One of the distinctive features of life in Glen Ridge is the political system which for 63 years has been dominated by the Civic Conference Committee. At one level, the CCC is simple to define: it is a method of selecting candidates for public office based on merit rather than political affiliation. In other words, it is meant to be a non-partisan system which avoids factionalism and political infighting in a small community. CCC delegates are apt to describe the process as follows: “The office seeks the man, rather than the man seeking the office.”
Yet, the CCC is not easy to explain or understand. Most citizens support the system, or it would not have survived for 63 years. But others feel uncomfortable with it. Almost every year, there are efforts to explain the CCC in lengthy articles in the Glen Ridge Paper. But these occasions provide an opportunity primarily to state what the CCC is. A full understanding requires an examination of how and why it got started in the first place – before describing how it works and how residents feel about it.
The Early Thinking Although the CCC was not formally created until 1913, it did not come into existence as a startling innovation. Rather, it was intimately bound up with the manner in which the Borough was created in 1895 (see article on Secession), and with the strongly-held views of the men who led the independence movement, those referred to in newspaper articles of the time as “the patriarchs of exodus.”
These leaders, apparently to a man, disliked factionalism and partisan squabbling on the local level. The most obvious reason is that they felt they were on the losing end of factional disputes with the leadership of the parent town of Bloomfield. One of the reasons the independence movement gathered strength was the belief of the Glen Ridge leaders that there was a better way to run a town, and that one key element of a “better way” would be a non-partisan system. The earliest available expression of the view appeared in an 1891 letter written by the Glen Ridge leaders to the editor of the Glen Ridge Original, a local monthly news sheet. It said: …we want a political party, to operate in town politics only, to be known as the Glen Ridge Party and to have no other object or platform than the interests of Glen Ridge. Then we shall get what we are entitled to and what we need… In township matters, a permanent organization on the basis suggested above, and entirely independent of either the Democratic primary or the Republican caucus would undoubtedly accomplish wonders for Glen Ridge.
The statement most often quoted as typifying the thinking that led directly to the creation of the CCC was made by Glen Ridge’s first Mayor, Robert S. Rudd, when he suddenly resigned his post in 1902. Although it is easy to say in retrospect that Rudd might have overreacted, the fact is that he resigned on principle over an incident which he regarded as the beginning of “factionalism” in the Borough.
The dispute was between Rudd and his close colleague in the independence movement, Abijah R. Brewer, who was serving as President of the Council which is the senior post among the six members of the Council. Brewer was the leader in an effort to pass a resolution authorizing a warrant for $200 for expenses of the various committees of the Council. Rudd opposed this adamantly. The matter might have been settled except that an anonymous circular appeared criticizing Rudd’s position. Rudd believed that Brewer was the author; the facts are not known. In any case, Rudd saw this as an attack on his whole administration, and as the “beginning of a factious, partisan, and underhanded method new in the affairs of the borough.”
Rather than continue the fight which might have divided the town into opposing factions, Rudd resigned and made his well-known statement: “I never sought the office of Mayor and I had always said that I could never hold the office in the face of opposition. I considered it a non-partisan office, and that all that made it desirable was the fact that you practically represented the community as a whole.”
There was another strong belief of the Founding Fathers of Glen Ridge which is important to an understanding of the CCC – the belief in public service, the obligation of the citizen to serve his or her community without expectation of political or material gain. This accorded well with the desire for a non-partisan local system. It was decided at the outset that no salary or stipend would be paid to those holding elective office in the Borough. Instead, faith would be placed in the public service motivation.
This decision was made on practical grounds as well as on principle. If candidates were to be chosen on the basis of merit – meaning people already accomplished in their careers and lives –a small community could not afford to pay enough to attract them for monetary reasons alone. And such people would not want to be drawn into a maelstrom of partisan politics. This reasoning fortified the conviction that a non-partisan system would be essential if the reliance on a public service motivation were to work over the long run.
The problem remained of just how to develop such a system to assure that highly qualified people would be available for office to manage the further development of the community and, once developed, to preserve its special character. The form of government in Glen Ridge had been settled by the immediate adoption of the newest of the options available under New Jersey State law – the Borough form with its elected Mayor and six Councilmen. But how to fill these positions and those of the Board of Education consistently over time with competent candidates who subscribed to the traditions of public service and non-partisanship?
Formation of the CCC During the early years, candidates were selected by a “Citizen’s Committee” which was an unsystematic way of doing things. But there was little pressure at first to formalize the system for a very simple reason: there was an almost “natural” succession of candidates drawn from the early leaders who had engineered independence.
Aside from the Rudd-Brewer dispute, matters were reasonably calm until the period 1910-1912 when a combination of factors precipitated the formal development of the CCC in 1913. For one, the natural succession of leaders had about run out – there was no obvious consensus on who should be next. For another, the population of the Borough had grown to the point where it was no longer easy to make decisions in town meetings and small-scale elections. From 1895 to 1912, the population had tripled from 1,150 to 3,260. Also, at the time, politicking had become a national preoccupation.
The mood of political activism generated the first factional campaign in Glen Ridge in 1910 when two men competed for the post of tax assessor, and friends of each were canvassing house-to-house.
This preview of what the future could be like finally stirred Glen Ridge leaders to formalize a non-partisan method of selecting candidates. One of the leaders, H.G. Cordley, carried on a research program to get some ideas, writing to the American Civic Association, the Boston Municipal League, and other organizations.
The direct leadership in forming the CCC was taken by William M. Beard and Thomas L. Masson, the chairmen respectively of the Glen Ridge Republican and Democratic Clubs. They called a meeting on May 17, 1913, and invited representatives of the Progressive Club, the North Side Association, and the Civic Association. The key to the successful launching was the fact that the three political parties – the organizations which by their very nature could have promoted “factionalism” in the Borough – elected not to do so on the local level and to join in creating a non-partisan system instead.
At the first meeting, the basic formula for the CCC was developed. It was codified by the adoption of a constitution and by-laws at a second meeting a week later. The first candidates endorsed by the CCC were for the Board of Education on March 16, 1914. Later that year, the organization decided to make its first nominations for the Borough Council.
The Women’s Club of Glen Ridge asked to join the CCC in 1915 and was admitted, but at the first meeting the question was raised as to whether the women delegates should be allowed to vote inasmuch as women did not have the suffrage nationally. But the CCC voted unanimously to allow the women to vote, presaging the 19th Amendment to the Constitution by five years.
A threat to the still-new Committee occurred in 1918 when the local Republican Club, with its national party reunited and dominant, came very close to withdrawing from the CCC, which certainly could have killed the fledgling organization. In 1948, the Democratic Party did withdraw, but by this time the CCC was a solidly-based institution and the Democrats were in the minority. In recent years, the Democrats have run candidates in opposition to CCC candidates, so far without success at the polls.
Opinion is divided on this position of the Democrats, who over the years have often been re-invited to rejoin the CCC. Some see their position as deviant to a strong Borough tradition which has worked well throughout the years. Others see it as healthy in that it helps prevent the CCC from looking like an oligarchy and does provide a choice at the polls, at the least a place for protest votes to go.
How the CCC Functions The CCC has evolved over the years – its constitution has been amended several times, and its composition has changed as some member organizations die out and others are born. But its basic character has remained the same as that conceived in 1913. It is a committee composed of delegates elected by member organizations, which are restricted to political and civic groups as against business, literary, social or recreational groups. No delegate can serve more than three consecutive years, assuring steady turnover of CCC membership, and no delegate can pledge his or her vote or be instructed by the parent organization on how to vote.
In the Bicentennial year of 1976, the CCC consisted of six delegates from nine member organizations: Women’s Club, North Side Association, South End Association, Taxpayers Association, Glen Ridge Forum, Home and School Association, Republican Club, Freeman Gardens Association, and the Sink or Swim Association. These 54 delegates meet about six times a year, electing their officers at the first meeting of the year, selecting candidates for the Board of Education at the November meeting and for the Mayor and Council at the January meeting.
The sole purpose is the selection of candidates. The political affiliation of prospective candidates is never asked or considered. A person can be put in nomination by any delegate or any citizen of the Borough, and all nominees are given the same careful consideration, including in recent years personal interviews by at least two CCC delegates and interviews of four references. The avowed purpose of the CCC is to find the best available candidates. The deliberations are strictly confidential with no non-delegates allowed at the meetings and all delegates pledged not to discuss the proceeding with anyone.
Since 1914, CCC candidates have always won at the polls. But there have been several close races. In 1939 there occurred the first contested election in 25 years when a write-in candidate came within three votes of defeating a CCC candidate for the Board of Education. The reason appears to have been growing feelings of neglect and discontent in the South End of the Borough, exacerbated by school redistricting. In the mid-1960’s, there was tension, stemming in part from the rare circumstance in Glen Ridge of a major issue on which there was a genuine division of opinion – the building of the new high school. In the early 1970’s opposing candidates came within hailing distance of CCC nominees at the polls. The most plausible explanation is growing frustration and a resulting “protest vote” over the steady growth of property taxes.
Pros and Cons The CCC does have “image” problems stemming from the fact that it functions behind closed doors and undeniably has an “establishment” air about it, since it is composed solely of delegates from well-established organizations.
Supporters of the CCC defend the secrecy issue on the grounds of practicality, believing that a non-partisan system could not survive the public comparison of one citizen’s qualifications against those of his neighbor in a small community. And they feel that the turnover of delegates and broad community base of the nine member organizations assuages the establishment charge. Moreover, they feel the system reinforces the public service tradition by giving the member organizations an important role to play in addition to their regular affairs.
Most of all, they point to the record, to the fact that the system has worked effectively for 63 years, placing competent people in office. The non-partisan and public service ideals of the founders have been maintained. Graft and scandal have been absent, and fiscal administration has been carefully managed – as seen, for example, in the fact that Glen Ridge is unusual among New Jersey communities in having used none of its allowed bonded debt for municipal affairs.
CCC adherents take some pride in the fact that the system is widely regarded as unique, to the point that some other communities have tried unsuccessfully to emulate it. In Glen Ridge, they note, it has worked because the system was built upon tradition which was established before a partisan system could take over.
Residents who feel uncomfortable with the system cite their belief that it seems to them an undemocratic manner of putting people in public office; that they would prefer some sort of choice between candidates; that they feel that qualified people who are not involved with one of the member organizations have little or no chance of nomination.
Because of the Democratic Party, there frequently is a choice at the polls.
And the CCC has nominated candidates having no affiliation with any of the nine member organizations. Nevertheless, it remains true that some residents strongly believe that the CCC is a closed system.
CCC adherents do concede one area of weakness, which is that unaffiliated Glen Ridgers have no way of influencing CCC decision-making. While it is easy for any citizen to become active in any of a number of the nine member organizations, the fact remains that some people by choice are not “joiners.” And it normally takes considerable time for newcomers to the Borough to decide what organization to join, if any, and more time to become active enough within an organization to perhaps become CCC delegates themselves. This has given rise to discussions from time to time of adding six more delegates to the CCC who somehow would be selected as “delegates-at-large” to represent unaffiliated Glen Ridgers. But no one has come up with a workable way of doing this.
It seems likely that the CCC will continue to flourish in Glen Ridge – and will continue to be criticized. In the final analysis, whatever the feelings of Borough residents about the CCC, it is certain that the things they like about Glen Ridge – the gas lamps, the Glen, the absence of utility poles, the schools, the quality of the neighborhoods, the willingness of citizens to serve – are owed in considerable measure to the strong ideals of the founders and the unique system they pioneered.