“That was the low point, certainly,” remembers Flake, who has strikingly rebounded in the five years since. Boosted by conservative activists who admire what they view as his ferocity on spending issues, the 48-year-old Flake won a seat this year on the prestigious Appropriations Committee — with a subdued endorsement from Boehner.
In addition, Flake recently announced his candidacy to succeed Sen. Jon Kyl, who is retiring.
But the prospective star still remembers his crucible of 2006, a period that began with thoughts that he would be moving up the ladder of the Judiciary Committee. Then Boehner took him aside to break the news. Welcome to oblivion, Flake realized.
“I thought I might be the [committee] chairman someday,” he recalls. “And then I was suddenly off after Boehner talked to me. . . . Of course it was hard. . . . But you have to keep going.”
The fiscally conservative Flake, elected to the House in 2000, has never been shy about challenging members of his own party. During his first term, he quickly became dismayed over earmarks, which enable legislators to stealthily secure funding for pet projects as parts of larger omnibus bills.
“I believed the earmarks game was robbing us as Republicans of our identity as fiscal conservatives,” he said.
As a backbencher, Flake began speaking out against earmarks, privately at House Republican Conference meetings, then publicly on the House floor. By his second term, he found easy earmarking targets to mock: a National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, a teapot museum. His zingers gained him media attention — and the resentment of members from both parties. “I would have thought . . . that I ought to nominate some of my colleagues — both Democrats and Republicans — for the Hall of Fame of Pork,” he declared in 2003 during a House debate. “But I am afraid they would fund it.”
Flake opposed the earmarks of the highest-ranking Republicans, including then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.). In return, some powerful Republican colleagues began suggesting he was guilty of hypocrisy.
Early in 2003, after Flake again blasted a proposed $90,000 earmark for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, Kentucky’s Harold Rogers skewered him. “We have got to be sure that we come here with clean hands when we speak,” Rogers said pointedly, before telling the chamber that Flake had been part of efforts to secure earmarks for Arizona.