Hopewell Township welcomed its first new mayor in four years when the township committee elected Democrat Kristin McLaughlin to the post at its Jan. 7 reorganization meeting.
Committee member Kevin Kuchinski, who had served as mayor since 2016, nominated McLaughlin to the post. She was the only nominee and was elected by a vote of 4-0, with all four Democrats on the committee supporting her. Republican John Hart abstained.
Michael Ruger was then elected deputy mayor by a vote of 4-0. McLaughlin was elected to the committee in 2016, and would be up for re-election this fall, should she seek renomination. Ruger ran with McLaughlin in 2016, but lost to Hart before running again in 2017 and winning election.
In a phone interview a few weeks after the reorganization meeting, McLaughlin said two years on the committee have made her more comfortable making difficult decisions. “When you’re a mom, you really work hard and you can’t always do it, but you really work hard to make sure everyone gets something out of the decisions you make,” she said. “At the township level, that’s simply not always possible. And sometimes that’s hard to explain to people.”
McLaughlin, 52, has been a stay-at-home mom for 24 years. A township resident since 2008, McLaughlin lives in the Willow Creek neighborhood. She was born in Prairie Village, Kansas, graduating from Shawnee Mission East High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in Scandinavian studies from Harvard College and a master’s degree in elementary education from the Teachers College at Columbia University.
Before moving to Hopewell, she lived in New York City, Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, Salt Lake City and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She has been married to husband Michael J. McLaughlin since 1991. Michael grew up on Stony Brook Road. They have three daughters: Megan (24), Amelia (21) and Carolyn (17).
In her remarks after being sworn in, McLaughlin said Hopewell Township needs to put effort toward strengthening its current businesses and encouraging new ones. “We ought to make sure that folks do more than just drive through on their way to someplace else,” she said, and referenced the creation at the end of last year of an Economic Development and Tourism Committee.
She also touched on many of the issues that are foremost in residents’ minds in 2019, namely, affordable housing, the proposed senior and community center, the announced departure of Bristol-Myers Squibb and the replacement of the crucial tax revenue it generates, and the proposed construction of the Penn-East natural gas pipeline.
McLaughlin said she believes the pipeline can be stopped. “I really do think that we have reason to be optimistic. Hopewell Township was the town that stopped (Interstate) 95, right? That was an amazing feat back then,” she said. “I very much think we have tools at our disposal to stop the pipeline. The state is going to be the most critical arbiter of what the law says, and the Clean Water Act is critical, but it’s still just unthinkable to me that a private company can take for its own profit lands bought with taxpayers’ dollars over the years.”
On the senior and community center, she noted that progress is slow until there is a resolution on development of the Zaitz tract behind ShopRite. She said developer Lennar Homes is committed to provide utility infrastructure to the site, which helps the township with costs, but at the consequence of putting it on Lennar’s timeline.
“I would like to be as ready as we can be to start that project when it’s called for,” she said. “Hopewell Township has been down this road a couple of times, so we have some plans for different sites. I think we’re at a really good starting point. I know what the community wants. The seniors have had great ideas about what they wanted in a space that they could use to continue to being the part of the fabric of the community. Which is what every community wants.”
With regard to BMS, she noted that the pharmaceutical giant is actively marketing its facility and has had plenty of interest shown by prospective tenants. “We are in constant contact with them and I feel very optimistic that at a bare minimum, the site is not going to sit empty. They have put a lot of money into it in their time there and it really is a world-class facility. I think it is unlikely that it is going to be sold to another big company, but I expect that there will be new tenants there before they move out, looks like in 2020,” she said.
Those are all major issues, but in Hopewell Township there is no issue that stokes strong feelings among residents the way the issue of affordable housing does. Although the township settled a lawsuit with the Fair Share Housing Center by agreeing to develop 650 affordable housing units and more than 2,800 market-rate units by 2025, a number of vocal residents believe the township should continue to fight against this development, arguing that it will fundamentally change the township in negative ways.
“Hopewell Township has such a strong history of being a quiet, somewhat rural community in the middle of the most densely populated state in the country. Massive numbers of new people coming in sounds scary. It does, and I understand the desire not to have huge numbers of cars on (Route) 31—31 is already our most challenging roadway in terms of traffic,” she said.
She said she understands that people don’t want to have to build another school and suffer the resultant tax hike. “That cost burdens everyone and our taxes are already high,” she said. “That said, none of these developments are going to spring up overnight. All of them are going to have to deal with the fact that they’re going to have to bring infrastructure to the project, and that doesn’t happen overnight. We have a little time.”
Not everyone is convinced—nor all that civil about it. At the Jan. 14 committee meeting, McLaughlin made a statement about an incident she says happened at the municipal building on Jan.10 during a public information session at the municipal building. The session pertained to possible plans for redevelopment of Scotch Road. “As two members of the public were leaving (the session), they stopped to give me advice on what I can do to be a successful mayor,” she said. “And the advice ended with, and I’m quoting as closely as I can remember, ‘And if you don’t’ — then the speaker changed — ‘we will kill you.’”
Asked if she thinks the people would have made such a threat if she were a man, she thought about it for a moment.
“Probably not,” she said. “I mean, there was a mayor before me who was a man, and no one ever said that to him.”
McLaughlin said she does not think the people meant her actual physical harm. Nevertheless, she issued a defiant response. “My vision of democracy public discourse and community engagement does not include threats against those who stand up to serve,” she said.