Roger Misso is no stranger to the four counties in the 24th Congressional District.
Misso, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko in 2020, grew up on County Line Road in Red Creek. While he was a Wayne County resident, he spent time in neighboring Cayuga County and recalled dining at Rudy's Lakeside Drive-In on the shore of Lake Ontario in Oswego.
His experience as a resident in rural central New York — he grew up next to a cornfield, he said in an interview with The Citizen — could be an asset in the race for Congress.
"What I have seen too often from politicians in Washington is they have forgotten about people like us," Misso said. "They have forgotten about the people I grew up with, they have forgotten about the people I have served with and now the people I call my neighbors here in the city of Syracuse.
He added, "I'm really running because I think we all deserve a voice in Congress and it shouldn't be reserved for just the people who can afford their own corporate lobbyists."
After graduating from Red Creek High School in 2005, Misso attended the U.S. Naval Academy. His decision to pursue a military career stemmed from his family history. His great-grandfather, who emigrated from Italy, was a World War I veteran. His grandfather served with the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War era. His father and brother also served in the military.
His mother also played a role in the decision to serve his community and country. She owns a tax preparation business in Wayne County.
"It's that feeling that service is what we do. Standing up for people is what we do," Misso said. "And trying to help people the best we can is what we do. It's been my driving force, honestly, since I was a little kid."
Following his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, he served as a naval flight officer and was deployed twice to the Middle East. He had a role in one of the first combat missions targeting the Islamic State terrorist group in 2014.
Misso is proud of his military career, but not solely because of the combat operations. He was an advocate for victims of sexual assault in the military. His command sought volunteers and someone to lead the program.
"It's something that aligned with my values," he said. "I believe in standing up for victims and being a person who's there for them."
He also supported the military's Force of the Future initiative. He pushed for greater access to child care for service members, increased maternity and family leave and improved mental health services.
His roles also included serving as chief speechwriter for Adm. Michelle Howard, the first woman to become a four-star Navy admiral and the first African-American woman to hold a four-star rank in any service branch.
"That really taught me that there is a real need for representational leadership in our country and for people, regardless of who you are and what you look like, to stand up for equal rights for everybody," Misso said. "To see (Howard) rise through the service was an inspiration to me and to be able to support her was incredible as well."
After more than 10 years in the Navy, Misso decided to pursue other opportunities. Although he's still a Navy reservist, he's advised entrepreneurs and veteran-owned small businesses as New York state director of the Defense Innovation Lab and worked as a senior analyst for FATHOM5, a cybersecurity firm. He also co-created the 2 Vets Upstate podcast, which he hosts with fellow veteran Andrea Goldstein.
His departure from active duty allowed him to move back to central New York with his young family — he and his wife have one child with a second, a baby boy, on the way. They now live in Syracuse, where they bought a house.
"I feel so lucky to be able to raise my kids here," Misso said. "When I think about how I grew up, I just think that upstate New York is such an amazing place ... I look forward to raising my kids here and showing them all the old things that I loved to do here."
Misso was the first Democrat to join the 24th district race. Dana Balter, who challenged Katko last year, and Francis Conole, who is also a Navy veteran, launched their congressional bids last week.
One of Misso's priorities is to rebuild central New York's economy. His focus will be on cutting taxes for middle-class families and making it easier for small businesses.
"We can do that through smart policy," he said. "There is a cynicism that abounds today that says one party is good for business and the other party is bad for business. My experience working with businesses and trying to get them to stay here or to come here to central New York says otherwise."
Agriculture and health care are among the other issues Misso plans to address during the campaign and in Congress — if he's elected.
For now, he's focused on building his campaign. His entry into the race came 14 months before the 2020 primary election and 19 months out from the general election. He plans to visit every community in the four-county district.
"I will not be outworked," he said. "I want to be the hardest working representative of the people here in central New York that folks have seen in a long time."