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Francis Conole on the Campbell Conversations

Francis Conole
Francis Conole

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Francis Conole, the Democratic candidate for New York's 22nd Congressional Disctrict seat.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. The Congressional race for New York's 22nd district is in full swing. My guest today is the Democratic Party candidate for that seat, Francis Conole. This is his second run for the position. The newly drawn district encompasses all of Onondaga, Madison and Oneida Counties and a small portion of Oswego County. Mr. Conole, congratulations on your primary victory, and welcome back to the program.

Francis Conole: Grant, great to be here with you today, it’s a beautiful day out. We've got a fall coming in, and I'm thrilled to be with you.

GR: Great. Thanks for making the time. So let me just jump right into some issues and then we'll get into maybe some more sort of political things toward the end. But, in your in your campaign messaging, you have heavily emphasized the need to protect Social Security and Medicare and your commitment to those programs. I wanted to just start by asking you what kinds of threats do you think the program is facing right now?

FC: I mean, I think that there is a sustained threat that it could potentially be privatized. You know, I mean, this has been going on for four decades now, but you're hearing it in Republican policy circles. You're hearing it by people like Rick Scott talking about cutting the program. I mean, I'm running against an opponent who describes things like this as the Marxist state. And so I do think it's going to continue to be under threat. I'm hearing it throughout the district as well, by the way, from seniors who are very concerned that Social Security and Medicare could be on the chopping block if Republicans take back control of the House or take back control of the Senate, or God forbid, they were to take back control over all parts of our government. Seniors are very concerned about it. So, you know, it's been central to our messaging because it's a critical it's critical for seniors. They've worked their entire lives. They've paid into it. And we have to protect it.

GR: Okay, so what measures do you think we should be taking up right now to shore up these programs financially? I believe you have floated an idea of increasing some taxes on Social Security in the form of raising the income limit where the taxes max out.

FC: Yeah, well, what I mentioned specifically was strengthen it by removing that payroll tax exemption for wages that are over $250,000. I think that could be a critical first step. You have people with extreme wealth in this country that are only paying a small portion of their income into Social Security. So I think removing that payroll exemption, I think that that's something that seems like great common sense, broadly supported by the American people, by Central New Yorkers, would help extend the solvency of the program. We need to protect it from, you know, just cut backs. And then, you know, and I also think we need to make sure that these corporations, which are getting tax breaks, I mean, this is kind of a two prong thing. We got corporations are getting tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas. That aren't paying their fair share. That also could help with increasing the solvency of Social Security.

GR: So on that first proposal, I just want to make sure that I'm understanding it. So if we institute the Social Security payroll tax at $250,000 and above, currently at is out at my recollection is like our $135,000 or somewhere in there. So there would be kind of a place where if you made like $160 (thousand), you'd max out. But then if you went up to $250 (thousand), it would come back in again. I just want to make sure I've got that right.

FC: Yeah, that's right. I mean there would be that small donut, but I think the key portion is, is these people that are making these exorbitantly high incomes would be, thereby helping increase the solvency and bolstering the program by paying taxes on that above 250.

GR: Got it. okay thanks. The next issue I want to ask you about is another big one, the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v Wade. It's had an enormous impact on abortion access across the country, but not so much here in Central New York because of because of the state's laws protecting it. You've made the issue a centerpiece of your campaign. Tell me what you would intend to do in Congress on this issue.

FC: Yeah, it's a centerpiece because it's what I'm hearing throughout the district and throughout Central New York. It's not just a Democratic issue either. I'm hearing from Republicans and Independents that this is not what our country stands for. It's not what Central New York stands for, taking away a freedom that has been in place for 50 years, a hard fought freedom that protects women's health care, that protects their lives, I think runs absolutely counter to our values as a country. So to your specific point, there I want to address specifically is, one, it's fine in New York, well It's not fine in New York, potentially under threat in New York, Lindsey Graham introduced a piece of legislation yesterday that would be a national ban. So it's not necessarily always going to be fine in New York if the Republicans introduce a national ban on that right. And secondly, I think that, you know, you asked what we need to do. This is where Congress needs to pass legislation that protects that right. That codifies Roe at the federal level.

GR: Okay. And on that second point that you mentioned, about some Republican proposals to ban abortion nationally, there was some movement right after the decision in Congress to come up with some sort of compromise on this bill, on this issue. And it may be a really tough lift for Congress to pass a legislative equivalent to Roe, as you're calling for. And one of the compromises as I recall, was something along the lines of protecting abortion rights in the first trimester. But in any case, those didn't get Democratic support in addition to losing some Republicans. So would you be open to working on some kind of compromise piece of legislation that might fall short of Roe but would reinstitute some access to abortion for women who currently don't have it in many states in the country?

FC: Yeah, I mean, I just think this is an issue where, when it's an issue of people's, women's lives at risk, I don't really want to equivocate and you know, be light hearted about this. We need to pass a bill that protects this right. We advanced, Democrats advanced the bill in the House that would protect it up to 22 weeks at the federal level. That's where I think we need to be as a country. And, you know, I think it's going to be a hard fight to get there. I know that. But that's why these elections are so important.

GR: Okay. I'm Grant Reeher. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations, and my guest is the Democratic Party nominee for Congress. And New York's 22nd District, Francis Conole. Your opponent, Brandon Williams, has emphasized gun rights in this campaign and New York is already one of the most restrictive states in terms of guns. But you've expressed a desire to seek some further regulations of guns at the national level. What specific kinds of restrictions and regulations would you be advocating for in this particular area?

FC: Well, you know, this is an issue. I am somebody who you know, I support the Second Amendment. I support responsible gun owners. Having that right. I've used all kinds of firearms throughout my life, everything from small arms to, you know, heavy combat rifles. M16’s and things I took over into a combat zone in Iraq. But we have a crisis in this country and you know, I think that we've seen gun violence spike. I just talked about it on the radio show in Utica. We've seen it spike here in Syracuse. You know, I think back about a year and a half ago, I was with our community when Dior Harris, a young baby was shot. Right now across the country, you know, my brother texted me yesterday and said, hey, you know, our school is doing lockdown drills. And so what I want is to make sure that responsible people, we protect the Second Amendment, but we have safety measures in place that keep our communities safe. The gun violence in this country it's just at an incredible epidemic level. And so I am committed to protecting our citizens and our children. I think we need to have common sense, pass universal background checks on gun sales. I think that that is something that the majority of Americans and Central New Yorkers support. It doesn't take away your right to have that weapon, but it does make sure that you have a background check and that you're, you know, that you are of this state of mind, don't have a criminal history and that you should be able to own that weapon. And then, yeah, I've called for a federal assault weapons ban. I do not think that the weapon that I took over, the M4. Basically that AR15 pre-dated the M16. It’s essentially the same weapon of war. It's a combat weapon. It's designed to kill at high numbers and long range. And the carnage that we see, that we saw in Texas that we saw over in Buffalo, I think it needs to be banned at the federal level.

GR: We could spend the entire program on this, but I want to get too much into the weeds. But right now, New York State has a ban on assault weapons, but there are still AR15 platform rifles that you can buy in New York that that don't have all the cosmetic features that define an assault rifle. Usually when this legislation is written as it was in New York and as it was in 1994 and the assault the original national assault weapons ban such as adjustable stocks and pistol grip and so on. So would you be looking to ban the platform entirely or would there still be these workarounds that we still see in New York State for example?

FC: You know, what I would want to do is, because we get ourselves tied in a knot, and it is important, on what is the definition of an assault weapon. And, you know, I would want to have it similar in line with what the legislation had in the nineties that I think went a long way. And I think that if you look at the data, you know, of the amount of mass shootings, the amount of people we see killed with these assault rifles since that federal assault weapons ban expired, it goes up at an exponential rate. So, you know, we have strong measures here in New York. I think that they're working hard to strike that balance of making sure people have their rights, but also keep our communities safe. And that would be the intent of that.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Frances Conole. The former naval officer is the Democratic Party nominee for Congress in New York's 22nd Congressional District. So continuing with big issues here, Mr. Conole, the Democrats have in particular emphasized the dangers of climate change and the need for the nation to act now to try to remedy it. There has been some legislation here this year at the national level regarding it, but it's been a difficult political road more generally in recent years, to say the least. So what are your views on the dangers of climate change and what are your strategies to do more at the national level about it than we have already done?

FC: I think that, you know, climate change as I've said again and again, the science is clear. You can't ignore it. And I'll tell you, for people that don't take it seriously, we took it seriously at the Pentagon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff takes climate change seriously. We were not able to ignore science here at the Pentagon. And we really saw it as one of the greatest risks to social stability in the long term. It's a national security risk. We described it as a threat multiplier. So when we would develop strategies, defense strategies going out 20 and 30 years, we had to take climate change into a fact. The rising tides, food shortages, what it would do to social situations and really enhance threats across the globe. So we need to take action. We're seeing it here. I mean, we're seeing the effects of climate change with rising temperatures. I was looking at the data the other day and I think the data indicates that since I graduated from high school in the nineties, temperatures going up about point three degrees. Now that may not seem like a lot, but I think what we're seeing is, is that even small adjustments in these ecosystems can have dramatic effects. And we see that with the increase of algae in our lakes, and that is a problem because we here in Syracuse are getting our water, we have some of the best water in the world. It's going to become increasingly a valuable natural resource. And we really need to protect our lakes and our water and our climate. So what do we need to do more to get to your direct question, because I know you wanted me to be concise, but we're going to need to continue to do so many things to facilitate and to push forward this transition. It involves large scale public and private investments in renewable energy, things like upgrading our buildings and our grid. And that's in a new technology for reforestation, you know, things like carbon capture technology, you know, continuing to make this transition into wind, solar and bio. And, you know, as I talk about with our unions, I think it's going to continue to be, there are a few areas when we get into the economic growth in this area that I would like us to continue to focus on and grow. It's advanced manufacturing and tech, which are closely related, but then also clean energy. And so I think it's an opportunity for jobs. And so just one more point, because you're like, you know, how are we going to do it? We're going to have all this resistance. And I get that. And I think that what we need to continue to do, I think that there are these issues that span across party lines. The issue of a woman's right to choose spans across party lines, the issue of protecting our climate spans across county lines. The mayor up in Oswego is a Republican, he is a big, big proponent of taking on climate change. It is not just a Democratic issue. So I think the younger generation is where our hope is in this and that the younger generation, whether they're independent, Republican or Democrat, really believe in what's happening here. They've seen it in their lifetime. And so I think we need to continue to talk about it, show the science, show what's going on in the country, and then also talk about the potential to create opportunity and jobs.

GR: So if you win this November, you'll be following in the footsteps of one of the most bipartisan members of Congress by a number of different objective rankings. And John Katko's constituents seem to have like that quality about him. So you just mentioned some issues that you think span across party lines. What are your plans specifically for trying to work across the aisle? How are you going to do that? Because it's a pretty rare occurrence in Congress these days.

FC: I mean, it's one of the things that I very much respected about Congressman Katko. I think that know, certainly, this is what happens. It's actually one of the core elements of our country, we've had these disagreements, these policy discussions since the founding of our country. That is a core element of our country. So I've disagreed on certain policy issues, but I respect him. I think he's a person of honor. I think he leaves the office with honor. And when he when he worked across the aisle, I think that he was in his finest hour when he did that. So I am committed to working with anyone, Democrat or Republican, if it will, or Independent, if it will create jobs here in Central New York. If it will lower costs for working families, protect Social Security and Medicare, protect our environment, keep our community safe. I was proud to receive the endorsement this past week from our Independent mayor, Ben Walsh, and he specifically cited what he liked about me is my openness to work with Republicans and Independents and to have those tough conversations. Grant, I think it's so important for our country right now. You know when I’m thinking about what keeps me up at night, I'm still very concerned with the state where we're at in our in our country and the potential, the division and the risk for violence. And so I think it's a matter really of national service for all of us. No matter what our beliefs are, to have those tough conversations. I think people are so tired of the chaos and the division. We've been told we have to dislike those. And it seems like it goes from zero to 100 so quickly. You see it on social media. People get angry so quickly and we have to diffuse that and talk about what's going on here. What do you believe? Talk to me about this. And I think that that's you know, it's just in my background of service, too. I mean, I served with people, if we got into political conversations some of them I agree with, some of them I would say, okay, we are totally on a different, different page here. Well, we had to work together to get things done, you know?

GR: And can you just name a Republican or two that's currently in Congress that you could imagine yourself working with on an issue.

FC: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, I think that people within that caucus, like Liz Cheney, I know that she just lost, I think that that wing where they are really dedicated to the country. And while I disagree with Liz or Congressman Katko on certain policy issues, I think that they've been in their finest hour and put country over politics.

GR: Would you consider trying to join the Problem Solvers Caucus, which John Katko was a member of? You have to join in pairs. You have to find someone from the other party. Would you be open to a Republican asking you or are you asking a Republican?

FC: You know, I would be open to joining Problem Solvers and caucuses like that really facilitate reaching out to take on these tough problems.

GR: If you’ve just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher and my guest is Democratic Party nominee for Congress Francis Conole. So you are a veteran, former naval officer, thank you for your service there. How does your prior military service do you think would help to make you a better and more effective member of Congress?

FC: Well, I mean, I think that there's elements of serving and then specifically elements of my background of service. I think generally one of the great things about serving is, you know, you're brought together with people from all over the country with really that shared camaraderie and that shared value of really focusing on the mission and not letting your differences, whether you're from Texas or in New York or California or wherever you're from in the country, whatever you're background is, you really just come together and take on the mission at hand. And I did that throughout my career, whether it was in the Persian Gulf or on the ground in Iraq or at the Pentagon. And then unique to my background is, you know, I've not only served in an operational tactical environment where you have to critically think and make decisions in kind of a pressurized environment. But I also served at the senior level, you know, at the Pentagon, both my time in the intelligence community and then at the Pentagon, I was serving in the office of Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy. And our job was to advise under two secretaries of defense, I should say, under Ash Carter, who was President Obama's last defense secretary. And then I was in uniform. I remained on at the Pentagon through the transition and served Under Secretary Jim Mattis. And so I got to see the differences there. And was able to advise a cabinet level official taking on those tough issues at the strategic level and at the policy level. And so I really had a wide spectrum of experience. But, you know, you learn things like principled leadership and putting differences aside to focus on the mission. And I said this during the debate, but it's something that really stuck with me. Jim Mattis used to say it all the time. He'd say, look, if I had one hour to save the world, the quote, Einstein’s quote, I'd use 59 minutes defining the problem and a minute solving it. So he used to really push us on that, whether it was our work with Jordan or countering ISIS or with Israel or with Lebanon. What is the problem? Come back to me with a better definition of the problem and how we're going to solve it.

GR: Is there a current member of Congress now that you think is closest to you that you would want to emulate if elected?

FC: I say this because she's both someone I know and is a friend, but even if I didn't, I would say it. I really admire Elissa Slotkin in Michigan. I went out and helped her, this was before I even considered running. I served with her at the Pentagon. When I arrived at the Pentagon, she was the assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. And, you know, I was assigned to the Office of Secretary Defense for Middle East Policy. But, you know, she is somebody who had a background and career of national security and service at the White House, CIA, and then at the Pentagon. And what I like about her is that she really has worked not only to fight for Michigan, to keep that at the forefront and not only to fight for working families and to fight to protect our democracy, but also she's done it in a way where she puts country over politics.

GR: So in your campaign messaging, you've also emphasized your funding advantage over your opponent, Brandon Williams. Why is that important for voters to know?

FC: Well, I mean, it's you know, I think that the funding advantage shows, you know, if you looked at our, we're funded by small dollar donors. And so it shows the enthusiasm and the support of our message and our campaign. I also will say specifically, since I launched this campaign, I have not taken any corporate PAC money. That's something that I'm extremely proud of. We talked about earlier how we've seen a lot of these corporations which have fleeced our communities here in central New York and throughout the country. And I think that too many Washington politicians, when we go through the list, we could have gone back and talked about a lot of the issues. Why is it so hard to pass something like common sense background checks? Take a look at the amount of money that flows in to politicians. It's not just Republicans either. It's Democrats as well. There's a lot of Democrats who take corporate PAC money. Why is it so hard? Why is it always so hard? Why can't we cap the price of insulin, right? It seems like something that should be, a country is as great as ours we're having families pay $300 for a vial of insulin? Well, that's because big pharma floods our system with money. So the funding advantage that I talk about, I'm proud of it because it shows the strength and support of our campaign. And it's done so with individuals, not corporate donors.

GR: I want to try to squeeze two more questions in in about the minute and a half or so that we've got. On the funding in the primaries, you were criticized by some of your opponents for being supported by an organization that was heavily funded by a crypto billionaire. Should voters be concerned about folks like that coming in and supporting your campaign?

FC: Well, so that wasn’t, I mean, that was not given to my campaign.

GR: Correct – spent on your behalf.

FC: But that was money that was spent outside of our campaign. And I think that that's an issue that we can talk about with outside spending. This was very specifically focused on wanting to support candidates across the country who are, who have a background in emergency response. I mobilized to respond to the pandemic, and we're are going to be committed to preparing and making sure that we take the right moves to prepare for the next pandemic. It seems like we've quickly forgot about that. But, you know, our doctors tell us that is a very real threat on the horizon. And, you know, I would just mention that if you take a look at my Republican opponent right now, he has his Republican super PAC that's come in for almost $2 million at this point, already launching attack ads on me. We were wondering if the first ad that they produced for him would be something positive, telling us who the hell he is. But instead, it's just come out and immediately went on the attack on me.

GR: I need a super quick answer on this, really almost yes or no, but should Joe Biden run again for president?

FC: It's a decision Joe Biden needs to make for himself.

GR: All right. Great. We'll have to leave it there, that was Francis Conole. Election Day is November 8th and early voting starts October 29th. Note that I hope to have Republican Brandon Williams on the program in the coming weeks. And I also hope to be able to host a debate between my guest today and Mr. Williams. Mr. Conole, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

FC: Thank you so much, Grant.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations and the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.