Francis Conole is home.
The Iraq War veteran has spent much of his adult life away from central New York. He visited the Syracuse area when he was on leave or for holidays, but most of his time was spent at sea, at the Pentagon or in the Middle East.
Conole, 40, returned home this year with a new mission: Defeating U.S. Rep. John Katko and representing central New York in Congress.
He launched his campaign Monday. He will seek the Democratic nomination in the 24th Congressional District, which is comprised of the western towns in Oswego County and all of Cayuga, Onondaga and Wayne counties.
Conole, who lives in Syracuse, is the second Democrat in the race. Another Navy veteran, Roger Misso, announced his candidacy nearly two weeks ago.
"I see this as an extension of my service," Conole said in an interview with The Citizen.
A Westhill High School graduate, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated three months before the Sept. 11 attacks. He served a tour aboard the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, where he led nearly 50 sailors and maintained the ship's propulsion. He also served a tour at sea on the USS Carney, a guided missile destroyer.
In 2010, Conole was deployed to the Middle East. Working with Army Special Forces, he assisted with the development of a plan to withdraw U.S. special forces from Iraq.
His military career included stints with the Office of Naval Intelligence and President Barack Obama's armed forces inaugural committee.
Before returning to central New York, he was a policy adviser to Defense Secretary James Mattis. His focus was the Middle East, specifically Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. He received the Defense Meritorious Achievement Medal for his work.
He completed his assignment in mid-March. While he's no longer active duty, he continues to serve as a commander with the Navy Reserve. He commands a unit based in New York City.
Conole believes his military service will be an asset during the campaign — and if he's elected to Congress.
"I've been leading my entire career, confronting big problems, working with people from all different backgrounds and creeds," he said. "This is something we do in the military. We don't ask if somebody is a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn't matter where they're from. We work together to confront big problems and accomplish the mission."
Conole's family is another reason he's running for Congress. His grandfather, Patrick Corbett, remains the only Democrat elected Onondaga County sheriff. The Onondaga County jail is named in Corbett's honor.
His grandmother was a Syracuse schoolteacher. His father was a health care administrator who served in the U.S. Army Reserve. His mother wrote for the Post-Standard.
Conole is a fourth-generation central New Yorker. He descended from Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 1800s and settled in Syracuse.
"My heart has always been here. This has always been home to me," he said.
It's early in his campaign, but he has identified several issues he will highlight as he seeks the Democratic nomination.
With his campaign announcement coming on tax day, he criticized the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. Katko was one of four New York Republicans who supported the tax law.
Conole believes the tax law largely benefits the wealthy and will cause the national debt to rise. He also blasted the measure because of its impact on the Affordable Care Act, a 2010 health care law.
The Affordable Care Act required individuals to buy health insurance coverage. If they didn't, they would pay fine. The tax law contained a provision eliminating the individual mandate penalty.
The tax law, he argued, also left less funding for other priorities, such as education, housing and infrastructure. He thinks that's reflected in Trump's budget proposal which calls for cuts to many programs, including Medicaid and Medicare.
"These are key things that upstate New York communities rely on," he said.
A theme mentioned by Conole in his campaign announcement and on his website is rebuilding central New York. He acknowledged the region's economic challenges and highlighted ideas he has to boost businesses and the workforce.
He endorsed efforts in Auburn and Syracuse to revitalize the two largest cities in the region. He supports more funding for education and job training. Green energy, he said, would help address climate change and create new jobs.
"I think there's more we can do in our communities to prepare us for the economy of the future," Conole added.
On health care, he fell short of endorsing Medicare for all. The leading Medicare for all proposal sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, would expand the existing program and effectively eliminate private insurance.
Conole agrees with a growing number of Democrats who say that health care should be a right, not a privilege.
"I also think we need to be thinking big as a party," he said. "I support a public option. Medicare for all is certainly something I think we need to look at and we should talk about in the context of this discussion of solving this health care crisis."
If Conole secures the Democratic nomination, he will face Katko in the 2020 election. Katko, who reported raising more than $284,000 in the first fundraising quarter of the election cycle, intends to seek a fourth term in Congress.
Katko was elected in 2014. He won his first election and his re-election bid in 2016 by at least 20 points. His 2018 re-election campaign was the toughest race yet. He defeated Democratic challenger Dana Balter by five percentage points.
"I think it's time for new leadership and for new ideas," Conole said. He added, "I really want to talk to upstate New Yorkers about the vision that I have."