Mayor-elect talks about future of Kenilworth

KENILWORTH, NJ — Throughout the next four years, and perhaps beyond, Kenilworth residents who dial 9-1-1 and ask for the local fire department should prepare for a visit from their mayor, as well.

They can thank this year’s narrow election results for that. Democrat Anthony Deluca, a 20-year fire department volunteer and veteran of the Kenilworth Town Council, edged out Republican incumbent Fred Pugliese for the mayorship on Nov. 3, garnering 890 votes to Pugliese’s 829.

Of the county’s five mayoral elections, Kenilworth was one of two cases where the challenger prevailed, the other being Summit. The mayor-elect credits his success to a clean, issues-oriented election “from both sides,” he said, and being able to relate with voters as a lifelong Kenilworth resident.

“If you dial 9-1-1, I’m going to help you. And I’m not going to ask you when I come to the door if you voted Republican,” Deluca joked. “All in all, it was a pretty tame election, without a lot of drama. Good guys on the other side, good guys on our side. We have a lot of similar issues, different ideologies for the means and methods of getting it done. In this town, you’re going for the same goals.”

For Deluca, many of those goals revolve around improving communication in town, including with a business community which could use a boost. A myriad of business-related issues are threatening to turn parts of Kenilworth into “a blighted area,” said Deluca, and too many stores are closing because of unsustainable rent prices, a lack of accessible parking and not enough foot traffic.

“What I would like to do, and this is a long-term hope, is to work on the center of the town. Work on some of the businesses that are empty, get a better partnership with our business owners,” said Deluca. “I look at the model of Garwood and I see what they’ve done, to that small town, and they’ve developed that whole North Avenue section. If they can do it, why can’t we?”

But arguably the most pressing issue facing Kenilworth, according to Deluca, is the township’s need for improved flood control. The weather-related trouble in Cranford over the years has been well-documented and Kenilworth, which is adjacent to Cranford, has suffered from the same exact problems.

It’s a “great stress on our town,” said Deluca. Some residents have been left with destroyed homes. And while Kenilworth is part of an Army Corps of Engineers plan, the first phase of which is waiting on approval from lawmakers in Washington, D.C., the township needs short-term protection from storms far less potent than Tropical Storm Irene.

“That was a big storm event. Now we’re having smaller storm events, we’re having those same types of flooding issues. People’s basements are getting flooded. These things have to be addressed,” said Deluca, who pointed out that the Army Corps of Engineers plan is years away from fruition. “We don’t have that time. There’s a solution there, and I’m a firm believer that with whatever obstacles, the community can come together and come up with something.”

Being part of a town-wide dialogue for these kinds of issues is a priority for Deluca, who would also like to see more communication between the community, the government and the board of education. The schools are the “heart of the town,” said Deluca, and residents deserve to be well-informed of how half their taxes are being spent.

“I would think the residents would find it more important to be more aware of what’s going on. We can’t vote on the budget anymore, because of the changes, but we can at least have more people discuss, in an open forum, with the board of education about where, exactly, the money is going to,” said Deluca. “And I don’t mean in an adversarial sense. I want us to work together”

Working together is likely to be an important theme in Deluca’s term. While Deluca will serve as the tie-breaker in case of a deadlock, four of the six Kenilworth Town Council members are Republican, meaning the mayor’s party is also the minority party in Kenilworth.

Election season is in the past, though, said Deluca. It’s time to “let go of hurt feelings,” if any exist, and move forward. If any divisive issues come up during his term, Deluca would like to sit down, discuss them over a cup of coffee and come up with a solution with the cooperation of his opponents, rather than leave the problem unresolved.

“People know me as a guy who is going to speak my truth, quietly. I want to be results-driven. If that means me having to compromise, in order to get a positive result, then we need to do that,” said Deluca. “Both parties should shed those ‘R’ and ‘D’ letters. We’re here as Kenilworthians. When all of the fanfare of the elections is over, you have to take that hat off, and you have to put on the Kenilworth hat.”

Serving the town’s best interests, after all, is ultimately why the council members and mayor do what they do, said Deluca. It’s the reason the Kenilworth Recreation Department has evolved from “nothing” to “everything” for the kids over the past year, on the back of an all-volunteer effort. And it’s why Deluca will continue to be an active part of the community, helping friends and neighbors via the fire department — even if there’s a Republican sign on somebody’s lawn.

“You become a part of it. When you come to Kenilworth, when you become a Kenilworthian, you’re almost indoctrinated into all of these clubs, by virtue of the fact that there’s not that many of us. So the community itself is a very tight-knit, close community,” said Deluca. “You hear guys who have moved away, to other states, say things like ‘this town is nice, but it’s nothing like Kenilworth.’ And that’s a good feeling. I want to keep that feeling of community.”