The control of the city Democratic Party hangs in the balance next week between two factions that have organized their efforts to oust each other.
There are 96 candidates running for 50 seats on the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee in Tuesday’s primary.
Both sides, Democrats for Change and United Democrats, say they aim to represent local Democrats and bring the party back together so it can be successful, and they point the finger at each other for not making that happen.
“Everyone seems to have their own agenda, and it becomes very, very personal,” said Lou Schneider, who is running for re-election.
The voters will have to decide which faction can do the job best. The unpaid city committee members put candidates up for city seats and also make endorsements.
It’s doubtful that one group will sweep the committee seats, said John Franck, the city’s commissioner of accounts who isn’t running for the committee but who aligns himself more closely with United Democrats.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know if it’s going to make a huge difference one way or the other,” Franck said.
In simplistic terms, Democrats for Change is made up of supporters of former Mayor Valerie Keehn and United Democrats backed former Commissioner of Public Works Thomas McTygue.
But the split goes deeper than those two personalities who dominated the limelight of Saratoga Springs politics in the last two years.
Democrats for Change tend to be newer residents or people who are new to the committee. They also are regarded as more liberal-leaning, and are likely supporters of Shawn Thompson, the former city committee chairman who moved on to the county committee’s leadership in 2005 and is currently serving on the state committee.
“The Democrats won every seat when [Thompson] was there,” said Larry Bulman, chairman of the Saratoga County Democratic Committee, referring to the party’s historic 2005 victory where five Democratic City Council members and two Democratic county supervisors were ushered into office.
In general, the people making up United Democrats are more likely to be long-term residents who have been on the committee for years. That faction has been in control of the party since Thompson left, but narrowly enough that if enough members of the other faction didn’t show up to meetings, there might not be a quorum.
“I truly believe that it seems to be old versus new,” said Nancy Goldberg, who is running in the 23rd District.
The friction began between the two segments when the party endorsed Hank Kuczynski for mayor over Valerie Keehn in 2005; it ignited last year when the committee again passed over Keehn, the incumbent, in favor of Gordon Boyd, husband of committee member Sharon Boyd.
Keehn supporters felt shut out.
“Finally we decided that we were going to do something about it,” said Thilo Ullmann-Zahn, a committee member since 2001 who is running for re-election.
Members of the committee who disagreed with the majority started meeting, said Eileen Finneran, another committee member who is running for re-election. “It just evolved. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s plot and take over.’”
United Democrats started organizing last year as well. “Last spring, we heard rumors that [Shawn Thompson] and [Keehn] wanted to take us out,” said Pete McTygue, a committee member who is part of United Democrats.
Schneider asked members whether they planned to run again, and few of the Keehn supporters responded, Pete McTygue said. “We wanted a full slate to make up the committee.”
So they found people willing to run for the committee seats, he said.
There’s also bad feeling on the United Democrats side toward Democrats for Change.
“I’ve seen a lot of disruption; I’ve seen a lot of people more interested in furthering their own narrow agendas,” said William McTygue, who is running for re-election in the third voting district.
Members of the Democrats for Change boycotted meetings so there wouldn’t be a quorum, Pete McTygue said. The “Change” faction contends there wasn’t an organized effort to ditch the meetings.
Democrats for Change accuse Thomas McTygue of stirring up bad blood in the party.
“Behind all of these machinations is Tom McTygue,” said Allan Turkheimer, who is running in the 1st District.
McTygue was defeated in office in November for commissioner of public works, but he’s back on the ballot for the Democratic committee in the 5th District.
Keehn is taking a back seat to the action, endorsing the Democrats for Change, of which her husband, David Keehn, is a candidate. But she herself is not running for the committee.
And Bulman, the county committee chairman who backed Kuczynski in 2005, has switched sides, formally endorsing the Democrats for Change about a week ago.
That’s mostly because Thompson, first vice chairman of the county committee and Bulman’s ally, is being challenged for his state Democratic Committee seat by Patrick Southworth, a Ballston Democrat who is backed by the United Democrats faction.
“As county chairman, I have to do what’s right for the Democratic Party,” Bulman said. He plans to appoint some United Democrats who don’t win in the primary to the county committee.
Even the judge candidates have taken sides in the city’s Democratic political scene. This year brings a Democratic primary between Jeffrey Wait and James Montagnino for the city judge post.
Montagnino is a court attorney/referee for the state Supreme Court’s 3rd Judicial District in Rensselaer County and used to do the same job in the 9th Judicial District matrimonial part.
“I have a wide legal background, having been a prosecutor and a felony public defender,” he said. Montagnino has worked in the judicial branch for 13 years.
Wait is a lawyer in private practice who now mostly does work in civil litigation, and says he’s the right person for the street-level judge job. “I think I’m the most qualified because I have 20 years of experience in the courtroom litigating cases, representing clients,” he said.
“I think I have a good understanding of things that may arise in City Court.”
He has been city attorney and worked for the state Board of Elections on election law violations.
The post pays $108,800 a year and the winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Republican Matthew Dorsey in November.
Wait and Montagnino also will face off for the Working Families Party nomination on Tuesday. And all three candidates will primary for the Independence Party line.
Wait is a Saratoga Springs native and 1977 graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. He graduated from the University of Vermont and Western New England School of Law.
Montagnino owned a summer home in Saratoga Springs since 2002, and moved with his family here full time in June 2006. He graduated from Pace Law School and earned his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University.
Montagnino is endorsed by Democrats for Change, retired acting Supreme Court justice Fred Shapiro, the Skidmore Democrats and the Working Families Party.
Wait has the local Democratic Party endorsement, thanks to the votes from the people who make up United Democrats.
The New York State Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission found Montagnino qualified to be a judge. Wait is scheduled to be interviewed today by that commission, and he said the group’s decision is likely to be on its Web site Friday.