SYRACUSE — Francis Conole has the resume and the crisp, precise demeanor of a Navy officer. Does he have the votes?
The Syracuse native and first-time candidate for elected office will soon find out as he and fellow Democrat Dana Balter struggle to win over party faithful and advance to meet U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, in the November election.
The United States Naval Academy grad (class of 2001) also holds degrees from the University of Maryland and the federal Naval War College. He commanded sailors on a destroyer and led an analysis unit in the Office of Naval Intelligence. He operated in Iraqi combat zones with Army Special Forces, and advised top brass in the Department of Defense. With hair still cropped close and the punctual, stern style of a war veteran, Conole is a politician cut from a cloth proven to carry Dem candidates to victory in districts like this NY-24.
His campaign strategy has emphasized his martial and moderate appeal in an age of extremes.
“We’re going to need leadership to get us out of the multitude of crises we’re confronting right now,” Conole told The Palladium-Times in a recent interview. “I’ve taken an oath to the U.S. Constitution six times. That document lays out the ideals and values that we have never truly lived up to as a country.”
From a well-connected political family (Conole’s grandfather, Patrick Corbett, is the only Democrat to be elected Onondaga County Sheriff), Conole is leaning heavily on his broad appeal, sleek campaign and local and national endorsements. He passionately makes the case that he’s the consensus candidate who can defeat Katko. Ironworkers Local 60 in Syracuse gave Conole a rare primary endorsement and their backing as one of the most politically active unions in the region. The county Democratic Party committees in Onondaga and Cayuga — the two largest counties in the district by population — made Conole their designated candidate.
“People see my leadership, the decisions I’ve made and the path I’ve chosen in life,” he said, tracing the journey of a “young kid going to Onondaga Hill Middle School who knew he wanted a lifetime of service” to advising elite echelon of military personnel on life-and-death strategy and tactics.
“I’ve made real decisions and confronted real challenges under difficult circumstances,” he emphasized.
Conole’s resume and experience has earned him the support of the Democratic Party apparatus in his hometown of Syracuse, including former Balter supporter and party official Diane Dwire. The Camillus Democrat spent her career in the U.S. Army and directing the New York State Department of Health’s operations in central New York, retiring in 1995 as a lieutenant colonel. After playing a significant supporting role for the Balter campaign in 2018, Dwire told the Pall-Times this week Conole won her over with his chops to defeat Katko.
“He’s from this area, he knows this area, he is grounded in this area,” she said. “His military experience and work in the Pentagon gives him an edge to go into Congress and work effectively.”
An authority on the subject, Dwire describes Conole’s peers in military leadership as “top-notch tough people,” and Conole’s campaign has drawn attention to his time serving under former Defense Secretary, retired Marine Corps General and perhaps America’s most famous commander of troops, James Mattis.
“In the military, we work side by side with people of all stripes and the issue is to get the job done,” she said. “We have a diverse, moderate, conservative area and (Conole’s) 20 years experience means he has the ability to work with people. I feel strongly he has the best ability to work to implement the changes that we desperately need done.”
Conole gently demurred and sidestepped questions about why he, not Balter, should be the Dem nominee. Materials distributed by the Conole campaign, however, are indicative of a different approach. A series of recent direct mail pieces claim in no uncertain terms the theory that if Balter couldn’t win in 2018, the results will not change this time.
“Dana Balter LOST by the largest margin of any seat in the U.S. that Hillary Clinton won,” blares the black, yellow and red glossy campaign piece hitting mailboxes this week. “There’s too much at stake to let Dana Balter lose to Katko again. With so much at stake, Dana Balter is too risky.”
The substance of the attack is accurate in claiming NY-24 is a district that in 2016 was won by Clinton (for president) and also elected a Republican to Congress. The 2016 Dem nominee, Colleen Deacon, suffered from a lack of name recognition and unreliable party support: Deacon lost to Katko by 20 percentage points. Balter’s 2018 loss by a swing of 2.5 percentage points, in comparison, seems a photo finish.
Conole’s criticism of Balter’s electability riled some local Democrats.
“She refuses to get caught up in nonsense and smear campaigns,” said Oswego City Democrat Chair Tom Drumm. “I can’t say that about her opponent, which is unfortunate. In these important and raw times we need focus and leadership.”
Conole is making his final case to voters and says this fight “couldn’t be any more important” by adding President Donald Trump as one of the reasons he wants to go to Washington.
“I was called to serve at a time when we faced great threats after the September 11 attacks, and now we face great threats internally,” he said. “We have a president that threatens stability and American lives and our families are falling behind. We have a congressman in John Katko who is an enabler.”
Primary election day is June 23.