John Sampson is the favorite to replace Malcolm Smith as Democratic leader in the State Senate, enjoying the support of a growing number of his colleagues and the blessing of the Conference of Black Senators. Which means that, depending on the outcome of the ongoing struggle for control of the Senate, this anonymous official may soon be one of the Three (or four?) Men who ostensibly run the state.
So, who is he?
Above all, it seems, he is a consensus guy: someone who flies below the radar, and whom nobody finds particularly objectionable.
A lawyer representing an eastern Brooklyn district containing Brownsville and Canarasie, Sampson was first elected to the Senate in 1996 after unseating an incumbent, Howard Babish, in a Democratic primary.
Babish had some problems, including the fact that the district had changed over time into a majority-minority district. Although Babish came out of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club and was close with the county institution at the time, Sampson’s ties to Brooklyn’s black political leadership were enough to prevail.
Sampson was backed in the beginning by Clarence Norman, then the Brooklyn Democratic leader, who was later convicted on felony counts for pocketing campaign contributions. In the middle of his legal troubles, Norman backed Sampson in an unsuccessful 2005 primary against Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.
According to his colleagues, Sampson is not particularly close to current Brooklyn chair Vito Lopez, but they get along fine. Last week, Lopez predicted Sampson would take over as leader.
When the Democrats slid into the majority in January, Sampson was picked to head the Judiciary Committee, supervising the confirmation hearing of Court of Appeals Chief Justice Jonathan Lippmann, and promising to examine the process that led to his nomination.
Otherwise, despite his linebacker build and distinctive, shuffling gait, he hasn't made his presence much known in Albany. He is not a particularly noteworthy floor debater, his colleagues say, and hasn't made many waves pushing any legislation. He sits fairly close to the ideological middle of the Democratic conference.
If he becomes Democratic leader, look for Sampson's views to undergo a quick evolution in the area of tenant protection and rent regulation. A friend who has known Sampson for years suggested he may not be as progressive on this issue as some of his Democratic colleagues, and tenant advocates like Mike McKee say "he’s very bad on our issues." They point in particular to Sampson's sympathy in the past for the Republican position on deregulation, and his wont to inveigh against "the yoke of rent stabilization."
"First of all, check my record," Sampson told me in a brief interview Friday when asked about rent regulation. "I have voted for that. That is not an issue."
But Sampson also said that "there is a greater conversation that we need to have, that the advocates and everybody else needs to have about that."