Sarah Steelman has an independent streak.
The former Republican state treasurer and state senator isn’t afraid to speak her mind or ruffle a few feathers for a cause she believes in — even if it means offending her own party.
According to Steelman, that is what voters are looking for right now. It is also what distinguishes her from her rivals in the GOP primary race for U.S. senator.
“Why should you vote for me? Because I am going to do what I say I am going to do and I have a record that supports that. I am willing to stand up and fight for what I believe in despite the political consequences,” she said during a recent campaign stop in Washington.
Casually dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, Steelman, 54, has spent the past few weeks campaigning in rural Missouri on what she billed a “flatbed forum” campaign tour. After stopping off in Washington, she toured a hog farm in southern Warren County and discussed farming issues with the owners.
Steelman, Rolla, said she shares the same values of rural Missourians who appreciate her political independence.
“I am a fiscal conservative,” she explained. “I’ve taken stands that haven’t always been popular with my party. I filibustered the Cardinal stadium tax deal where they wanted to spend $600 million of public money to help out the owners who had a net worth of $4 billion. That was Peter Kinder’s bill and I wasn’t afraid to stand up and filibuster him and I got it killed eventually.
“As state treasurer I stopped legislators from lining their own pockets with state money that they wanted to use for an ethanol plant because I didn’t think it was right that a sitting state legislator should receive benefits from a program that went through my office. It is a conflict of interest. And they threw it out in the middle of night. They got so mad at me they passed legislation that undid it.”
Steelman said she even had to battle to pass an initiative for “terror-free” investing. She said her office was the first public agency in the United States to adopt a policy of not investing in companies that did business with countries like Iran and Syria whose governments were linked to terrorism.
“Believe it or not, back in 2005 and 2006, when I was cutting off money — taxpayer money — that was being invested in companies that did business with Iran and other terrorist nations, it was a battle. And now 23 other states have followed my lead on that. We really see the importance of it because it helps the sanctions that are so important right now against Iran,” she added.
Steelman found herself in another political battle in 2008 when she took on Kenny Hulshof for the GOP nomination for governor after Matt Blunt declined to run for a second term. State party officials had hoped to avoid a primary contest. Steelman lost in a close and very divisive race.
Four years later Steelman is locked in another nasty Republican primary fight with top rivals U.S. Rep. Todd Akin and St. Louis businessman John Brunner for the right to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
National pundits say McCaskill, a moderate, is vulnerable in a state that is increasingly voting Republican.
Steelman says the people she meets on the campaign trail are sick of big government and wasteful spending and McCaskill is part of the problem .
“She (McCaskill) says she is against earmarks but she has voted for lots of bills with earmarks in them. She just hasn’t asked for any for Missouri,” Steelman said. “I came out against earmarks in 2008 and everybody in the Republican congressional delegation signed a letter condemning me for my position including Todd Akin. But here is the thing, the earmark process is one that is corrupt. It (earmarks) doesn’t have public support, public discussion. It doesn’t go through the normal budgeting process like we have here in Missouri where everything is transparent. A congressman can just file a letter and put it into a bill without anyone knowing about it.”
Steelman acknowledged McCaskill’s effort to force accountability and trim waste in the military but said there is more work to be done throughout government.
“My beef with her would be that there is a lot of wasteful spending, not just in the military. There is waste in a lot of social programs as well. She always tends to pick on the Feds and not on other departments but I think there is waste everywhere. I think government is too big. I want to shrink the size of government,” she added.
That position has helped Steelman win some recent high-profile endorsements including from the Tea Party Express and Sarah Palin. They could prove helpful in a race where the top three candidates relentlessly argue their conservative credentials.
“I am conservative and I think Todd Akin is fairly conservative, although I do disagree with his position on earmarks. I don’t know what John Brunner is, he calls himself a conservative but he contributed to (Democrat) Charlie Dooley, the St. Louis County executive, in the last election in 2010 when a conservative Republican had a chance to take that over,” Steelman said.
Steelman said that she supports the Paul Ryan budget plan, is pro-life and opposes any government mandate on health care that violates someone’s faith as “absolutely wrong.”
She also said she is pretty sure she will be outspent in a race that has already featured an onslaught of negative television campaign ads.
“Brunner has got an unlimited checkbook so he is spending all of his own money,” she explained. “Akin is part of the establishment. He is a sitting congressman; He can get money through those channels. I have always been outspent in every race I’ve ever had. The ones that I’ve won, I’ve been outspent usually two to one.
“But my sense in campaigning is that people are so frustrated with Washington and the fact that they don’t care about the debt or reining in spending. They want to see something done that gets our country headed back on a sound, financial footing. That is what I’m hearing,” she added.
The primary election is Aug. 7.