5-term former Arizona congressman dies

October 2, 2012

Sam Steiger, an Arizona Republican and self-described “fiscal fascist” who amassed a staunchly conservative voting record during five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and who drew attention for his sharp tongue and sharkskin boots and for shooting two burros, died Sept. 26 in Prescott, Ariz. He was 83.

He died at an assisted living center of complications from strokes, his son Gail Steiger said.

Mr. Steiger, who was born to a Jewish family in New York, was a highly decorated combat veteran of the Korean War. Pursuing an unlikely career path, he settled in Prescott after his discharge and worked as a rodeo bulldozer, horse breeder and cattle rancher. He served in Arizona’s state senate for two terms before winning election the U.S. House in 1966.

Mr. Steiger served on the Government Operations Committee as well as the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and boasted of voting against pro-environmental legislation. He established a voting record that garnered him lower ratings from liberal organizations than Sen. Barry Goldwater, his fellow Arizona Republican who had run for president in 1964 on a hard-right platform.

For the most part, Mr. Steiger gained media attention for his antics outside the Capitol, such as airplane wing-walking as a fund-raising stunt for the Desert Sportsman Pilots Association. He played up his preference for sharkskin cowboy boots, explaining: “I wear nothing but endangered species.”


Former Arizona congressman Sam Steiger, who died Sept. 26 at 83, was known for his blunt language and conservative record. (James K.W. Atherton/THE WASHINGTON POST)

He relished being an outsider in clubby Washington. Asked in a 1968 radio interview whether he knew of members of Congress showing up to work drunk, he replied: “I have never seen them drunk on the floor. I have seen them drunk during the day,” and in some cases needing assistance “to their offices during the morning.”

He later added that there were members of Congress that “you wouldn’t hire to wheel a wheelbarrow.”

In his home state, Mr. Steiger was forever associated with a 1975 incident involving the killing of two burros. Accounts varied over the years, with some news reports suggesting that the small donkeys had gotten lose and were threatening school children and crops.

The congressman, who was back home at the time, apparently investigated and said he shot the animals in self-defense after trying to check their brands.

“I could find a cure for cancer and they’d remember me as the guy who shot the burros,” he told the Prescott Daily Courier.

Samuel Steiger was born in New York City on March 10, 1929. During Army service in the Korean War, he was a tank platoon leader and earned the Silver Star for saving five men from a burning tank. His decorations also included the Purple Heart.

He moved to Prescott in 1954 to work on a ranch, and he married the postmaster’s daughter, Cynthia Gardner, later that year. The marriage ended in divorce, as did a later marriage to Lynda Spencer. Survivors include three children from his first marriage, all of Prescott; and a grandson.

Mr. Steiger did not seek reelection to the U.S. House in 1976 and instead lost a U.S. Senate race that year to Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat and former Tucson prosecutor.

Mr. Steiger also lost two bids for Arizona governor, first in 1982 as a Libertarian, and then in 1990 as a Republican. He hosted a TV talk show in Arizona before serving a term as mayor of Prescott starting in 1999.

Between his two bids for governor, Mr. Steiger was convicted of extortion. The 1988 conviction was later overturned by the Arizona Court of Appeals after he finished 1,500 hours of community service — “more than most ax murders get,” he said.

At the time, Mr. Steiger worked as a special assistant to Gov. Evan Mecham (R). The former congressman allegedly threatened the job of an Arizona parole board member if the board member didn’t vote to keep a former manager of the Mecham campaign as a parole board director.

In a career known for bluntness, Mr. Steiger explained to the Associated Press in 2000: “I always figured if you lied, you’d have to keep track of what you said. I’m lazy, so it’s easier to tell people what I think.”