SYRACUSE — Kelly Hall has been lifelong friends with Francis Conole. They attended Westhill High School — Conole was a senior when she was a freshman — and remained in contact when Conole embarked on a career with the U.S. Navy.
"He was always the one that you'd always feel safe with," Hall said. "He is a kind and generous person."
Earlier this month, Hall hosted a barbecue for Conole, one of three Democrats vying to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko in the 24th Congressional District race. Members of her family, including her father, attended to support Conole's campaign. Hall's father and Conole's father served in the military together.
The outdoor party concluded the first "Conole On Your Corner" swing through central New York. The Syracuse Democrat spent two days visiting businesses and communities in the four-county district. While in Cayuga County, he had lunch at Hunter Dinerant in Auburn, toured Cayuga Milk Ingredients in Aurelius and surveyed flood damage in Fair Haven.
Conole On Your Corner, for now, will feature monthly events where the candidate will meet with voters. In an interview before his final two events of the inaugural series, Conole said the gatherings help ensure he is accessible to central New Yorkers.
"By branding it, we create a little bit more buzz and make sure we're getting out there," he said.
Before the barbecue, Conole attended a house party at Donna and Vickie Freyleue's home in Baldwinsville. It was an intimate gathering of about 20 people. Conole delivered his stump speech outlining his background and positions on issues ranging from addressing climate change, health care and equal pay for women to protecting Medicare and Social Security.
After his remarks, he took questions for nearly an hour. One attendee asked him for his plan to defeat Katko, a three-term congressman who was elected in 2014. Despite there being more Democratic voters in the district, Katko was elected to Congress in 2014 by a 20-point margin. In 2016, he won his first re-election bid by 22 points.
Dana Balter, a Democrat who is running again this year, gave Katko his toughest challenge yet. But he still won re-election by five percentage points.
Conole mentioned a few advantages he has that can help him in a potential general election campaign against Katko. He plans to continue holding events to engage with voters — something Katko has been criticized for not doing enough. His background as a naval officer and his central New York will be assets, too. When he launched his campaign, he noted that his grandfather, Patrick Corbett, is the only Democrat ever elected sheriff in Onondaga County.
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"I'm not a native Syracusan," Vicky Freyleue said, "but I understand how important those roots are to this area. I think that makes him a very strong candidate."
His roots were on display at the barbecue. Patricia Conole, the candidate's mother, was at the party. His uncle Gary, a retired state trooper, was there. Other family members and friends, like the Halls, attended.
As he did at the Baldwinsville house party, Conole spoke and answered questions. The exchanges with guests reminded Kelly Hall of the qualities she saw as Conole's childhood friend.
"When thinking about applying all of that — his level of integrity, his character, his family values, his morals and his dedication — to all of the things that he's managed and tackled in life from friendships, education, serving our country and now expanding the sphere into politics, that feeling of safe came back into play," she said. "That's the main reason I'm supporting him."
Days after the first Conole On Your Corner concluded, the Democratic challenger announced he raised over $226,000 in the second quarter of 2019 — the largest haul reported by any of the Democratic candidates. He received donations from many family members and friends in central New York. John Mannion, who ran for state Senate 2018, donated $200 from his campaign committee to Conole.
Onondaga County Legislator Peggy Chase, a longtime Democratic Party official, contributed $150. Chase endorsed Conole in May. It was the first endorsement announced by any Democratic candidate in the 24th district race.
There is already a lot of interest in the 2020 race. National Democrats have identified Katko as a vulnerable incumbent and listed him as a top target.
At the end of his events, Conole urged his supporters to be energetic and organized. He wants them focused on defeating Katko next year.
"We need to right the ship," he said at the Baldwinsville house party. "We need to be engaged. It's time. It's time for us to get engaged. It's time for us to continue to win elections and to continue to advance our values. That is why I'm running to take on this new mission."