Libertarian Party

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


Sam Steiger

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.

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  1. I remember the cross-walk to Whiskey Road thing. I had just moved to Az the year before and was still suffering the culture-shock. Sam was good for a little amusement if nothing else.

    1. That would make him a hero in my book.

  2. “Kind of an asshole” is, I suspect, something you could just carve now on any libertarian’s headstone (self included). Right next to the picture of the monocle.

  3. My first vote ever(I had just turned 18) was for Sam in 1982 when he ran for governor. RIP.

  4. Ultimately, as he himself would likely have admitted, Sam Steiger was kind of an asshole.

    Interesting anecdote*: shortly after winning the 1999 Prescott Mayoral election, one of the reporters for the Prescott Daily Courier called his office to ask for comment on a story for the next day’s paper. Unfortunately, the reporter had ran a story critical of Steiger a few months earlier. The conversation went a little something like this:

    Reporter: “Hi, I’m ________ with the Daily Courier…”
    Sam Steiger: “FUCK YOU!!!!” [click, dialtone]

    I’ll let folks make up their own minds whether this story lends any credence to the “asshole” label.

    *My mom was a senior copy editor with the Daily Courier at the time, which is how I know this.

    1. Whatever it makes him, it makes me like him a lot more than I would if he were another smarmy politician who sucked every anus he could find, trying to get votes.

      And I have to say, from my limited experience with the place, I love Prescott AZ and the people like him who populate it.

      1. Reminiscent of Heinlein: “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.”

  5. “. 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.”

    So you’re saying that 99% of reasonoids would never vote for him, since “doing more good than harm” makes him, well, the “lesser evil”…

    1. Who are you implying would do more harm than good that 99% of reasonoids wouldn’t vote for? Please don’t tell me you’re talking about Mitt Romney

  6. I remember when I was the moderator at a small forum for the gubernatorial candidates in 1990, and I posed a question to the candidates present (Sam included, of course, I think Ev Mecham was there too, as well as some others who were apparently forgettable) — but the question came out awkward — and Sam immediately jumped on that and called me on it, and pulled no punches. He was right, of course, and this remains a fond memory.

  7. Prescott has always been on the list for retirement locations. It’s just moved up a bunch of notches.

    Never knew him but sorry to hear of the passing of a fellow curmudgeon.

    … Hobbit

  8. Thanks for the article. He was an avid participant in LIO, and will be missed.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ ….

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