NY-23 special election: Sempolinski touts district experience
Updated: 8/18/22 – 7:45 P.M.
Joe Sempolinski is running as the Republican in the special election to fill out the term for New York’s current 23rd Congressional District.* The district encompasses Tompkins, Tioga, Chemung, Steuben, Schuyler and Allegany Counties. His Democratic opponent in the special election is Max Della Pia.
Sempolinski is only running in the special election and will not appear on the ballot in the general election to serve a full term this fall. Two Republican candidates, Nick Langworthy and Carl Paladino, are currently running in a primary to appear as the GOP candidate in the general election.
Both candidates discussed their candidacy and some policy views with WSKG ahead of the Aug. 23 special election.
Vaughn Golden: This is WSKG News. I'm Vaughn Golden, and I'm here with Joe Sempolinski, Republican candidate for the special election being held in the existing 23rd Congressional District. Joe is a political strategist and consultant who currently chairs the Steuben County Republican Committee. He was previously a staffer for Congressman Tom Reed, who resigned the seat earlier this year. Thanks so much for coming on.
Joe Sempolinski: Oh, it's always a pleasure, Vaughn. Good to see you again.
VG: We've offered these interviews to both the candidates running in the special election and the 23rd. That includes you Joe Sempolinski and Max Della Pia on the Democratic side. This is the existing 23rd district, which includes Tompkins, Tioga, Steuben and Schuyler counties and stretches west to Jamestown. The date of the election is Aug. 23. We're also going to note that's the special election coincides with a Republican primary election in the new 23rd district on that date. Joe was running in the special election, but not to fill out the full term and therefore, he will not be on the primary ballot, just the special election ballot. For the structure of this interview, we're going to take some time to discuss you and your candidacy and then spend the remaining time discussing some specific policy areas. So can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your history in public service specifically?
JS: Yeah, well, this is this is my home. I was born in this district raised in this district and I spent my entire career working in this district specifically working for the people of this district on federal issues. So after I went off to college and grad school, I came back to work on Congressman Reed's first campaign. I was his campaign manager and after that, I became his district director, which I think is the most important preparation for what I'm doing now. So for the folks out there, the way a congressional staff is usually organized is about half of the staff will be in Washington, D.C. and about half this half will be in the congressional district where that member's from. The staff that's in Washington, D.C. , generally does legislative, advises the member on legislative stuff, does tours, answers correspondence, that sort of thing. The folks that are in the home district handle constituent service issues and the person is the district director, which is the title I had, they manage that staff to make sure that constituent service happens, but also are the main liaison between the member of congress and their employers. And I say employers because the people, the constituents, are the employers of the member of congress and they should always remember that. And so I spent years and years and years traveling throughout every nook and cranny of the 23rd district as it has existed for the last 10 years and will exist for the remainder of this year. There's nobody alive that knows that old configuration better than I do. And so, when I'm in Chautauqua County, or I'm in Tompkins County, or I'm anywhere in between, generally I am up to speed, at least to some degree on what's going on in that community. I know most of the political officials, the elected officials, the business community, the regular people on the street that I run into, I tend to run into a lot of people I know as I'm out campaigning, because I've spent so much time in that footprint. So going from that particular job description to the member of congress, I think is the best preparation, because it keeps you very much grounded in the district. So I was senior staff member of that office's, staff. But I wasn't down in the bubble, in the swamp down in Washington, D.C., I was up here actually interacting with real people and seeing how policy decisions that were made in D.C. impacted them either for good or for bad.
VG: And what's kind of your motivation for running and why specifically Congress at this point?
JS: Yeah, so as I said, I was born in this district. I was born, the Arnot Hospital in Elmira. I was raised here, spent my entire life here, I'm raising my family here. And there was a unique situation we had where we have redistricting on top of a resignation and so we need somebody that can come in with as minimal learning curve as possible, and be able to do the job of representing the people of this district without distraction. My opponent will be spending half his time running around in a totally different district that he doesn't even live in. I'm going to spend that time focusing 100% on doing the job of being a member of congress and I'm concerned about the direction of the country. The Democratic Party controls the presidency, the House, the Senate, the New York governor's mansion, the New York State Senate, New York State Assembly. We've got unified Democratic control at both the state and federal levels. And as was mentioned I'm the Republican nominee, I have some differences with the with the Democratic Party, and I want to make sure that we're moving the country in a smaller government direction and a direction with more freedom and if I can be even one brick in the road building a better future for my children, I'm going to do it. And people have asked me, I'm sure, it's probably on your list to ask, why would I do this for only four months. And my response is, it would be a profound honor to represent the people of this district, even if it was for four minutes, I would still do it. Most people that have lived on this planet, have lived under a thug, or a dictator, or a despot or an autocrat of some variation. That's how most people have had to live their lives. We don't have to live like that in the United States of America. When you stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and you are a member of Congress, and you swipe your card and you vote yes or no, you speak for approximately three quarters of a million people. That's a pretty sacred thing. That's a profound honor, even to do that once would be a profound honor, the four months that that term that I would serve three of those the House would be in session there's gonna be a lot more than one vote that I'm going to cast. But, if I can stand there and speak for the people, the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes, an area of the state that oftentimes gets overlooked or forgotten. And these are the people that I've spent my entire life with that have formed me, that have given me everything that I have. I'm, and I can serve that role for them. I'm more than honored to do so.
VG: And you were right. That was on my list of questions.
JS: Everybody asks that question.
VG: And and I the only reason, part of the reason I bring it up is because I did do a little research, and I believe based on the Wikipedia article I found you would be in the top 20 of shortest terms of a House member of all time.
JS: Yeah, I found that Wikipedia article myself, actually. It's somewhere 12 or 13. I think, depending on, we don't know exactly how quickly the victor in this particular race will be sworn in. But you know, yeah, it'd be in the top 20.
VG: Sure, but in all seriousness, why not run for a full term?
JS: Yeah, the two districts are very different. You mentioned the primary and the new 23rd district. 42% of that new district's in Erie County, it's not in the old district. There are six counties that do overlap, including where I live. But then there's five counties that I'm running to represent that Nick and Carl are not, including the one we're sitting in right now. We're sitting in studios in Ithaca. Ithaca is going to be in the new 19th district along with Tioga County, and Ontario, Seneca and Yates are going to be the new 24th district. So they have the same label the new 23rd and the old 23rd, but they are very different and the needs are different and I think the people of the old 23rd deserve to have somebody that's going to be focused on doing the job representing them not trying to run for another term in a different jurisdiction. I'll be honest with you, I did think about it and over the course of the twists and turns that we've had, which had been many over the last year and a half,
VG: Because you had had declared at one point and you're referring to redistricting.
JS: I had announced last summer that I was running sort of pending redistricting. I spent about seven months campaigning, and we were doing very well. The map came out and it looked like for a little bit that we were going to have Congresswoman Tenney running in the southern tier, she's now running in the new 24th district and at that point, I had been clear that I was running for an open seat. I wasn't running to run against a sitting member of the House of Representatives and so at that point, I sort of put the campaign in freeze and then we had the court case, which was started in Steuben. County, my home county, ultimately went to the Court of Appeals and the gerrymander was thrown out. And in also in that timeframe, Congressman Reed unexpectedly resigned. What both of those things dramatically changed the political situation for everyone at the congressional level and the state senate level in the state of New York. And so the new situation that developed and you throw in there, Chris Jacobs running and then not running in the southern tier that happened very quickly. What I felt was the best thing for the people of the 23rd district, the old 23rd district, where I could best be of undistracted calm, sober service to them was to run in the special election and we'll see who the voters pick between Nick and Carl for the new term and come noon on January 3, I'll hand the keys of the car off to someone else.
VG: And you've spent a good amount of your career working in politics and government and why should the people in the 23rd district feel as though you'll be able to relate to them on issues and appropriately address them in congress?
JS: Because I'm one of them. I was born and raised here. So how I view the world is shaped by the fact that I spent my life in the southern tier. I grew up just outside of Painted Post, I had a Painted Post address, I wasn't right in the village with my family, and other than when I was away at college and grad school I spent my entire life living in in Steuben County and the Southern Tier. I now live in Canisteo. My wife is from the Olean area, which is in this district. She's a public school teacher in Hinsdale. We live in a pretty average house on a pretty average street and a pretty regular village. I wouldn't have it any other way. So it's I think it's as simple as that, Vaughn is that if you're going to have somebody speak for you, having somebody that is born and bred and raised, and in that district in that community, and then on top of that professionally, has been again in every corner of that district over the course of years. I know the district and I am of the district and from the district and you are you are sending one of your own to Washington if you vote for me.
VG: Former Representative Tom Reed resigned after sexual harassment or excuse me sexual misconduct allegations came to light and he acknowledged he struggled with alcohol over the years as well. As someone who was very close with him over a number of years, did you ever have any knowledge or inkling of that these sorts of issues might be happening and why don't you think it was addressed sooner, either by Congressman Reed or by someone else?
JS: Yeah. So the way I heard about the allegations against Mr. Reed was, Tom told me, the day before the article came out that an article was probably going to come out. He called me and paid me the courtesy of telling me that. That was the first I had heard of it, that there was any allegations against him. I had not ever seen him behave in a sexually inappropriate nature with anyone. And after the fact, I sort of learned that he had been in recovery for alcoholism. So it wasn't like this story came out in the Washington Post and suddenly he ran to a rehab center. My understanding of the situation, and obviously you'd have to ask him for the particulars and details was that he had been in recovery for, I think, a couple of years by the time the story came out, because if I understand correctly, the allegation against him was, I think about three years old.
VG: 2017 I believe yes.
JS: And, you know, I wasn't on that trip to Minnesota where the allegations occurred so I can't say what happened or didn't happen. But it, what I've been led to believe, is that he was taking responsibility for his addiction and was and was dealing with it. And also, when the story came out, he very quickly said he wasn't going to run for reelection and a lot of people that I've talked to also viewed that from a political standpoint is him taking responsibility for it. Now, what his situation is, is his situation. I'm running my own race. I'm running on my merits, for the job that I think I can do for the people. I wish Tom nothing but the best and in what he does is down the road.
VG: How much of his record as a as a member of congress do you kind of inherit, having worked on his staff having had to play some role in the decisions he made and the policy stances he took over the years?
JS: Yeah, I mean, I'm my own person. Tom's Tom, Joe's Joe. We agree on some things, we disagree on other things and, you know, there are votes he's taken that I agree with there are votes he's taken over the years that I disagree with and there are going to be votes over the course of the time that I would serve in congress that I'll take that he wouldn't even have had to think of or consider. You know, where I think there's similarities is he is also somebody that is that was raised in the Corning area that has spent time in that area. So there's there's similarities in how we look at the world, but it'd be the same for anybody, whether they're Republican or Democrat who happened to be from this particular part of the world.
VG: And before we get into some policy, what in your opinion sets you apart and makes you more qualified for this role than your special election opponent, Democrat Max Della Pia.
JS: Yeah, because I've lived in breathed it. This is this is a district that I know like the back of my hand, this is a district where I've spent literally years in the car driving around going from the shore of Lake Erie to Owego, up through Ithaca up into the Finger Lakes. There's no corner of this district that I haven't campaigned in since I've been running, but also, more importantly, that over the years I spent working on federal issues that I haven't intimately got to know. And that's not something you can just pick up from a briefing book on the fly. That's years of knowledge. That's years of relationships, where if I walk into a room in Dunkirk, I'm going to know people and the issues that they're dealing with, the same as if I walk into a room and Ithaca or walk into a room and Corning or Geneva or, or Owego. You know, that is simply a depth of intimate knowledge on federal issues. Remember, I was working as a federal congressional aide in the district, that my opponent, you know, where anyone else simply couldn't have because they haven't, they haven't lived it.
VG: Now to move into some policy areas, one that's really been on the front of a lot of people's mind over the last month or two is in reaction to the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, is of course abortion. Democrats are trying to make efforts to pass legislation around abortion, including on the federal level. Understanding you yourself are a fairly pro-life individual. Are there any kinds of these measures that Democrats are proposing that you could get behind or are you firmly line in the sand on this?
JS: Yeah, I, I, as you said, I'm a pro-life candidate. When I think of the abortion issue, the first, you know, first thing I think of is my daughter. My daughter has Down Syndrome. You know, most pregnancies where there's a diagnosis of Down Syndrome end in a termination and I think that's a, you know, a pretty tragic commentary. But if you want to talk about where we can find some middle ground, I think there is some places to find some middle ground.
VG: Like what?
JS: Well, folks that are pro-life quite often get criticized, that, "oh, they only care about the child when it's in the womb," right. And you're putting folks in a position where they might be unable to care, to care for a child. I'm more than happy to support, including with government funding, support for prenatal care, support for, for for postnatal care to help mothers out with diapers and baby food and, and making sure they're getting workforce training or whatever we need to do to make life better for for mothers that are dealing with a pregnancy where they're anticipating some challenges of those nature's. I'm happy to do that. That's, that's something where we do have to care for vulnerable families. Not just when they're going through a pregnancy, but to care for them after the pregnancy and and if that, I would think would be something where Democrats and Republicans could come together and say, alright, if we want to have fewer abortions, let's make it where people have less concerns about well, how am I going to feed my child? How am I going to still go to work? How am I still going to still go to school? All the reasons that might be swirling in a person's head, about how they're going to be dealing with challenges, going into motherhood, we can work together to try and try and solve those those issues. And again, I'm I'm saying this as a conservative Republican, I'm willing to expend tax dollars to do it, if that's going to make the early childhood or the pregnancy or the delivery better and safer for both mother and child. I'll do that. And that was when the when the Dobbs decision came down that was one of the first statements I made is let's now work together for not only the vulnerable person in the womb, but also the mother. We have to we have to make life better for
VG: I just kind of want to make sure I understand where exactly you fall. Should a woman have the right to terminate a pregnancy if her life is at risk?
JS: Yeah, I think that's something that most people will be open to because you're talking about.
VG: Would you be open to that?
JS: Yeah. We're talking about, I'm pro-life and when I say life, now you're talking about potentially there being a death of another human being. So now you're you're talking about something where I think there needs to be more flexibility In that, in that particular case,
VG: Switching gears, Congress passed a package of reforms related to firearms earlier this year. Do you agree with some of the inclusions in that package, would you have supported it if you were a member of the house at the time?
JS: The new assault weapons ban? No. I would not have voted for an assault weapons ban. We've had obviously some very tragic situations in this country recently. One of which was in Buffalo, just outside of this district in an adjacent county. Obviously, there's also the horrific school shooting in Texas and, and other situations. And I'm not saying that we don't need to deal with that as a country. But I think that as policymakers, whether it's this or any other issue area, we need to look at the underlying causes of problems as opposed to just dealing with the symptoms of problems. We do have to do better with mental health in this country, we have to do better with, you know, why is somebody getting sucked down some sort of dark rabbit hole online, into hate and, and fear and aggression? Those are some of our underlying societal issues that we need to come together on. Taking away constitutional rights from law abiding citizens, in my opinion, is treating the symptom as opposed to treating the cause. And it's unfair to the law abiding citizen, if you go on my website, and if you look at how I've described myself throughout the entire process of me running for Congress, and then not running for Congress and running for Congress, over the last year and a half, I've consistently described myself as a constitutional conservative. The first thing a member of the House does is they swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. The Second Amendment is part of the Constitution. :eople have the right to keep and bear arms and so I'm, I'm more than happy to try and find solutions that we can agree with to deal with some of the underlying causes of these horrificly tragic incidents, but taking away constitutional rights from regular people who have done nothing wrong, in my opinion, is is not the effective solution.
VG: We are at about 22 minutes now, just so you know. As a member of the House of Representatives, what do you think your role is, in fighting inflation? This is largely an issue of monetary policy. But of course, fiscal decisions do have an impact, too.
JS: Yeah, I think it's there is a lot to be said there. That's to me, the biggest issue right now is inflation. The people that get burned by inflation are the people, it's a single mom is trying to get to work. It's a it's a senior citizen living on fixed income. It's it's people that did everything we tell folks to do is right and save their money, that now that money that they saved is worth less than than it should be. So that's the biggest issue impacting the public right now and so it would be grossly irresponsible to say that we shouldn't be doing something about it. My opponent has said is irresponsible to talk about it. My opponent has said the gas prices are now so low, he's been downplaying this, I think because of he knows it's an albatross around the Democratic Party's neck. But a big part of what has caused this is massive injections of loose cash into the economy. We just had the Inflation Reduction Act. For those of you can't see I'm doing air quotes right now, the Inflation Reduction Act, which is quite a misnomer. That's that's going to raise taxes and what is a recession and it's going to increase spending. You know, that is not going to be helpful. Even the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Congressional Budget Office, says if there are benefits to inflation, they're minimal and years and years and years down the road. Bernie Sanders stood on the floor of the Senate says it's not going to reduce inflation. I can't believe I'm saying this, but suddenly Bernie is the fiscally responsible one in the in the Democratic Party. So we have to stop that mass flow of dollars into the economy and that is certainly within the purview of the House and the Senate.
VG: Included in this package that the Senate just passed over this past weekend, we're talking on Aug. 8 here, was a phased in approach to Medicare, negotiating the cost of some prescription drugs. This would be phased in over a few years. Do you agree with that part of the proposal and if not, what should the federal government be doing to lower the cost?
JS: Yeah, I don't have a problem with that.
VG: With Medicare negotiating the cost of prescription drugs?
JS: Yeah, I don't have a problem with that. You're talking about a bill that's 2,100 pages, I guess, 2,140. I was looking at it. So you're gonna have some things in there that are that are good, but, there is some, the fundamentals of that bill are going to be very detrimental to the economy, in my opinion.
VG: What else can the federal government do to address the cost of prescription drugs?
JS: Yeah, I mean, this is something that, I think we do have to get to some of the underlying causes of, you know, we, there was a lot of back and forth in the bill about the cost of insulin, where there was a Republican proposal to make insulin more available at federally monitored, federally controlled or sponsored health centers and then there was Democratic proposal to do a price cap. So everybody agrees, insulin, just using it, as an example, is too high. And my God, if you need insulin, you need insulin, it is it is not something "Oh, I can just wait a little bit." So when you're, when you've got, each party agrees we need to deal with the cost of insulin, and each party has a solution and each party puts that solution forward on the floor of the United States Senate and then every member of the opposite party votes the other way, that shows you really just how broken the political system is. We all agree there's a problem. We all agree that there's a way to find a solution insulin's not terribly expensive to produce, yet people are getting these prices that are going through the roof. Why can't we come together to find a solution on something like that? And a pox on both houses on that particular issue.
VG: What do you think? Well, first of all, do you believe that mankind is contributing to climate change and what do you think the federal government's role is in addressing climate change? And where do you think federal investments are best spent and allocated when it comes to this issue?
JS: Yeah, I consider myself a conservationist. I don't, I don't want to hurt the environment. I think that, you know, the, the climate has changed and I think that there's probably a manmade component to it, although there's certainly natural components to things as well. Where I get concerned is when people say, alright, well, climate change is an issue, now we have to fundamentally wholesale change the economy, and if it if it hurts, the little guy who cares. That's where I get, my alarm flags go up. I want to help the environment. I want to make sure that, in 100 years, you know, my grandchildren are in a position to where they can enjoy life just as well as I can, but doing it in a way where your average man or woman on the street, their economic life is needlessly disrupted because of, you know, saying, Oh, we have to solve all of our problems in that arena in the next six months, or it's the end of the world. You know, that is, that's where I get I get very concerned. And I think, there, this is another one where I think there's areas where we can come together and say, alright, let's try and move the world in a in a cleaner direction, but maybe let's do it in a way that market force is more directed, as opposed to the government is, is directing it. That to me is going to be better, because, one, it's less disruptive economically, for my concern that I just articulated, but also it's more likely to be permanent, because it's something that is sort of happening organically within society and the economy, it's going to happen. As opposed to, well congress passed a law and says, well, now you can't do this anymore. Congress passes a law and now you have to do this. Well, as soon as the other party comes into power, they're just going to change that law. If it's if it's happening naturally, and it's happening through consensus, it's likely to last longer and therefore actually help the environment more as opposed to some herky jerky policy and jumping back and forth.
VG: And this will probably be our last question here. The shooter who killed 10 People in Buffalo, he was from Conklin in Broome County. Not in the 23rd, but definitely in the southern tier. He penned a very long document of his flatly racist beliefs. How do we combat that kind of hate and racism that clearly is in our communities and what role should the federal government play in that?
JS: Yeah, frankly, his, I don't know if I want to give it the dignity of calling it a manifesto, let's just say his ramblings, was flatly disgusting. Racism is intrinsically evil, period. My, my reaction to that level of evil thought happening in the region where I live is is disgust. But one, people have to set an example. If you're in a position of public authority with public scrutiny, that also puts you in a prominent place in the community and we do have to be have people that are willing to stand up and say, you know, racism is just flat wrong. But then, it doesn't just stop there with public officials. I think it's something where every member of society has to look themselves in the mirror and say, Alright, am I treating my fellow human being the way I want to be treated? You know that golden rule is an intrinsic part of pretty much every morality system in society and if each and every one of us is trying to live up to that, and fight back against evil, such as in this case, racism, I think society, we are in a better place. So certainly, federal public officials or state public officials have a responsibility just because they are prominent members of the community, but it's not like you can pass a law that says all right now there's no racism. Well as a sort of silly is it's, it's got to be in the hearts and minds of every man, woman and child in our society that truly, all people are created equal and deserve to be treated that way.
VG: Well, I think that's all the time we have. So I've been joined by Joe Sempolinski, Republican candidate for the special election in New York's 23rd district. Thanks so much for coming on
JS: Thank you, Vaughn. I appreciate you covering the race.
*This story has been corrected to indicate Sempolinski is running on the Republican line in the special election.