Sam Steiger, the colorful former Arizona congressman who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002, has died in Prescott. He was 83.
Steiger served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, but in 1976 he decided to run for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Paul Fannin, and locked in a bitter GOP primary against a fellow congressman, Rep. John Conlan.
After Conlan was quoted as saying a vote for him was a vote for Christianity, then-Sen. Barry Goldwater entered the fray, accusing Conlan of injecting religion, specifically anti-Semitism, into the election. Steiger was Jewish.
An example of Steiger’s feistiness took place early in the campaign when he was asked if he would support Conlan if Conlan won the primary. “Yeah,” Steiger replied, “if the body politic goes mad and votes for John.”
Later, Steiger remarked: “We are both conservatives, but our style is different. He uses a meat ax and I use a scalpel.”
Pollster Earl de Berge said the Steiger/Conlan race was a struggle between “two gut punchers who entered the fray with distaste for one another.”
Steiger edged Conlan by about 10,000 votes out of 195,000 ballots cast, but the nasty primary hurt his chances in the general election. Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat who was the chief prosecutor in Pima County at the time, defeated Steiger, 400,314 votes to 321,236, winning his first of three six-year Senate terms.
De Berge said Steiger won the primary because “he was the more affable and colorful with a great penchant for ridiculing the political process in a way that resonated with conservative constituents who wanted to distrust government at all levels, but especially the feds.”
Steiger also served two terms in the Arizona Senate, and one term as mayor of Prescott.
Because of his colorful nature, Steiger managed to make news in unusual ways. After a herd of burros broke loose near Paulden in 1975, frightening a group of school children, the congressman investigated. News reports varied, but Steiger said he shot a couple of burros because they were charging him. Evidence indicated that the burros were shot in their hind quarters.