ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – It would be an understatement to call the road to success a bumpy and windy one for Joe Sempolinski, recently elected as Representative of the 23rd District’s Special Election for the House.
It all started in July of 2021, when Sempolinski announced his run for the 23rd congressional election. He knew that there was the possibility that the district might change due to redistricting. Still, his campaign was going quite well.
“And it was going very, very well. I was getting a lot of support. And then the first map came down,” Sempolinski said ominously.
Just seven months into his campaign, in January, New York’s Democratic-led legislature put out a set of maps that left him with no district to run in.
The maps included one Southern Tier district. But, Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenny already claimed the spot.
“I didn’t want to disrupt the people that were already in office. I was looking to run for an open seat,” said Sempolinski, firm on his stance that he would not be running against a sitting member of Congress. “I said I wasn’t going to run.”
But the setback was huge for Sempolinski, who has his roots firmly in this area.
He was born at Arnot hospital in Elmira. Both his parents worked at Corning Inc. It’s the storyline of many in this area. As a play-by-play Southern Tier native himself, for Sempolinski, it has always been about serving the people of the Southern Tier.
“We’re sitting in the city I was born in, this is the district I was raised in,” said Sempolinski sitting with 18 News in Elmira. “And I wanted to serve the people in the district. That was very, very important to me.”
A turbulent ride to the House
The day the new district lines were signed into law, in February, a Republican-led group of voters filed a lawsuit claiming the congressional map was “undeniably politically gerrymandered.”
It set off a domino of events that would lead to three months where New York’s district lines were unknown. It meant three months where Sempolinski had no idea whether he was running or not.
“Each day it seemed like there was a new political bombshell that had dropped that fundamentally changed what was going on in Western New York, the Southern Tier, and the Fingerlakes politically,” Sempolinski said, recalling the uncertainty of those three months.
And just as Sempolinski was losing hope of running in the election Congressman Tom Reed resigned from Congress in early May. His seat was now left open for a Special Election, for someone to hold office for the rest of his term ending in January.
“I did not expect that. I had taken a new job as a State Assembly Chief of Staff and I was sitting in my office when I got a phone call and my life changed,” said Sempolinski.
About two weeks later, in late May, a final version of the district lines was released.
These new lines solidified Sempolinski’s choice to only run in the Special Election. He said if he had decided to also run in the 23rd Congressional race, he wouldn’t have been able to give the current 23rd district his full attention.
The modifications to the 23rd District included a large chunk of Erie County and eliminated Tioga County, as well as Finger Lakes counties like Tompkins, Yates, and Seneca. The district largely retained counties that made up the bulk of the Southern Tier, including Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Chautauqua.
“There are five counties… that are not in the new 23rd district. Those five counties deserve somebody that’s going to worry about them…not while competing in an election,” said Sempolinski. “We needed somebody that could finish this year in the old version of the district and do it without distraction.”
Election day comes around and Sempolinski becomes the 23rd district’s Special Election Congressman, leading by almost 5,000 votes. He won ten out of 11 counties, averaging over 60% of the vote in those winning counties.
The numbers were clear, yet, for Sempolinski, it didn’t feel real. He said the chaos of his candidacy conditioned him, “not to get too excited when things are going well,” explaining that, “it didn’t become real until probably the next morning.”
“I think that is a product of ups and downs, and stops and starts, and hurry ups and waits, that we’ve been dealing with in our campaign,” said Sempolinski.
Inauguration on Sept. 13 and his fourth-month term
Sempolinski will be inaugurated on Sept. 13th in Washington D.C. and starts work immediately, as the House is voting that night itself. He says that even though his term is just a mere four months, his plan isn’t just to keep the seat warm.
“The people expect me to be their voice. And I intend to aggressively speak out on the issues that I care about,” he said.
Sempolinski hopes this is only the beginning of his perpetual pursuit of serving the Southern Tier.
“I’m happy to do it as a congressman, I’m happy to do it as a state assembly staffer… whether it’s federal or state, it’s all the same…I just want to make the people that I love, my neighbors, my friends, the people of the Southern Tier…I want to make their lives better. And however I can do that, that’s what’s important,” he said.
Politics can be traced back to his early days in college
Sempolinski dipped his toe into politics as an undergrad at Georgetown, double majoring in government and history. At the time, he served as an intern on Capitol Hill. He nurtured his interest in politics at Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in political science.
After he finished school at Yale, he came home to the Southern Tier to become campaign manager for, then Corning Mayor Tom Reed, who was running in the 2010 congressional election for the 23rd District.
Reed won that election, and he offered Sempolinski a job on his staff in Washington, but Sempolinski turned it down. Instead, he asked for a less visible role, in the district staff.
“This is my home… I wanted to serve the people in this district,” said Sempolinski, who was then offered the role of district director.
The job of the district director is to travel within the district learning “every nook and cranny,” as Sempolinski put it, to keep up with the local concerns of the constituents.
“There’s no person on a congressional staff that has to interact more with people of the congressional district than district directors,” said Sempolinski. In 2016, he continued his service and went on to become the Chairman of the Steuben County Republican Party.
Sempolinski feels indebted to this time as director, working in and around the district, as he feels it also played a pivotal role in his candidacy.
“[I] got to meet the constituents…those constituents are also the voters…When I did announce I was running last year. I was able to very quickly have support from people throughout the region because I had been working with them, and for them, for a long time,” he said.
Sempolinski was quick to declare his candidacy for the Special Election because of his deep ties to the district.
Come January, Sempolinski will continue to serve the Southern Tier. He will be going back to a job he was offered before the Special Election was announced, as the Chief of Staff for Southern Tier Assemblyman Joe Giglio.