AURELIUS — Debra Rose Brillati hosted her first house party for Dana Balter nearly two years ago. It was a few months after Balter, a Syracuse Democrat, launched her congressional bid — an effort that ended in November 2018 with a five-point loss to Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko in the 24th Congressional District race.
On a Thursday night in June at her home in Aurelius, Brillati hosted another house party. Many of the nearly 50 people in attendance supported Balter's 2018 campaign, and they're supporting her again as she vies for the Democratic nomination to force a rematch against Katko.
Brillati, a Massachusetts native, has worked on political campaigns for nearly 50 years and supported many Democratic candidates. Balter, in her opinion, is among the best.
"I just think she is the most intelligent, passionate, creative, down to earth ... She's really an amazing person and has great ideas," Brillati said after the party.
Balter stood in Brillati's living room and addressed the crowd for more than hour. She answered questions and renewed a pledge to not accept donations from the fossil fuel industry.
After the party ended and attendees began to leave, Balter stayed the living room to have conversations with supporters.
For Balter, the house parties are a carryover from her 2018 campaign. She held several house parties during the last election cycle and plans to continue holding the events in her second congressional run.
In her first bid, Balter said in an interview after the party, the house parties helped grow her campaign.
"It was very important just from a logistical perspective," she said. "But it's more than that. It's really about having the opportunity to connect with people face-to-face, to let people look you in the eye, get a sense of whether they can trust you and get a sense of who you are."
Many of the supporters at the party made those connections with Balter during the 2018 campaign. They attended house parties, town hall meetings or other events where they had an opportunity to interact with her.
Balter impressed Ellen Dello Stritto, a retired Auburn teacher and former Fleming town board member, during the last campaign. Dello Stritto admitted that she didn't know if Balter would win last year, although she thought she would make it a close race.
Her prediction was correct. Katko's Democratic opponents in 2014 and 2016 lost by at least 20 points. With Balter on the ballot, he faced his toughest challenge yet. While Balter finished five points back, she did something no other candidate has done against Katko: She won Onondaga County, the 24th district's largest county.
A lifelong Democrat, Dello Stritto believes if more voters hear Balter's message they will support her.
"I don't know if I've thought that of another candidate," she said.
Balter is close with her supporters. Before the house party, Dello Stritto said Balter called her wanting to talk. Janet Reohr, a Union Springs resident who has helped organize rallies in Auburn opposing President Donald Trump's policies, said Balter has already made multiple trips to Cayuga County.
The presence in the county, Reohr added, will help her learn more about the district.
"I'm very impressed with that," she said. "I'm feeling very positive about it. I know lots of the people who were here and a lot of the volunteers. They're very committed and ready to do the heavy duty lifting."
The 2020 primary election is less than a year away. If there is a primary, Balter will face fellow Democrats Francis Conole and Roger Misso, both of whom served in the U.S. Navy and live in Syracuse.
The general election is in less than 16 months. That's when Brillati and others hope Balter will take on Katko — and win.
"She's special," Brillati said. "We're hopeful. I'm so glad that she decided to run."