One of the few freshman Republican state senators, Rob C. Sampson of Wolcott, stood alone Wednesday on what otherwise was a routine vote: the confirmation of Lubbie Harper Jr., a retired justice of the Supreme Court, to another term in the part-time post of a state trial referee.
“On one specific and identifiable occasion, I believe he made a critical mistake, a mistake that is something that cannot and should not be overlooked or forgotten with the passage of time,” Sampson told the Senate.
That mistake in Sampson’s view was what Harper has described as his “most rewarding accomplishment” — casting the deciding vote a decade ago in the high court’s 4-3 decision striking down Connecticut’s civil union law and ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry.
“My issue is not that same-sex marriage became law in Connecticut, rather it is how same-sex marriage became the law in Connecticut, which was by the actions of four individuals…and not this legislature,” Sampson said. “In my opinion, this is a very clear and textbook case of judicial activism.”
The vote Wednesday for Harper’s confirmation was 33-1. In the House, no one spoke on the nomination, which passed, 138-11.
“Someone in this building, being in the legislative branch, has got to remind people periodically what that role is,” Sampson said later. “That is who I am trying to be here, maybe a conscience of our core values as Americans and what the role of government is. So, I don’t mind standing up to make an example.”
He is one of just two non-incumbent Republicans elected to the state Senate in 2018, when Democrats gained five seats. A third GOP freshman, Gennaro Bizzarro of New Britain, won a special election two weeks ago, flipping what had been a Democratic seat.
Sampson, 49, said he is comfortable standing in the small minority — or alone.
He is not new to the legislature.
Beginning in 2010, he was elected to four terms in the state House of Representatives, where he says his voting record established him as a clear and consistent voice for a limited and accountable government. He clashed with House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, seeing her as insufficiently protective of gun rights.
Sampson long has drawn the ire of gun-control advocates. On Monday, when he repeatedly challenged the rationale behind four gun-control bills during a public hearing, one woman was observed writing a text to her daughter, “If I had a gun, I’d blow away Sampson and a large group of NRA…”
A photo of the woman’s phone was shown to Capitol police. They found no probable cause to make an arrest for threatening, but expelled her from the hearing.
“It certainly doesn’t feel good to have someone clearly show such hostility toward you,” Sampson said. But he added he was not concerned about his safety.
Sampson represents the 16th Senate District, holding the seat once held by a liberal Democrat, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. While the voter registration still leans Democratic, Sampson is the third Republican to win in the district since Murphy successfully ran for Congress in 2006.
In a bad year for Republicans in Connecticut, Sampson won easily with 56.7 percent of the vote, succeeding his friend and political soulmate, Joe Markley of Southington.
“Rob and I see the world very much alike,” said Markley, who was the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018. “We may be different temperamentally, but we are the same in this — neither of us are intimidated in the thought of being alone on something that is important to us. I think generally that Americans respond to someone who stands on principle, even if it is a lonely vote.”
After redistricting in 2012, the 16th Senate District became friendlier for a Republican, adding Prospect and losing a portion of Waterbury. The district still voted for Barack Obama in 2012, but went for Donald J. Trump in 2016. The vote for Trump in Sampson’s hometown of Wolcott was 68 percent.
Markley said his success and Sampson’s was “not only a matter of voters in these towns trending Republican, but responding to Republicans being forthright about the principles of the party.”
Sampson told the Senate those principles do not include opposition to gay marriage.
“I want to stop for a second and explain very clearly for the record that my opposition to Judge Harper’s reappointment has nothing to do with the issue of same-sex marriage itself,” Sampson said. “I supported civil unions when they were proposed and passed, and I believe that gay couples have the right to marry.”
Sampson said he voted against Harper’s confirmation three other times, including his confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2011. (Harper, an Appellate Court judge in 2008, was sitting as a substitute justice during the same-sex case before the high court in 2008.) Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, who had voted against Harper’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, voted for his confirmation Wednesday, saying he was qualified to be a trial referee.
Sampson said he couldn’t make the distinction. He wanted to be consistent.
“I didn’t want to be 3 and 1. That would be worse,” he said.
He was one of only eight House members to vote in 2017 against a bill barring conversion therapy, the discredited practice of trying to change the sexual orientation of gay minors. Markley voted for passage with every other member of the Senate.
“It restricted the rights of parents to take their child or seek help when they are confused,” Sampson said. “I stand by the vote.”
The bill did not restrict what parents could say to their children, but it made conversion therapy unavailable to them.
“I’m a level-headed and reasonable person. A lot of the time when I’m standing alone, I’m not really standing alone.”
Sen. Rob C. Sampson, R-Wolcott
In 2013, Sampson was one of two legislators who voted against a bill requiring state officials to consider the necessity of mitigation for rising sea levels in approving funding for water treatment facilities. Sampson said he believes climate change is real, but he generally opposes any mandate on local government.
On guns, Sampson has been a consistent vote against gun control.
He voted in 2013 against the bipartisan gun control law passed in response to the shooting deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook. Two years later, he filed a bill to repeal the Sandy Hook law and voted against the confirmation to the Superior Court bench of Auden Grogins, a former state legislator who had voted for the law.
This year, he is fighting legislation that would allow a police officer to demand gun owners show their carry permits. Currently, police can ask to see the permit if they observe someone with a gun, but they cannot demand it.
Sampson said gun owners have a constitutional right against being detained, even briefly, if a police officer sees they are carrying a firearm. He said he understands that police are frustrated with his position, but the principle is important.
Even when he casts the only dissenting vote, Sampson said he believes he is representing a broader swath of Connecticut, including some legislators who may silently agree even if they vote the other way.
“I’m a level-headed and reasonable person,” he said. “A lot of the time when I’m standing alone, I’m not really standing alone.”