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Who makes ‘the best members of Congress’? This former staffer has an idea

Joe Sempolinski will spend four months on the other side

With just four months on the Hill, Joe Sempolinski says there’s no time to waste. Above, the former staffer is sworn in on Sept. 13, holding his daughter Joselyn.
With just four months on the Hill, Joe Sempolinski says there’s no time to waste. Above, the former staffer is sworn in on Sept. 13, holding his daughter Joselyn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As far as Joe Sempolinski is concerned, “it would be an honor to serve for four minutes.”

He will have a bit more time than that, but the New York Republican will serve in Congress for just four short months.

“My first two days on the Education and Labor Committee, I think I spoke more than any member of the committee other than the chairman and the ranking member, just because I don’t have time to waste,” he says.

“Let’s go, let’s do this,” he adds. “That’s my mindset.”

Sempolinski was a staffer for years, working on campaigns and as district director for his predecessor, former Rep. Tom Reed. He had political ambitions himself, but when his onetime boss resigned from Congress after sexual harassment allegations, Sempolinski pivoted to winning the special election.

As a former staffer, he could hit the ground running, he says. And the way he sees it, “district directors make the best members of Congress.”

His staffing days aren’t over yet. After serving his time on Capitol Hill, Sempolinski plans to go back to his most recent job — chief of staff for a New York assemblyman.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What was your earliest experience working on a political campaign?

A: I was going golfing with a friend, and he’s like, “Oh, my mom’s got this new job, and they need somebody to help out for the summer.” A week later, I’m helping out a guy running for county legislature and a guy running for city council. That was the summer of 2003, and it was an internship.

Q: You eventually took a job with Tom Reed.

A: I had been working summers on local campaigns at that point for six years, and I was a graduate student, so I was cheap. I became his campaign manager in 2009 after he announced he was running for Congress, and then, when we won, I immediately became the district director.

We were in a special election situation — Tom’s predecessor had resigned. So we knew we were not going to have the usual transition time, which was extraordinarily good preparation for what we’re dealing with right now.

Tom’s initial job offer to me was actually to be the legislative director, and I said, “This is my home.” I wasn’t a hired gun who would move around the country.

I’ve never regretted it. I spent about five years as district director, and it was a blast. It’s been funny [this month], members who are former district directors have been saying hi, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. When a former district director becomes a congressman, it’s like another one joins the club.

Q: What does it mean to be part of that club?

A: I do think former staffers, specifically district directors, make the best members of Congress.

As a member, you’re building a puzzle, but I’ve already seen somebody else build it, as opposed to never seeing it before. That’s an advantage any former staffer would have.

But a particular advantage of being a former district director is it’s a senior position, so you’re close to seeing what the member’s doing. And you’re the one dealing with the people who really matter, the constituents. You’re living and breathing in the world as it really exists, not the Beltway swamp world.

Q: District staffers sometimes struggle to get respect in Washington. Did you ever feel that?

A: It’s a product of that bubble mindset, where it’s very much hustle and bustle in D.C. You can get blinders very easily, and the district can be out of sight, out of mind.

But good offices avoid that. Good offices keep all the major parts talking to each other. One thing I did, which Tom also did, is our communications team is in the district. That’s a little unusual. Most of the time, communications directors are on Capitol Hill.

Q: Reed revealed an alcohol addiction last year and apologized to a lobbyist who accused him of sexual harassment. What went through your mind?

A: I was surprised, to be honest with you. I had never heard anything about the allegation that was brought forward in The Washington Post article. I found out about the whole situation just the day before the article was published. I didn’t know Mr. Reed’s drinking went to the level of an addiction; I didn’t know that he had been in rehab; and I’ve never seen him be physically inappropriate with anyone.

I do have to say that he tried to handle it as best he could. He immediately said he wasn’t running for reelection. Not a good situation, but at least he tried to make amends.

It was not the phone call I was expecting to get. My role at the time was a part-time consultant on the campaign, so once a day, I’d be on the phone with the campaign manager, and I’d probably talk to Tom once a week.

It wasn’t public yet, but I had already been exploring running for the seat, because I knew he was [looking at running for statewide office]. But I also knew the seat was going to be pending redistricting, which was a whole other mess of the highest proportion.

Q: Fast forward a year, and Reed decided to resign and join a lobbying firm instead of serving out his term. You dropped your hopes of serving in the next Congress and focused on the special election.

A: With redistricting and Tom’s resignation, we had a very contentious primary that was happening in the new version of the district. And the best solution for the Republican Party was to have somebody run [in the special election] who could do the job with as little ramp-up time as possible, which is where being a former staffer is an advantage.

It was best for the people, because I can be focused 100 percent on the old district, and it was also best politically.

Everybody could agree on my candidacy. I was a unity figure. So we were able to keep the 23rd District special election a little bit off the radar. My race never became nationalized in the way some of the other specials have over the last couple months.

Q: Now that you’re the boss, how are you doing things differently?

A: Some elected officials want a lot of things done for them. But as a staffer, when you go into a meeting, you don’t have a bunch of briefings and you don’t have somebody setting up the room. You just go and you do it. And that’s my mindset. Let’s go, let’s do this. Given my situation, with only four months, we don’t have time to waste.

Q: Are you going to go back to being a staffer? You were working until recently as chief of staff for New York Assemblyman Joseph Giglio.

A: I’m going to go back to my old job. We’ll see what other opportunities come down in 2024 or 2026 or what have you. I am a team player. I’m not somebody who goes around looking to run against other Republicans. I think I made that abundantly clear. Over the last year, I didn’t run against Ms. [Claudia] Tenney, and I didn’t run against Mr. [Chris] Jacobs, who are dear friends.

To me, whether federal or state, whether staffer or elected official, whether you’re doing a role for a short period of time or a long period of time, it’s all the same function. You’re trying to provide good policy, and you’re trying to be responsive to the needs of the constituents.

If you look at the names on the doors of the offices on Capitol Hill, in 10 years most of them are going to be different names. But the people you serve are going to be the same.

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