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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Steck, Daniel Frederic
(December 16, 1881–December 31, 1950)

–lawyer and U.S. senator—was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, the son of Albert and Ada Steck. His father was a prominent attorney and local Democratic political leader. Steck attended public schools in Ottumwa and then the State University of Iowa, where he obtained an LL.B. in 1906. He was active in both sports and fraternity life at the university. On June 30, 1908, he married Lucile Oehler. They had no children.

    Upon graduation from the university, Steck returned to Ottumwa and joined his father's law firm, which then became known as Steck & Steck. In 1910 he was elected Wapello County Attorney and was reelected in 1912. In 1917 he joined the Iowa National Guard and organized a signal corps company that went into federal service as Company C, 109th Field Signal Battalion, 34th Division. He was elected captain of his company and served in France from October 1918 to April 1919.

    When he returned to Ottumwa, Steck resumed his law practice but also became active in the American Legion, first as a charter member of his local post and then in statewide and national Legion activities. By 1921 he had become commander of the Iowa department and chair of the national legislative committee and was active in drafting and working for bills in Congress to aid veterans. Although a Democrat, his activities in the Legion brought him into close working relationships with leading Republican members, including Hanford MacNider of Mason City, Charles Robbins of Cedar Rapids, and Bert Halligan of Davenport. Those friendships would pay political dividends for Steck within a few years.

    Early in 1924 Steck was suggested as a possible Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. No Democrat in Iowa had served in the Senate since the tenure of George W. Jones (1848-1859), and 1924 appeared to be a very Republican year nationally. However, the situation in Iowa was unique. Incumbent Republican Senator Smith Wildman Brookhart, after completing the term of William S. Kenyon, who had resigned in 1922, was running for his first full six-year term. Brookhart, an Insurgent progressive Republican, was becoming very unpopular with regular conservative Republicans both nationally and in Iowa, and the Democrats saw the possibility of a Senate victory. As a conservative Democrat, Steck appealed to most Democrats and many regular Republicans, including his associates in the American Legion. Steck won the Democratic nomination and waged an aggressive campaign against Brookhart. When Brookhart openly attacked President Calvin Coolidge during the campaign, many Republicans began moving to support Steck. Newspapers showed voters how to mark a straight Republican ticket but draw an arrow to Steck's name on the ballot.

    The official election results showed Brookhart ahead by only 755 votes out of almost 900,000 cast. Steck challenged Brookhart's certificate of election, taking his case to the floor of the U.S. Senate. According to a strict reading of Iowa state law, the marked ballots were invalid. However, Steck argued that under Article I, Section 5, of the U.S. Constitution, the Senate "shall be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members."In March 1926 the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections sided with Steck, and on April 12 the full Senate voted 45- 41 to unseat Brookhart and seat Steck. Sixteen conservative Republicans joined 29 Democrats to form the majority for Steck.

    During his years in the Senate, Steck served on committees on civil service, military affairs, pensions, and post offices and post roads. He supported the McNary—Haugen farm bill and opposed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. In 1930 Steck ran for reelection and was opposed by Republican Congressman Lester J. Dickinson. Although the nation was beginning to trend Democratic because of the onset of the Great Depression, Iowa remained largely Republican in the 1930 election, and Steck was defeated.

    After leaving the Senate, Steck resumed his law practice. In 1932 he ran again for the Democratic nomination for the Senate to oppose Brookhart again. In a five-way contest for the nomination, Steck placed second in the primary, losing to Richard Louis Murphy, who went on to defeat Brookhart in the general election. The following year Steck was appointed special assistant to the U.S. attorney general. His work focused on land acquisition along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers for improvement of the river channels. He remained in that post until 1947. He then returned to Ottumwa, where he died at age 69.
Sources The most informative source on Steck is an article in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 40 (1955). Other sources include numerous articles in the Des Moines Register at the time of the November 1924 general election and in April 1926, when the Senate voted to seat Steck. There is also an obituary in the Des Moines Register, 1/1/1951. No secondary sources focus mainly on Steck, but there are numerous references to him in works on Smith Brookhart. The most extensive is George William McDaniel, Smith Wildman Brookhart: Iowa's Renegade Republican (1995). See also Jerry A. Neprash, The Brookhart Campaigns in Iowa, 1920–1926 (1932); Thomas Morain, Prairie Grass Roots: An Iowa Small Town in the Early Twentieth Century (1988); and Ronald F. Briley, "Smith W. Brookhart and the Limitations of Senatorial Dissent," Annals of Iowa 48 (1985), 56–79.
Contributor: David Holmgren

Cite as: Holmgren, David. "Steck, Daniel Frederic" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 November 2018