Sam Steiger, Arizona Sometimes-Libertarian, is Dead at 83


Sam Steiger died last week, mostly forgotten even by the political party that he helped put on the ballot. A true westerner, even to the extent of being a Jewish guy from New York who moved to Arizona because he liked the place (real westerners choose that status for themselves), Steiger served in the state legislature and Congress before winning a critical margin of votes as the Libertarian gubernatorial nominee in 1982. More an individualist than an ideologue, and the victim of a number of self-inflicted scandals over his lifetime, he was the sort of inconsistent, yet generally pro-liberty politician who actually wins office and, on balance, does more good than harm.

For Arizona Libertarians, Steiger's greatest value was as a former five-term congressman with a generally Goldwater-conservative-ish record (Wikipedia mentions he had "a zero rating [from] Americans for Democratic Action and a 100% rating from Americans for Constitutional Action") who brought a high profile to his race for governor. Five percent of the vote was needed to win an ongoing slot on the ballot, and Steiger won 5.05 percent, running on a hardcore-libertarian platform, including drug-legalization, in just-say-no-era Arizona.

Steiger backed off drug legalization when he returned to the GOP to run again for governor in 1990, though he'd count as a squish by modern standards. As the Phoenix New Times reported at the time, in addition to advocating "drastically reducing the number of state employees and dismantling local school districts while giving curriculum control to individual schools" he also "supports abortion rights and a paid state holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." As a congressman, he'd taken the Immigration and Naturalization Service to task for inflating the number of illegal immigrants to firm up its budget requests — a skepticism toward border warriors that wouldn't sell well in today's GOP. Despite recruiting Libertarians to re-register as Republicans to support him in the primary, he lost to Fife Symington.

The last act in Steiger's political life came when he was elected mayor of Prescott in 1999. Late in life, the one-time member of the League of Conservation Voters's "Dirty Dozen" list suddenly discovered a taste for slow-growth policies, as well as tax-funded preservation of open space, when the once-sleepy burg showed alarming signs of incipient prosperity. (It's a beautiful and lively town now, combining Old West nostalgia with good restaurants, bars and a little sophistication.)

Steiger is known for a few questionable, but very headline-worthy, judgment calls. In 1975 he was widely vilified for shooting two allegedly menacing burros. In 1986 he took it on himself to repaint a recently removed crosswalk from the county courthouse in Prescott to the Whiskey Row line of saloons. He faced trial for that, though jurors acquitted him in about the time it takes to walk in and out of the jury room. A more serious incident came in 1988 when he was convicted of extortion for attempting to coerce a vote from a pardons board member. The law under which he was convicted was found unconstitutional on appeal, and the conviction overturned.

Ultimately, as he himself would likely have admitted, Sam Steiger was kind of an asshole. But, from a libertarian perspective, he was usually our asshole. In the rough-and-tumble game of politics, that's a lot.