LEWISTON — Eric Samson plans to win or else.
Four days before Androscoggin County voters elect a new sheriff, the Democratic candidate for sheriff plans to retire from the department he hopes to lead.
“I’m all in or I’m all out,” said Samson, who at 42 has completed 21 years of full-time employment with the county. “I was eligible (to retire) last year, but I was committed to running for sheriff. Plus I’m committed to my job and I like my co-workers.”
Samson has been here before.
In 2006, he helped Guy Desjardins unseat Sheriff Ronald Gagnon for the job, campaigning as Desjardin’s choice as chief deputy. In 2010, Samson tried and failed to unseat Desjardins in the Democratic primary.
This time, with Desjardins running for the Maine Senate in District 22, Samson is in a three-way race with Republican Tim Lajoie and independent Ray Lafrance for the sheriff’s job.
“It’s think it’s my time,” Samson said. “I think I’ve gained the experience for people to be confident, whether it’s career experience or political experience.”
Samson started with the department in 1991 as a reserve corrections officer and began full-time work in the jail two years later. He moved up the ranks to become a sergeant and served as the facility’s programs officer, often overseeing projects like the alternative sentencing initiative that puts people convicted of operating under the influence to work. Inmates have cleaned up parks, made minor renovations to out-of-session schools and performed other work for charities and municipal governments throughout the county.
Samson was working in that role when Desjardins appointed him as chief deputy, something that never quite worked. County commissioners and Desjardins fought over the deputy’s pay. After two stints as the department’s chief deputy, Samson stepped down. Since then, he has moved into the patrol division, graduating from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and serving as a patrol deputy.
“I think boots-on-the-ground experience is important,” Samson said. “I like to keep in touch with what’s going on, and what’s going on with people.”
Samson, who lives in Auburn, has also served the city as a member of the School Committee and the City Council.
He said he hopes to be a conduit between the county and its cities and towns.
“I just think that there is an opportunity to move the county forward and I just hope that everybody recognizes that,” he said.
“There can be a lot accomplished and a lot of good things done,” he said. “I think county government, specifically the Sheriff’s Department, can be a resource. I want to be part of making it that resource.”
He said he believes he can also be a calm voice within the department.
“I’m not going to jump up and down on a table until I get my way, but what I will do is address the issues,” he said. “I’m willing to bring forward the issues.”
Among the more public issues is jail funding.
Samson believes the jail should once again be under county control rather than partially funded and controlled by the state.
“Local oversight is much more efficient and effective,” Samson said.
“I believe the county jails belong to the sheriff’s departments,” he said. “They’re paid for and supported by the community. There are services that can be offered through corrections. I think it is more advantageous for us to remain in control over that population.”
Lajoie, his Republican challenger, agrees. Lafrance, the independent, believes the county could not afford to lose more than $1 million in annual funding.
Samson believes the loss could be gradual, he said.
“Backing out of what the state has done will have bumps. Hiccups,” he said. “Funding will be one.”
Samson said he hopes, through openness, to also increase the county’s ability to receive revenue. He said he was saddened by several towns, including Greene, Sabattus, Lisbon and Poland, contracting elsewhere for dispatching.
“I think there’s a disconnect with the agency and the communities. Some of them don’t know what we’re offering,” he said.
“I wonder why we’ve lost our consumers,” he said. “I’d like to go around and say ‘why’d you leave us?’ and ‘what can we do to get you back?'”