2 Navy Veterans Set to Square Off in NY Congressional Race

By Dan M. Berger
Dan M. Berger
Dan M. Berger
September 15, 2022 Updated: September 19, 2022

A former Navy intelligence officer and tech entrepreneur and a Navy veteran are set to face off in the Nov. 8 race to represent New York’s 22nd Congressional District, which includes Syracuse and surrounding areas.

Democrat Francis Conole, a former adviser to two defense secretaries, won a narrow victory in his primary. His Republican opponent, Brandon Williams, a tech specialist and former submarine missile officer, upset businessman Steve Wells, who was supported by most of the party establishment.

Real Clear Politics rates the November race a toss-up.

With the state’s court-ordered redistricting, District 22 became more favorable to Democrats, taking in more of the blue Syracuse urban area as well as Utica to the east.

District 22 Rep. Claudia Tenney, the Republican who represented Utica, Rome, and Binghamton and had won by only 109 votes, chose not to run in the new district. Instead, she won the GOP primary in the sprawling 24th District. More favorable for the GOP, it takes in some of Tenney’s current district and stretches along Western New York’s Lake Ontario shore, avoiding the Rochester metro area.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. Naval Academy graduate Francis Conole is the Democratic nominee for New York’s 22nd Congressional District in November 2022. (Photo courtesy of Francis Conole Campaign.)

Current District 24 Rep. John Katko is retiring. The former federal prosecutor was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump. Katko didn’t endorse anyone in the Republican primary, but many of his staffers worked for Wells, according to Syracuse.com.

The state Conservative Party, whose cross-endorsement Republicans often seek, refused to support Katko for reelection and has endorsed Williams.

The turbulent redistricting process concluded in May, only a month before New York’s regularly scheduled primary. A court, deeming the Democratic legislature’s map too slanted toward Democrats, assigned a judge as special master to draw a new one.

The new map made the state much more competitive for Republicans, according to Shawn Donahue, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo.

District 22’s new alignment and that of the upstate area were about as favorable as the Democrats could have hoped for.

“They could have had small blue areas like Binghamton or Ithaca or Utica stranded in a sea of red, but they didn’t,” he told The Epoch Times in August.

Epoch Times Photo
Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), one of three congressional incumbents seeking reelection in the state’s Aug. 23 primaries, chose to move to District 24 from District 22 after redistricting. Here she casts her ballot in New Hartford, N.Y., in 2020. (Heather Ainsworth/AP Photo)

The map triggered many last-minute moves among congressional candidates, and the state postponed congressional primaries until August 23.

Conole ran a well-financed primary campaign, raising more than $1 million, including $500,000 from the Protect Our Future PAC, whose stated goals are preparing for and preventing another pandemic. That committee has received nearly all of its $27 million in funding from Samuel Bankman-Fried, the founder and CEO of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange. Conole also got the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Despite significant support, he won the primary by less than 1,000 votes over Air Force veteran Sarah Klee Hood, who raised only $132,000. Hood, who was cross-endorsed by New York’s Working Families Party, took two of the district’s counties—Oneida, where Utica sits, and Madison. But Conole won Onondaga County, where Syracuse lies with almost two-thirds of the district’s population, and the district’s sliver of Oswego County.

Conservative Republicans rallied around Williams, a software entrepreneur and truffle farmer who won an upset 58–41 victory over Wells, a food service company owner. Wells was supported by GOP leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, her party’s third-ranking House member as chair of the House Republican Conference. Stefanik represents the neighboring congressional district covering most of New York’s North Country.

John Katko
One of only 10 Republicans in the House to vote for Donald Trump’s second impeachment, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) isn’t seeking reelection. Here he speaks to reporters in Washington on April 14, 2021. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Wells raised almost $691,000, most of it his own money, more than three times the $214,000 for Williams, who also mostly self-funded his campaign. According to the Utica Observer-Dispatch, the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund spent nearly $300,000 on the race the week before the primary. More than $101,000 went to support Wells and almost $184,000 to oppose Williams.

Syracuse.com reported the RCLF’s spending even more, an ad blitz of $1 million at the end of the campaign, and said Williams was outspent by Wells, 6 to 1.

Williams’s website bills the Texas native and Navy veteran who came with his wife to Central New York in 2010 as a “Conservative outsider, proven fighter” and “A patriot, not a politician.” He served as a strategic missile officer aboard the submarine USS Georgia on six patrols in the Pacific. His website’s logo incorporates a submarine into its graphics. He notes that his wife is the daughter of an Army officer and decorated Vietnam vet.

“Stephanie grew up on Army bases and experienced first-hand the threat of Communism while her father was stationed in Germany on the front lines of the Cold War,” it states.

The couple started an agribusiness in the Finger Lakes and a software business in Silicon Valley.

Williams has taken aim at “woke policies” toward law enforcement in cities such as New York and Los Angeles and at critical race theory curricula in public schools.

“We’re going to get this ship pointed in the right direction,” Williams told his supporters on primary night. “Our nation is under attack by the radical left.”

Conole, at his own victory party on Aug. 23, described Williams as “extreme.”

“He’s extreme on his policies and his positions. And if I’ve heard anything, especially here in Central New York, it’s that Americans are so tired of the extremes,” Canole said.

Conole grew up in the Syracuse area. His grandfather was the only Democratic sheriff in Onondaga County’s history. According to his website, Conole graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy three months before 9/11, served in the Iraq War, and worked in the Pentagon as an adviser to Defense secretaries Ash Carter and Jim Mattis.