Buono stresses South Jersey roots

State Sen. Barbara Buono (right) shakes hands with Peg Szymczak, who plans to vote for her, at Ponzio's Diner in Cherry Hill.
State Sen. Barbara Buono (right) shakes hands with Peg Szymczak, who plans to vote for her, at Ponzio's Diner in Cherry Hill. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: August 06, 2013

Eleanor Kelly and Patty Tartaglia-Passio knew in advance that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono would stop by the Phily Diner in Runnemede Sunday morning.

That's why the two Borough Council members adorned the wall of their booth with two "Buono for Governor" posters.

Buono warmly greeted the pair and Tartaglia-Passio's husband, Anthony, as the two councilwomen talked about how Runnemede and the surrounding municipalities were sharing services in the face of reductions in state support.

The candidate, a state senator from North Jersey who chaired the budget committee, was sympathetic, using it as an opportunity to attack Gov. Christie's fiscal policies.

That visit, an earlier one to Ponzio's diner in Cherry Hill, and one later to the Camden County 4-H Fair in Berlin focused, as expected, on the economy, taxes, and social issues.

Yet Buono, who is 30 points behind Christie in the latest polls and who has been accused of ignoring South Jersey, used this "diner tour" to emphasize her connections to the area and her shared experiences with the voters.

While attending law school in Camden, Buono lived in Merchantville, where Kelly grew up. The candidate shared memories about a place in the borough that served fabulous ice cream, and told a retired Campbell's executive she recalled smelling soup cooking when she left her apartment each day.

When Cherry Hill West student Justin Gick, editor of the school newspaper, asked her at Ponzio's for an interview, Buono promised him one in September, adding that she had been an aspiring reporter and once freelanced for the Star-Ledger in Newark.

Chatting with the servers at Ponzio's, she recalled her "first job as a waitress in [her hometown of] Nutley was tough."

At the 4-H fair, Analisa Paoline, 21/2, of Gloucester Township, snacked on popcorn while Buono told the girl's parents, David Paoline and Vina Pizzo, about her own six children, five girls and "a boy who thinks he is very special."

After petting the dwarf hotot rabbit "Grape" that Christina Caniglia of Sicklerville had raised since it was eight weeks old, Buono recalled in a brief speech to the crowd that "sadly, only one of my children belonged to 4-H." It was a daughter who raised rabbits.

Despite Buono's connections to South Jersey, many people she encountered on her tour Sunday admitted not knowing who she was or knowing very little about her.

Fifth District Assemblyman Angel Ruiz, who, with Camden County Freeholder Michelle Gentek and Winslow Township Mayor Barry Wright, had joined Buono at the fair, received many puzzled looks when he went from table to table introducing her as "the next governor."

Judy Gemsieb of Cherry Hill, having breakfast with her husband, Jack, said she "only learned about her recently" after reading a newspaper article.

Her husband asked Buono to clarify issues over in-state tuition at New Jersey colleges and universities for children of immigrants who graduated from high schools in the state.

"I can't believe they would question people with high school graduation certificates," said Jack Gemsieb, who added that two of his children went to Rutgers on reduced tuition.

Peg Szymczak of Cherry Hill said she had been reading about Buono and planned to vote for her, calling Christie "a bully," adding that Trenton "needs to remember that South Jersey has always been underrepresented, and that needs to change."

Many people greeted Buono enthusiastically.

Jay Lassiter of Cherry Hill, who had just finished working out at a gym, saw on Twitter that Buono was at Ponzio's and headed over.

Lassiter said he was backing Buono because of her support of "marriage equality and of medical marijuana use for cancer patients."

Teachers were a large presence Sunday, and they universally expressed dissatisfaction with Christie's policies.

Steve Levin of Voorhees, who teaches biology at Nottingham North High School in Mercer County, opposes the idea of charter schools, saying using public money to fund them was ridiculous.

Levin prefers using charters as incubators for experimentations, "not as replacements for public schools," and he decried the reduction in spending on programs that provide breakfast to children in need.

At Ponzio's, retiree Tonia Baron of Cherry Hill told Buono of her struggles getting equal pay with men as an executive in the fashion business in the 1950s. Buono empathized.

"Women still make 78 cents to every dollar a man earns," even though women are heads of households, the candidate said.

"The strength of our families and economy means equal pay for women," Buono said before moving on to another table.

"I like her," Baron said. "She understands."


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @alheavens at Twitter.

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