club of Cranbury in partnership with the Cranbury Public Library, the two candidates fielded questions from residents ranging from their stance on a stand-alone library to party politics.
The first key topic broached by residents centered around where each candidate stood on a freestanding library being built in town and whether it was a need or a want.
“I think it should have been a recreation/library/technology center. My kids are 11 and 16; when you get that age in Cranbury there is absolutely nothing to do,” Buonavolonta said. “I think if we had a basketball court, pool, track, gym and library all in one, you would get people dropping their kids off for basketball games and going downtown for eating. The downtown would be blooming. We would be making a lot of money.”
He added that a lot more private donations would have come through with a comprehensive center compared to waiting on the state funding to complete the total funds needed for just the library building project.
“I think the library should be on the ballot. I do not think anyone from the Township Committee should be able to take our tax money and put it towards the library, until it is voted on,” Buonavolonta said in referencing if state funding is not able to be acquired. “I do not think the project itself has enough push to get people downtown. You need to do something more than just a freestanding library.”
Scott stated that if re-elected he wants to make sure the library gets built in the coming year.
“I completely agree the library should have been built a long time ago. I will say because of the grant process, we really want the library to be a community center and it will, we could not really use that sort of language to describe it as such,” he said. “To some of the bigger ideas Joe has I agree our downtown lacks a draw and the library is going to be a key part of that. As we have seen with COVID and the library being forced to shut down the town is really missing something vital.”
Scott reiterated that the library will be a community center that has an outdoor space and gathering space inside.
“After I came on the committee there was push back on spending everywhere. We all want our taxes to remain low I get that,” he said. “The idea of building a community center seems great to me, but will be untenable. People are not going to want to put that kind of money in unfortunately. The ideas Joe (Buonavolonta) has are great, but the actually reality of getting these things built is so much more difficult than that.”
Another important topic asked by residents sought answers about what the candidates thought on new businesses being successful in downtown and what would need to occur to ensure their success.
“Before the Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC), I had been trying to figure out how to do this,” Scott said. “I did look at towns like Bordentown. Bordentown transitioned from a town with dive bars and honky tonk bars and figured out a way to turn things around and became this sort of restaurant mecca. They did it through marketing and their Township Committee being aggressive with zoning and marketing the town as a restaurant destination.
“We can figure out how to market the town, how to ease zoning so that when a new business wants to come in to town and they are looking at a spot on Route 130 where it is easier for them to set up shop, we have to find something similar for the downtown,” he added. “I have already helped the Zoning Board get rid of the parking requirements for a new business. We figured out the parking regulations, it is small I know but a start.”
Buonavolonta suggested getting people downtown to support the businesses currently occupying downtown.
“If you are going to bring in new businesses and no one is going to support them, then you are going to have vacant buildings,” he said. “A typical week for me, I go down to Teddy’s Restaurant for a sandwich, go for ice cream at Gil and Bert’s Ice Cream, I go get my dog clean and at night I’ll go get a dinner and steak at the Cranbury Inn. You have to support the town. People have to start using the stuff we have in town and you will bloom this town.”
An area of tension between the candidates arose when a resident asked the candidates about where they see the role of party politics in Cranbury, and if they could would they support going to a party-less election system moving forward for the town.
“I don’t really see party politics when I am walking around Cranbury. I don’t know I love everybody, we talk and get along. Yeah it might be Republican and Democrat but we talk to each and still walk out shake hands and get a beer,” Buonavolonta said.
Scott answered by saying he does not bring national party politics into conducting the town’s business.
“Those that know me know that I am probably more liberal and progressive than most people in town; however, I really do not bring those judgments into the Township Committee. What I do is figure out what is best for the town,” he said. “It is sometimes hard to tell when people are running what party they are. It does not really matter. It matters how we govern.”
As far as having an apolitical election, Scott did not see it as a terrible idea.
“I do think though a little bit of push back against Republicans, especially this year, I do think there is something scary about national politics right now, specially identifying as a Republican is scary to a lot of people in town, because they look at the president, and Joe (Buonavolonta), I am not saying you,” he said. “Some people, people of color or different sexual orientations, to them it might seem a little scary to hear the words that come out of Trump’s mouth, so I think there is something to that. In general, I do not bring national politics into what I do for the township.”
The following day on Oct. 8, Buonavolonta issued a statement to the press on the comment regarding Republicans.
“I want to respond to the comment made by Mayor Scott last night regarding Republicans being racist. Our town is wonderful and our volunteers come from all parties, genders, faiths and orientation,” he said. I think it is appalling that an elected leader would consider half the town he represents that they hold a view that they are racist just on political affiliation. We should all be and expect better than that from elected officials.”
Scott responded by stating that Buonavolonta’s comment is simply a distraction and has nothing to do with the actual business of leading the town.
“First of all, let me state that I did not say that I think that all Republicans are racist. For Joe to say that is a complete misrepresentation of what I said,” he said. “What I did say is that there are many people – Black and Brown, lesbian, gay or bisexual, to name a few broad groups – who have a real fear of the national Republican leadership’s treatment of them and other minority groups. It would not be unexpected for them to apply that fear and distrust to anyone running for office under the Republican label.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I do not apply labels and that I judge all individuals on their merits regardless of their political leanings. In fact, some of my closest friends in town are Republicans,” he added. “I have included some prominent Republican women in the work I’ve been doing as mayor. I appointed Nancy Witt (my prior Republican opponent) to the EDAC. I’ve put Evelyn Spann onto multiple important Township Committee boards.”