Spectacularly lurid personal falls of American politicians — most recently Anthony Weiner, John Ensign and John Edwards — tend to obscure the quiet stories of unlikely political comebacks in Washington, those devoid of titillation. Jeff Flake’s story serves as a reminder that Washington is rife with second acts.
In 2006, Flake (R-Ariz.) was politically pummeled and left for dead over his persistent criticism of other House Republicans for supporting pork-barrel spending projects. Party members, including current House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, subjected Flake to public humiliation: They stripped him of his seat on the House Judiciary Committee.
“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.
“Rogers’s remarks were right,” Flake recalled. “I had signed 11 letters with the [Arizona congressional] delegation for defense [projects] in our state. At the time I’d signed them, I guess I said to myself, ‘Well, this is defense. This is different.’ . . . It really wasn’t in many ways.”
But rather than accede to certain kinds of earmarks, Flake said he wouldn’t ask for any more. In early 2006, he was irking earmark proponents more than ever by inviting them to stand in the House chamber during spending debates and explain the need for their measures.
Then came the event that pushed matters over the edge with his colleagues. Just two days before the 2006 midterm elections, Flake appeared on “60 Minutes” to condemn earmarks, blaming both parties. Republicans lost their majority in the elections and, with it, Hastert’s speakership. Some members, Flake recounts, “thought if I had been quiet about earmarks, [the party’s defeat] might never have happened.”
His punishment soon followed. Boehner, by then the party’s new leader, told Flake that the move to take away his Judiciary Committee seat stemmed from his “bad behavior,” as Flake recounts, a characterization neither confirmed nor disputed by Boehner’s office.
The moment might have forever ruptured the two men’s working relationship, but Flake did not publicly express bitterness. He maintained contact with Boehner, occasionally asking the leader about the possibility of landing a seat on the Appropriations Committee, where, Flake argued, he would be the rare member aggressively pushing for cuts. The request “was kind of laughed at,” Flake recalls.
But by the end of the 2010 campaign, the political landscape had undergone a seismic change. Republicans had adopted an earmark moratorium. The party had won the House majority, and Boehner was poised to become the new speaker. And, in the wake of his constant criticism of earmarks and deficit spending, Flake had become a darling of conservatives and tea party supporters.
“I think Flake became seen as one of those guys . . . who was part of this new effective group,” recalled Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) earlier this year.
Soon, Boehner dispensed his blessing and Flake was on the Appropriations Committee.
“I think some [in Republican leadership] are hoping that some of us on the committee will push the appropriators in the right direction,” Flake said. “We might push them further than [leadership] wants.”
On a personal level, Flake sees his kind of comeback as the norm on Capitol Hill, a place populated by any number of survivors who have scraped themselves off the floors of its marble corridors.
“You have your best chance around here if you don’t complain and if you keep working,” he said.
He realizes that Washington politics is a case study in crushing disappointments and resiliency.
“It helps to know you’re going to have some tough days here,” Flake noted.
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