HARTFORD — State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, has a propensity for speaking his mind and is known for working behind the scenes to garner support for his conservative views on issues ranging from guns to the economy.
The 53-year-old Connecticut native isn’t shy about offering his opinions on hot-button issues, and is one of the most vocal members of the Legislature. He will often take to the Senate floor to espouse his views, even if he is the lone vote on an issue – such as casting his ballot against the state’s two-year $51.1 billion spending plan earlier this month.
The Senate voted 35-1 to approve a budget that, Sampson says, does very little to address the state’s reduction in spending.
Sampson sat down with CT Examiner this week for a 40-minute discussion on being a die-hard conservative [he was awarded The Conservative Political Action Coalition’s ‘Excellence and Achievement Award’ in 2021] in a dark blue state; his relationship with his colleagues; and maintaining his convictions since being elected. Sampson first arrived in Hartford as a state representative, where he served four terms, and is now serving his third term as a state senator.
Asked why voters in the 16th state Senate district – which includes Cheshire, Prospect, Southington, Waterbury and Wolcott – should elect him to another two-year term in 2024, Sampson hinted he may run for a different office after the next legislative session.
“I haven’t decided whether I’m running for state Senate or something else,” he said, adding he’d make a final decision next May.
Sampson, a real estate agent who has dabbled as a DJ at weddings and graduations, said, “I haven’t really thought about it,” when pressed on whether a run for governor was in the cards. ”But, I do think that the Republican Party needs a leader in the state that is unafraid of our principles and values.”
Sampson supported Republican Bob Stefanowski, who was the party’s standard-bearer twice in a run for governor, but said, “He was a very typical candidate. We need somebody better than a typical candidate; we need an outstanding candidate that can show the people what our values are.”
A number of Republican mayors have expressed interest in running for Connecticut’s top political job, but Sampson said the only “great leader” he could wholeheartedly support is Joe Markley, a former Republican state senator who represented Southington.
“I don’t think he is willing to do it,” Sampson said of his friend, whose picture hangs in his office in the Legislative Office Building.
He said his fellow GOP members agree with him on more substantive issues than disagree – and Sampson takes some credit for swaying his peers on a number of those issues.
Sampson, who is a ranking member of the Labor & Public Employees Committee, pointed to a slew of labor initiatives, including a recent discussion on paid sick days, that he said shows “the divide between Democrats and Republicans is very clear.”
It’s on labor-related issues – specifically – where Sampson said his fellow Republicans know he is knowledgeable, well-informed and researches every bill’s provisions.
“I think my Republican colleagues in the Senate followed me in almost every case [on labor bills], with maybe just a few exceptions,” he said. “I think they know that I know the bills better than anyone in the building; that I actually read the bills; and that I always make a strong case and a strong argument for my beliefs. I am consistent.”
Sampson said he sees a “strong divide” within the state Republican Party, and that these differences “must be made crystal clear” before they can hope to gain a majority in the House and Senate or win back the governorship.
“I believe, for us to be successful, we need to make our differences with the majority Democrats crystal clear,” he said. “I’ve tried to be an example to my colleagues in both the House and Senate that if you stand on strong traditional Republican principles like limited constitutional government, freedom, cutting taxes, personal responsibility and American values like hard work you can be successful.”
Sampson said he was confident going into the budget with a “no” vote, but there was a different outcome among his Republican peers.
“I fully expected going in that morning that they [Republican senators] were going to vote no,” Sampson said. “We were all very aware of the negative aspects of the budget. I mean, starting with health care benefits for illegal aliens, which was a non-starter right there.”
Sampson didn’t want to speculate on why he believes his fellow Republicans voted for the budget. But, he said, “Certainly behind closed doors, I tried to pull them in my direction as much as possible. But, they chose a different direction. What can I do about that other than live to fight another day?”
A gun owner and strong supporter of the Second Amendment, Sampson received the NRA Defender of Freedom Award in 2014.
Sampson said “the hardest vote” he ever cast was a gun control measure in April 2013, just four months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The bill had provisions expanding the definition of an assault rifle and prohibiting the sale of magazines or clips that held more than 10 rounds. It passed the state House 105-44 and the state Senate 26-10. Sampson voted against the measure.
“I used every means possible, including going around my own leadership to draft amendments and challenge that bill,” he said. “I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t because I was any less concerned about what happened [at Sandy Hook].”
As it relates to specifics of the bill, Sampson said, “Criminals are going to put as many bullets in their guns as they want. People have a right to defend themselves and their families.”
Sampson said he believes his colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, appreciate his convictions on the issues of the day. However, he said, there are other “forces” at play that, on occasion, make Republicans feel they have to vote a certain way.
“I certainly make my views and voice known in our private caucuses,” Sampson said. “I do think I move a lot of people toward a traditional conservative Republican direction. But there are a lot of other forces in the universe. There is the press and there is an overall sensation of, what are people going to say. I think that had a lot to do with the budget vote.”
The budget, Sampson said, “is a Democratic budget. It’s not 90 percent Democratic and 10 percent Republican – it’s a 100 percent Democratic budget.”
During his time in both the House and Senate, Sampson has only voted in favor of one budget – the Republican proposal in 2017 that was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Dannel Malloy.
The current two-year budget just signed by Gov. Ned Lamont is flawed, Sampson believes.
“It’s being advertised as the largest tax cut in 42 years, or something like that,” he said, “But there is no tax cut in my mind. We are spending 7.5 percent more than before. There is no reduction in spending, as we are spending more across the board. So that means we are actually taking more taxes from Connecticut residents, not less. It’s frustrating.”
Sampson said he has nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly.
“There is nothing that I can’t say to Kevin. I am really comfortable working with him,” he said. “He listens to me, but whether he takes action on my recommendations, well, that’s a whole other ball of wax. The only negative I have with Kevin is that he doesn’t always take my advice.”
For his part, Kelly told CT Examiner that Sampson is an important and valued member of the caucus.
“Senator Rob Sampson is a dedicated member of the Senate Republican Caucus,” Kelly said in a statement. “He’s incredibly smart, reads the fine print of every bill, and is relentless and unapologetic about his views and opinions. … Sen. Sampson works tirelessly to ensure that his constituent’s voices and concerns are represented at our State Capitol and always fights for what he believes is best for his district. [He is] fearless in his pursuit of protecting the liberty and freedoms of the people of Connecticut.”
As it relates to the current governor, Sampson said Lamont “is enjoying the ride. I think, now, he is legacy building.”
Despite his reputation as a die-hard conservative, Sampson said he gets along well with many of his Democratic colleagues, especially those with conviction.
“I have tremendous respect for anybody who serves in either party here who stands by their principles and their convictions every day,” he said. “Some of the best relationships I have are with people in the other party who actually stand by their convictions. I know where they are coming from and they are consistent.”
Overall, however, Sampson said most of the state’s legislators do not stand by their convictions.
The Governor’s Office, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Democratic Senate Pro Tempore Martin Looney did not respond to requests for comment about Sampson.