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'Blessed to be a Hammontonian' - Kellyanne Conway comes home

When it comes to the winter season, there's one abiding philosophy that almost always holds true: Holidays and politics really don't mix.

When it comes to the winter season, there's one abiding philosophy that almost always holds true: Holidays and politics really don't mix.

Unless, of course, you're from Hammonton, N.J.

On Saturday night, this small, South Jersey town hosted its annual Christmas parade, an hour-long bash featuring floats, carols, and marching bands galore.

And this year, one unusual addition: Kellyanne Conway.

"I've often reflected on what it means to have been born and raised and spent the first 18 years of my life and every holiday and summer since in Hammonton, New Jersey," Conway said as she stood on the center stage, waving to trucks and floats that passed by. "I feel very blessed to be a Hammontonian."

Conway, 49, rose to fame this year as President-elect Donald Trump's campaign manager, becoming the first woman to lead a winning presidential campaign. Before it all, she got her roots in South Jersey.

Born in Camden, Conway moved to Atco at age 3 before attending schools in Hammonton from kindergarten through 12th grade, graduating from St. Joseph's High School. On Saturday, Hammonton welcomed her back, giving Conway a key to the city and allowing her to be grand marshal of the Christmas parade.

News of Conway's invitation to the parade erupted on social media days before the event. Dozens from the South Jersey area spoke out in opposition, creating Facebook groups, writing in disapproval to Hammonton's mayor and town council, and calling for protests on Saturday night.

But with carols in the background Saturday and as thousands of families weaved along the sidewalks searching for a spot to watch, the only complaint among attendees seemed to be the cold temperatures.

"I'm so happy [Conway's] here," said Lucy Drone, 63, of Lumberton, who came with her husband and daughter to watch the parade for the first time. "We're Trump fans. We want to see change. . . . She cemented that."

Organized by the Hammonton Fire Department, the parade began around 7:30 p.m., as a fleet of fire trucks moved down the downtown block. Seconds later, Conway, accompanied by her children, hopped out of one them. The crowd of thousands erupted in cheers, while dozens hoisted signs - "Kelly rox!" - in the air.

Nearby at the center of the parade, a small minority booed.

Speaking for only three minutes, Conway mesmerized the crowd. When she mentioned Trump - "I ask you to pray for our new president and vice president" - attendees went wild.

And when she asked for prayers for President Obama and Vice President Biden, the crowd loved that, too.

"Classy!" one woman shouted.

"Nice!" cheered another.

The protests that were planned did not seem to materialize Saturday night except for the few boos and a few protest signs. Still, Lauren Wilson, a Hammonton resident who wrote letters to town officials expressing her disapproval, said she believes there were many who were opposed.

"Our marginalized populations are the ones most fearful and most impacted by the political climate," she said. "And they are the ones who are afraid to speak out."

"It's very hard to separate her from the Donald Trump campaign," Wilson continued. "She ran a campaign based on hate and violence toward so many groups in our country."

Nestled just miles outside of Wharton State Forest and a quick 30-minute drive from Atlantic City, Hammonton may seem like an unlikely place for a national, political spotlight.

For decades, this 14,000-person town gained fame for its blueberry farms and its Italian heritage. Known as the "Blueberry Capital of the World" and for once having the highest concentration of Italian Americans in the U.S., Hammonton is the kind of town "where everyone knows each other" and where "there's always someone to help you," said resident Caitlyn Collins, 28, who watched the parade from her mother's lawn.

It's a place where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 2-1. GOP pride runs deep: Residents still talk about President Ronald Reagan's visit to Hammonton in 1984.

More than 30 years later, Conway's visit is something residents say they will be talking about, too.

"We admire her," said Ray Beebe, 56, from nearby Port Republic. ""She's a South Jersey girl who worked hard to get where she is."

610-313-8113 @mccabe_caitlin