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With third registered Democrat entering Saratoga Springs public safety race, party faces crossroads

A door in Saratoga Springs City Hall
Lucas Willard
A door in Saratoga Springs City Hall

Campaigns are now underway for this fall’s general municipal elections. But even with primary season in the rearview, a three-way race is shaping up in Saratoga Springs.

This November, Saratoga Springs residents may have to decide between three registered Democrats in the contest for Public Safety Commissioner.

First-term incumbent James Montagnino received the endorsement of the city Democratic Committee earlier this year. Tim Coll, who initially sought the Democratic nomination, has the backing of the city Republican party and the bipartisan One Saratoga platform.

A third candidate is now added to the mix: Kristen Dart, a familiar face in city politics and the first appointed chair of the fledgling Civilian Review Board.

Dart is running on her independent Community First ballot line.

In addition to past experience in city committees – including the 2020 Police Reform Task Force – and political campaigns, Dart also touts her work for the City of Providence and State of Rhode Island. She currently works as Vice President of Political Affairs for Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts.

“And I have the experience, certainly, you know, working with a legislator, working within the legislature, and really bringing a policy lens to the work of the city council. And I have some management experience in my current professional role,” said Dart.

Dart says she chose to ran for Public Safety Commissioner following a Saratoga Springs city council meeting in May that ended prematurelyfollowing charged discussion between members of the council and audience.

Supporters of Saratoga Black Lives Matter and others clashed with Montagnino after the Public Safety Commissioner stated his objections to the language of a resolution on restorative justice.

Several showed up the meeting wearing t-shirts calling Montagnino racist, days after prominent BLM organizers appeared in court on minor charges sought by the Democrat for disrupting public meetings.

The meeting also exposed a rift between Montagnino and other members of the council – including Mayor Ron Kim and Commissioner of Accounts Dillon Moran, who accused Montagnino of intentionally stoking the crowd.

Montagnino has defended his actions, but acknowledged the rift with fellow members of the all-Democrat council.

“I don't think that this is an unbridgeable chasm. But I do think it's important that if we're going to talk about diversity, diversity should include diversity of points of view, as well. And there does seem to be some friction on the city council, that anyone who doesn't agree with a particular message is just screamed at by members of the public,” said Montagnino.

Dart, who has frequently appeared at demonstrations for racial justice in the Spa City, believes the commissioner’s actions are driving the activists’ loud organizing tactics. She says the city needs a commissioner that will focus on fostering community conversation.

“And that doesn't mean that I'm going to make everybody happy, or, you know, BLM will get everything that they want or that other advocacy organizations will get everything, but they want, they will know that they will be heard and listened to. And if we can't get them to what they need and explanation as to why, I think more communication could go a long way,” said Dart.

Montagnino, meantime, welcomes Dart’s entry into the race.

“Kristen Dart is a fervent supporter of Saratoga BLM and so the voters can have their voices heard come November as to their opinion with regard to whether the methods employed by that organization are acceptable or not,” said Montagnino.

Dart said some members of the city Democratic committee have divided opinions over Montagnino’s nomination.

“When petitions were being circulated, there were some longtime city Democrats who didn't want to sign the petition, because Commissioner Montagnino was on that petition, and they found his rhetoric and antics at the city council table to not be representative of Democratic values. Obviously, he still got enough signatures to get on the ballot and get that line but I know that there has been some concern, but that is the work of the committee, and I want to respect their process,” said Dart.

Otis Maxwell, Chair of the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee, did not deny that there was internal opposition to Montagnino’s endorsement.

“I will not deny there are people who have that position on the committee, and you know, they have the right to bring a motion and you know, to un-endorse somebody,” said Maxwell.

In 2019, the city Democratic committee unendorsed Michele Madigan, the then-Finance Commissioner who was seeking a fifth term. Madigan narrowly lost the primary against challenger Patti Morrison. Madigan, who this year is running for county supervisor, ultimately won in the 2019 general election, but city Democrats were divided by the course of events. Several Democratic committee members left and backed Madigan with their own effort in what was a precursor to the One Saratoga platform.

But Maxwell characterized any similar action against Montagnino, at this point, as “theoretical” and said it’s not something he supports.

“I personally, as the chair of the committee, would prefer not to see it, not because of anything pro or con against Commissioner Montagnino, that's just a bad precedent. I don't like to precedent that…it reduces the value of an endorsement if they can be later withdrawn,” said Maxwell.

The next meeting of the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee is set for July 15th.

Montagnino, who has also lamented the fact that only he and Mayor Ron Kim are facing major party challengers in the November election, said it would be “particularly curious” if the Democratic committee dropped its endorsement. That said, he believes he has the support of the people.

“I know that when I walk down Broadway, or I stop someplace for lunch here in town, people come up to me and are not hesitant to express their opinion and it's 95% favorable in terms of the positions that I've taken vis-a-vis of the disruptions at city council meetings,” said Montagnino.

Tim Coll was unavailable for an interview for this story.

Lucas Willard speaks with Public Safety candidate Kristen Dart
Lucas Willard speaks with Public Safety candidate Kristen Dart<br/>
Lucas Willard speaks with Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino
Lucas Willard speaks with Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino<br/>

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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