Rep. Joe Sempolinski traded the House floor for Hegeman Hall Room 109 earlier this month as he spent an hour fielding questions from Dr. Christopher Leahy’s U.S History class during a visit to Keuka College.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to students because I want to be able to take good ideas from you guys to bring back to Washington, D.C.,” he told the three dozen or so students assembled, “as opposed to taking bad ideas from Washington, D.C., and inflicting them on all of you.”
The students obliged.
After Rep. Sempolinski described managing a bill on the House floor to reauthorize the Helen Keller Center, Hannahelise Morret ’24 told him she heard from relatives who work at the center that they are in desperate need of interpreters.
“That’s good input,” said the Steuben County Republican. “That’s why we do these meetings. By actually coming to Keuka Park and talking to real people, I learn something.”
The classroom session was just part of Sempolinski’s first visit to the College as a congressional representative. He also enjoyed a brief tour of the campus before discussing a number of issues with College President Amy Storey.
“We appreciate Rep. Sempolinski taking the time to visit our campus and, more importantly, to spend some time with our students,” said President Storey. “Having the chance to ask questions of a sitting Congress member, particularly in the weeks leading up to an election, is a unique and timely opportunity.”
Students heard the newly minted Congress member outline his views on issues ranging from the importance of the upcoming governor’s race (he says don’t write off Republican challenger Lee Zeldin despite incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul’s lead in the polls) to the term limits (he supports them but only after a period of 12 to 18 years.)
In response to a question about the impact on Panama of migrants heading toward U.S. borders, Sempolinski agreed that issues surrounding migration don’t only affect the United States.
“We get a lot of attention from people crossing the border on our side of the border but it affects Mexico; it affects all of the Central American countries,” he said in response to the question from Elian Gonzalez Lara, a Panamanian student who’s attending Keuka College as part of the World Learning Program.
Sempolinski complimented another World Learning student, Samuel Njenga of Kenya, for asking about the challenges of House representatives’ relatively short two-year terms.
“Something a little longer might be better,” Sempolinski agreed, pointing out that the short terms are intended to encourage engagement with citizens but lead to endless campaigning. “You’ve put your finger on a very insightful constitutional question.”
He said, despite the partisan divide in Congress, there are areas on which to find common ground, such as programs to support those with disabilities, particularly Down Syndrome, which affects Sempolinski’s 4-year-old daughter, JoJo.
In describing his first day in Congress, Sempolinski said after his formal swearing-in, he and two other newly elected members were allowed two minutes each to speak. After touching on issues including inflation and crime, Sempolinski turned attention to his family, who were in the gallery.
“I acknowledged my daughter who has Down Syndrome,” he recalled. “I said she was my hero. And the entire House of Representatives stood up, looked at her, and gave her a standing ovation. It was simply the best moment of my entire life.”
The congressman’s visit was, in part, a quirk of his unique situation. Having won a special election in August to fill the remaining four months of former Rep. Tom Reed’s term after Reed stepped down, Sempolinski declined to run for a full two-year term in November. Redistricting played a big part in that decision, he said, as the newly drawn district will shed Yates and four other counties while stretching all the way from Chemung County to the Buffalo suburbs. The upside, he added, is that he could focus his attention on doing the job rather than campaigning to keep it.
“Right now, I’m here being your congressman, listening to you,” he told the class, “as opposed to Orchard Park, begging people to vote for me in an area I’m not even representing. So, it’s the best thing for the people in the district.”