A week after more than 70 million viewers tuned in to the first of three presidential debates, about 80 people sat on old wooden benches Wednesday night to hear from seven candidates seeking local office.
Barbara Cresse stood and thanked everyone for coming, then asked that they set aside the fiery political opinions being stirred up by the national campaign.
To her, the issues at hand in the historic Cape May County Courthouse building were more important than the race for the White House.
“I’m very stupid about a lot of things nationally, but I like to pay attention to the town I live in,” said Cresse, the president of the Middle Township Taxpayers Association, which organized the event.
Civic associations and taxpayer advocacy groups in New Jersey and nationwide play a crucial democratic role in small communities by hosting debates,
arranging candidate forums and distributing information about local government business to their members.
Many grassroots organizations start out with ideological biases, distributing slanted information and supporting certain parties or candidates, but there are also many nonpartisan groups that do not endorse candidates for election.
Instead, they aim to provide as much balanced information as possible, routinely attending government meetings, studiously examining documents and reporting back to their members.
For example, the Sea Isle City Taxpayers Association stopped hosting candidate debates in order to remain objective when too many of its own members started running for election.
“SICTA doesn’t endorse anybody,” said President Joe McDevitt. “We just try to provide facts and information.”
These types of organizations are especially important in small or remote communities that are without any regular media coverage, and where the differences between candidates largely come down to their personalities.
John Weingart, associate director of at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said it has always been difficult to get information about candidates for government offices lower than the state level, especially in New Jersey where there are so many offices.
In fact, it is a problem he experiences in his personal life.
“I live in a small town, and I don’t follow local politics, but I know someone who does, so when I get home I call and ask for their advice,” he said. “I don’t think my situation is unique. I don’t think it’s ideal either.”
Not every town has a citizen’s group to fill the information gap. The League of Women’s Voters is probably the best known statewide organization that has local chapters that sometimes organize candidate forums and disseminate voting information.
In most cases it took a group of motivated locals to form their own group. Some have been around for decades, while others formed in recent years as concerned residents have been dissatisfied with transparency in town hall and frustrated with their neighbors’ ignorance about local government.
“We feel we should have input on how our money is being spent,” said Anne Pancoast, a retired teacher who helped form Concerned Citizens of Margate two years ago. “We really want to try and encourage fiscal responsibility.”
The Margate group formed in an outcry over the city’s plans to renovate a local firehouse. The group felt residents should vote on the proposal, and when the city disagreed, they sued. They won the case in February, and the city later dropped the plan.
Pancoast said that has been their largest victory yet, but they mainly aim to inform the local electorate. They have held candidate debates in the past and talk about city business during monthly meetings.
Those meetings started in the local library, but now they’re held at a local school because they ran out of space in the library. The group started with 10 members and now has 150.
“One woman said to me recently, ‘I can’t tell you what it’s meant to be able to go to a meeting and be able to learn everything that’s going on in our city and take a stand on something,’“ Pancoast said.
Similarly, the Fairfield Township Taxpayers Association formed about four years ago when some locals were concerned about government corruption. They also do not endorse candidates, but have hosted meetings so locals could get to know candidates and make their own decisions.
“We provided a way for people to voice their concerns, opinions, whatever, without being harassed,” president Clarence Custis said. “We have never supported anyone, but we present the candidates to the people.”
That was the point of Wednesday’s event in Middle Township. The five candidates running for school board and the two candidates for Township Committee each told the crowd about themselves and answered questions from the taxpayer’s association.
The event was cordial, and the candidates hardly addressed each other, instead speaking about their own qualities.
That’s how Cresse said she wanted it — a lot different from the virulent rhetoric that’s common at higher levels of government.
“After the election, we’re all going to still live in this town, and we’ll all be all right, and we’re all going to have to work together,” she said.
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