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First city council recall failed

Madera County Historical Society

This water fountain was set up on the corner of Yosemite Ave. and D Street by the Womens Christian Temperance Union in 1908, the year in which the saloon crowd fought the anti-saloon group for control of Madera’s City Council.


Madera’s first City Council lasted just one year. Having been elected in March 1907, its members had to stand for reelection in April 1908. Three of the original trustees were returned to office — J.G. Roberts, J.R. Richardson, and C. W. Wagner. Dr. J.L. Butin was defeated, and Craig Cunningham, having just married Ella Ransom, decided not to run. To replace them, the people chose former sheriff, W.B. Thurman, and lumberman, Porter Thede.

Madera’s city council not only got new members that year; it got a new rule. One year terms were out; now there would be four-year terms and two-year terms — 2 of the former and 3 of the latter. The trustees would draw out of the hat to see which term would be theirs. Richardson and Roberts drew the four-year terms, while Thede, Thurman, and Wagner drew the two-year terms. Roberts was again chosen to serve as Mayor.

All of the new trustees were satisfied with the arrangement except Wagner. He had his eyes on bigger things. He wanted to serve in the California State Assembly, but he needed to build a power base. That is why he aligned himself with Madera’s saloon crowd right from the start. They had the power to thrust him to Sacramento.

When Wagner was first elected in 1907, he made no bones about where he stood on the liquor issue. He supported the saloon crowd at every turn, and in 1908, he did the same but was disappointed when he drew the short straw. His beer hall buddies couldn’t change that, but they didn’t have to. Such was the boost they gave him in the spring of 1908 that by fall he was making a run for the Assembly.

In November 1908, Wagner defeated J.R. Richardson for the 25th District Assembly seat. He served 80 days in Sacramento, from January 4 to March 24, 1909, without having to surrender his position on the Madera City Council. When the legislative session ended, Wagner returned to Madera to finish his two-year term as city trustee.

It is not clear why Wagner did not run for the Assembly for the 1910 session. He may have felt the political ground beneath him begin to shake. The struggle between the “saloon crowd” and the “good government” group was intensifying, and the barkeepers were losing ground. His term on the City Council ended in 1910, and in the spring of that year, he ran for reelection and won. Shortly after that, he began to lose political capital. The “good government” group had won enough support in town that the Madera Mercury swung its editorial position in its direction.

By 1911, the anti-saloon group had no bigger vocal enemy than Charles Wagner, who continued his vigorous support of the saloon crowd. In doing this, however, he lost the support of the local newspaper. On May 6, 1911, the Mercury turned on him with a vengeance.

“STUNG,” read the main headline. “Saloon Men Have Champion in Trustee Wagner.” “Entirely Ignoring the People’s Wishes, He Insults them to Their Faces — Calls Signers of Petition Rank Outsiders.”

The “good government” camp had drawn up a petition demanding that the City Council shut down all of Madera’s saloons, and 75 men showed up at the meeting of the trustees to voice their support for the petition.

When Wagner attacked, not only the petition but the petitioners as well, he brought down the house on himself. The anti-saloon men left the meeting determined to recall Wagner. The Mercury opined, “That he (Wagner) was there solely for the purpose of the saloon crowd. The consensus of opinion last night was certainly in favor of recalling him at once.” The fat was in the fire, and Wagner knew it. The recall movement grew, and by February 1912 the petition was filed.

In April the people went to the polls. Three new trustees were elected, but Wagner managed to hold on to his seat. The vote to recall him failed, 521-458. He would remain on the council, but not for long.

A woman accomplished what the anti-saloon folks and the newspaper could not do. She got Charles Wagner off the City Council. In the first week in July, Wagner went back to Sacramento and met John Stafford, who had been Sergeant-at-Arms of the Assembly when Wagner had been a member of the Legislature. Stafford took Wagner down the aisle of the chamber and escorted him to his old desk. Waiting on them was Mary Jane Glasby and the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Sacramento, who married them on the floor of the Assembly. Stafford acted as best man.

Wagner came back to Madera and resigned his seat on the City Council. Everyone was happy except the newlyweds. They began to quarrel, and within two years, they were divorced.

In 1918, Wagner considered running for the Assembly again but changed his mind. He went back to farming, and in 1924 he died. By that time, old wounds had healed, and a contingent of Madera’s elite turned out to say goodbye. Judge Conley read the eulogy, and W.R Breyfogle, Russ Mace, Wm. Hughes, W.W.W. Hunter, W.H. Glas, and L.W. Sharp acted as pallbearers. Then they took him to the train depot and shipped him to New Jersey.

It seemed a fitting way for Madera to say goodbye to a member of its first City Council and the first city councilman to ever have to stand for a recall vote.

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