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Saratoga Springs school board candidates tap national GOP political consultant

Saratoga Springs school board candidates tap national GOP political consultant

Florida firm paid $9,000 to help get message out that includes rearming district monitors
Saratoga Springs school board candidates tap national GOP political consultant
A group that supports arming district grounds monitors rally before the Saratoga City School District Board meeting on Oct. 23.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A consultant hired to help elect a trio of Saratoga Springs school board candidates has cut a national profile in Republican politics, working on the Ted Cruz presidential campaign and congressional races across the country.

The consultant, Spence Rogers, who refers to himself on social media as a “conservative Republican political consultant,” manages Go Right Strategies, the Florida-based firm hired to support a slate of Saratoga school board candidates. The candidates – Ed Cubanski, Dean Kolligian and Shaun Wiggins – are running with the financial and organizational backing of Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools, a group formed to oppose the school board’s October decision not to authorize district grounds monitors to carry guns on school grounds.

The slate’s hiring of the Florida-based consultant, who the campaign has paid more than $9,000 to support its data and messaging efforts, is drawing criticism from other candidates in the race after the expenditure was reported in mandatory campaign finance filings.

“I find it interesting that a group that has been calling the current school board too political since October… has hired a political firm to help them win the election,” said Natalya Lakhtakia, who is running in part against efforts to rearm the district grounds monitors. “This group is engaging in partisan extremism, while simultaneously claiming to be non-partisan. Which one is it?”

Candidates Heather Reynolds and John Brueggemann also argued the hiring of an outside political consultant undercut the slate candidates’ claims that they are non-political, independent candidates focused on a variety of issues. They also expressed concern about the amount of money the parent group has raised on behalf of the trio of candidates – more than $33,000.

Reynolds said the slate’s financial reliance on the parent group “suggests that the (slate) candidates… will never be able to to be independent decision makers” if elected to the school board.

“What does a Florida-based political consultant know about our local concerns and the issues that impact our district?” Reynolds said. “I don’t have the answers. But I think these are questions that the voters should think seriously about before casting their ballot.”

Brueggemann, who last week reported raising more than $4,700, the one candidate outside the slate to raise or spend more than $500 in the election, on Thursday said it was a “dilemma” deciding between raising money for a race he doesn’t think should come at an expensive cost and remaining competitive against well-financed candidates. He said organizers behind the Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools group are “willing to degrade the public discourse in our school district” and also called into question the independence of the slate candidates.

“They’ve declared their independence. But they’ve taken (the group’s) money, and it turns out to be a lot of money. And it’s guided by some consultant from out of state,” Brueggemann said. “I don’t think their claims of independence are credible, and it’s unfortunate.”

Kara Rosettie, who in the fall formed Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools and has since worked to elect board members willing to arm grounds monitors, last week said the slate of candidates hired the consultant to help with campaign marketing and messaging. “I’ve never done anything like this,” she said of managing the campaign operation.

Rosettie on Friday called the criticisms over the group’s fundraising totals and the use of a political consultant “sad and desperate” attempts to distract from a substantive campaign.

“The anti-school safety candidates are grasping at straws because their position on rearming the active and retired police officers working security in our schools is wildly unpopular with the community,” Rosettie said in a statement Friday. “This is a sad and desperate attempt to make this election about something other than the issues.”

(Active-duty school resource officers currently work at the district's high school and middle school and no candidates are suggesting removing them, but police cannot work off-duty security in the school district under the district's new approach to armed monitors.)

Cubanski, Kolligian and Wiggins did not respond to messages Friday.

An ‘unusual’ approach

Tim Kremer, who has served as executive director of the New York State School Boards Association for more than 20 years, on Friday said the amount of money raised for the Saratoga race is “unusual” and that the hiring of a political consultant is even more unusual.

“Using money to hire a consultant, a political consultant for school board candidates, is rare, very rare,” Kremer said. “I would suggest that what is happening in Saratoga is pretty unique for a school district of its size, but it could be something we see more of.”

Kremer said what is unfolding in Saratoga could be just “the tip of the iceberg” as school board races become more political and issue-oriented candidates and interest groups gravitate to school elections. It could become a more widespread trend, he said.

But at the same time, Kremer said, the optics of raising over $30,000 and hiring an outside strategist invariably undercut the message that the candidates aren't focused solely on the grounds-monitors issue.

“Making that a kind of single-issue race, almost a referendum on whether or not we are going to have guns on campus, it feels as though that’s not what a school board race would be about,” Kremer said, noting that the candidates have cast themselves as focused on a wide variety of issues. “They are trying to fight that (one-issue) impression… because of the money, because of the involvement of a consultant it does raise the specter this is all about rearming these monitors.”

Regardless of who wins the board seats next month, Kremer said, he hopes the school board and community can quickly move past the contentious school security issues.

“It’s a distraction certainly; for the community it becomes the talk of the day,” he said of the issue. “It begins to paint for those of us on the outside a picture of what’s important, what Saratoga is all about. It becomes the issue, the debate, the district is having when there are so many other things related to education you would want school boards focused on.”

Iowa, Virginia, across the country

Rogers, the Florida political consultant, raised his national profile after serving as deputy director for Ted Cruz’s successful 2016 Iowa caucus campaign.

Rogers’ name was attached to a campaign kerfuffle that played out in the days leading up to the 2016 Iowa vote. After news reports that Ben Carson was not planning on going directly to New Hampshire after the Iowa campaign, Rogers sent an email to Cruz supporters suggesting Carson was “taking time off from the campaign trail.” The email asked Cruz supporters to “inform any Carson caucus-goers of this news and urge them to caucus for Cruz.”

At the time, Carson criticized the email as a “dirty trick” and called on Cruz to fire the staffers involved in sending the emails; Cruz later apologized that his campaign had not sent a follow-up email after the Carson campaign clarified that their candidate was not dropping out of the race.

Rogers went on to manage the losing Virginia gubernatorial primary campaign for conservative Republican Corey Stewart. In an effort to raise attention and money, that campaign raffled off an AR-15. Stewart railed against efforts to remove Confederate statutes in Virginia and, according to the Washington Post, blamed “half the violence” during a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on liberal protesters.

Rogers did not respond to a request for comment sent through a contact form on his firm's website.

Go Right Strategies, Rogers’ campaign consulting outfit, was paid more than $200,000 in 2018 by California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a longtime Orange County representative who lost his reelection last year, according to federal election filings.

Rogers graduated from West Point and served as a logistics officer in oversees combat deployments, according to his LinkedIn page. His Twitter feed includes a steady stream of retweets of President Donald Trump messages and attacks on liberal Democrats. One March tweet suggested some knowledge of upstate New York issues.

“Democrats are leaving the Democratic Party faster than people are leaving New York and California,” Rogers wrote.

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