Jeff Flake's difficult week at home

May 06, 2013

Congress returns to D.C. Monday after a week-long recess. For Republican Senator Jeff Flake going back to Washington may come as a relief.

Caren Teves Caren Teves, whose son died at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings last year, outside Sen. Jeff Flake's office. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd-KJZZ)

Some of his constituents in Arizona are still livid over his recent vote against expanded background checks for gun sales. They say the freshman senator is ignoring their calls for a public meeting.

The blow-back got so bad over the break that Jeff Flake made a joke about it on Facebook. Referring to a poll that dubbed him the most unpopular senator in the country, Flake said he now ranks just below pond scum.

Later in the week, victims of gun violence rallied outside Flake’s Central Phoenix headquarters and begged him to come out and talk.

“Please, senator, where are you?” asked Jennifer Longden, who was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting several years ago.

More high-profile names were also on hand. Caren Teves’ son Alex died in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shootings last July. Before April’s gun vote, she and her husband wrote to Flake. They asked him to visit their dinning room in Phoenix to see Alex’s empty chair at the table. Flake responded with a letter of his own, saying he supported stronger background checks, but then, he voted against them.

“After receiving this letter I would expect Senator Flake to look me in the eye and explain why he ignored me, why he ignored my husband and my family,” Teves said.

Teves then stepped away from the podium and walked to Flake’s office door with a victim of the 2011 Tucson shootings. She went inside and emerged a minute later, discouraged.

“He apparently is in the state traveling,” she said. “He’s not in his office today, I also requested another meeting. Again. I can’t even count the time I’ve requested a meeting. No response.”

Teves is not alone in her frustration. Tom Jensen runs Public Policy Polling, the left-leaning group that crowned Flake most unpopular.

“It’s really unusual for us to see a senator become this unpopular this quickly,” Jensen said.

After all, Flake was just elected in November. After the gun debate, Jensen’s poll found a big drop in popularity among senators in Alaska, Ohio and Nevada.

The biggest blow came in Arizona, where 70 percent of voters said they want background checks on all gun sales. More than half now say they are less likely to vote for Flake because of his vote on the measure. Plus, Jensen said Flake’s prominent role crafting immigration reform probably hasn’t helped his case with conservatives.

“When you kind of add that all into the pot together, he’s really done something to antagonize most voters across the ideological spectrum and that’s how you end up with approval numbers like this,” Jensen said.

Flake doesn’t buy it.

“Breaking news: Democrat-leaning firm says Republican is unpopular,” he quipped.

Flake said he has not ignored his constituents on the gun debate, and he has explained several times why he voted against the measure written by his colleagues Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey.

“I mean it when I say I think we need to strengthen background checks. But people can’t assume that the Manchin-Toomey proposal as it was structured is the only avenue to do that,” he said in an interview.

Flake said that bill was too broad. He worried the language would restrict private gun sales, especially in rural areas. Plus, he said he would vote yes for a different proposal that focuses more on keeping the mentally ill from getting guns.

Legislative language matters, he said, adding, “When you’re in the Senate in particular you’re supposed to pay close attention to that.”

Flake says navigating the demands of an entire state in the Senate has been tough—tougher than his 12 year stint in the House representing a
single Republican district. But as work resumes in Congress this week, he said he hopes a new gun bill will eventually emerge. That way he
can make good on his promise to Caren Teves and her husband.

“I’m trying to follow through on that promise,” he said.

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