Sen. Jeff Flake’s Q&A session at the Mesa Convention Center was his first in-person event of the year and his first since the new Republican-controlled Congress was seated on Jan. 3, 2017.
The Arizona senator was battered with questions about Trump’s proposed border wall; internet privacy; taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood; and his opposition to ‘Obamacare.’
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake endured a brutal face-to-face confrontation with angry constituents Thursday as liberal voters dominated a standing-room-only audience at a town-hall meeting in downtown Mesa.
Even before he took the stage, the audience chanted “health care for all,” showing their support for former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the health-care-reform law that Flake, R-Ariz., has opposed.
Watch the town hall below:
Flake was battered with questions about that issue as well as President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall; his resolution to stop an Obama administration-era rule on internet privacy; his opposition to taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood; and his support for eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees to secure the confirmation of Trump’s pick, Neil Gorsuch.
But the conversation kept coming back to health care. Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have vowed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which they derisively call “Obamacare.” But so far, they have not been able to get a bill passed out of the House of Representatives.
“I will continue to support, as much as I can, our free-market system of health care,” Flake said to a chorus of boos that would sometimes drown out his responses throughout the 2 ½ hour town hall.
Later, Flake said he would not consider legislation that didn’t support patients with pre-existing conditions, but said the health-care system needs to be sustainable and the current one is not.
“The last thing we need to happen is to have people who have coverage now to have that coverage yanked out from under them,” Flake said.
‘You work for us!’
Flake’s Q&A session at the Mesa Convention Center was his first in-person event of the year and his first since the new Republican-controlled Congress was seated on Jan. 3. Mesa is Flake’s hometown, but the audience was relentlessly hostile and unruly.
One speaker ripped him over his 2016 report questioning the use of taxpayer dollars to fund certain scientific-research projects. The speaker accused Flake of furthering government hostility toward the scientific community.
Flake countered that, given the deficit, Congress has to make spending priorities and believes that money could be better spent.
On climate change, Flake said, “I do believe it’s real.”
Asked about keeping guns away from domestic abusers, Flake said he supports “better background checks, including at gun shows,” but added that it has to be done in a way that honors Second Amendment rights.
Flake said he also wouldn’t want to prevent a woman from buying a gun if she thought she needed one for protection.
Repeatedly hammered about funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health-services provider, Flake said he was “sorry we have a disagreement about this.”
“You work for us! You work for us!” audience members chanted in response.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, responded on Twitter: “Unacceptable that constituents are having to educate U.S. senators on reproductive health policy.”
Flake and the crowd also disagreed over his vote to confirm Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of Education. He said elections have consequences and that presidents should get some deference on their Cabinet selections. Flake noted that he also supported Loretta Lynch as Obama’s attorney general, but the audience gave him no kudos for it.
In a brief interview before the event, Flake said he would try to persuade the audience to his way of thinking but didn’t seem overly optimistic.
“These are people with genuine concerns and I’m glad they’re here. I’ll do my best to answer their questions,” Flake told The Arizona Republic.
Democrats targeting Flake
A sign saying “disagree” can be seen in the crowd during a town hall with Sen. Jeff Flake at the Mesa Convention Center on April 13, 2017. (Photo: Patrick Breen/The Republic)
Republican lawmakers across the country have been met by angry voters at town-hall meetings, but Flake is a special target because he is up for re-election in 2018 and is expected to have tough races both in his GOP primary and in the general election.
Though Flake was a reliable critic of Trump during last year’s presidential campaign — he refused to endorse or vote for Trump either in the GOP primaries or the general election — he has become a top target of Democrats energized in opposition to Trump’s presidency.
“We’re working hard. We take every re-election very seriously.”
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake
And, in the Senate, Flake has largely been on board with the Trump agenda so far.
National Democrats consider Flake and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., the Senate’s two most vulnerable Republicans on the 2018 ballot.
It was probably no coincidence that Democrats dominated the discussion.
The Democratic National Committee sent out an email to Arizona supporters in advance of Flake’s event urging them to “Go get in Jeff Flake’s grill.”
“Sen. Jeff Flake has a town hall coming up tomorrow. We’re asking you to commit right now to attending,” the DNC email said. “Ask him to protect the Affordable Care Act and investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the arm of the Democratic Party dedicated to electing Democrats to the Senate, created “a geo-targeted Snapchat filter” that highlights Flake’s role in blocking a federal online-privacy rule from going into effect. The anti-Flake filter “will be available to Snapchat users in the geographic proximity of the townhall before, during and after the event,” the committee said.
2018 is a midterm-election year. Traditionally, the president’s party can expect to lose seats on Capitol Hill during midterm elections. Trump’s unorthodox presidency has some Republicans even more on edge this cycle.
“We’re working hard. We take every re-election very seriously,” Flake said.
Meeting goes long
Sen. Jeff Flake smiles as the crowd boos and puts up red pieces of paper during a town hall at the Mesa Convention Center on April 13, 2017. (Photo: Patrick Breen/The Republic)
Flake kept his cool under the barrage of combative questions, but several times he paused to take a swig from a bottle of water and quipped, “I feel like Marco Rubio here with the water.”
Rubio, Flake’s Senate colleague from Florida, was mocked for drinking water during the televised Republican response to Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech.
But the joke did nothing to lighten the mood. And Flake’s voice started to grow hoarse as the evening wore on and the meeting’s original 8:30 p.m. end time came and went.
A high-school student in a chicken costume who would identify herself only as “Clucky the Flaky Chicken” helped fire up the crowd.
Cindy Harrison, a Democrat who works as a high-school guidance counselor in the East Valley, said she wanted to ask Flake about the “Trump effect” among students. Since last year’s election, white students have become emboldened to bully and harass minority students, she said, making comments such as “go back to Mexico” and “build the wall.”
“I don’t agree with him on policies, but help us build a community rather than destroying it,” Harrison said earlier in the evening of her hopes for Flake.
The senator continued to take questions until after 9:30 p.m. In his final remarks, he thanked the crowd.
“This is what democracy looks like. This has been a great evening,” he said.
“(Expletive) you,” one man shot back.
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