Sen. Jeff Flake was confronted by an angry and often unruly crowd at the Mesa Convention Center Thursday in his first town hall since the beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump.
The feeling of the town hall’s crowd toward Mr. Flake was often one of contention; the first-term Arizona senator frequently could not make any sort of statement on policy without a massive backlash of boos and jeers from the audience.
This often came in the form of loud chants condemning Mr. Flake, most repeatedly “shame on you,” but others included chants concerning Mr. Flake’s relationship with President Trump as well as his actions in delaying the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
Questions and statements from the audience often turned into contentious backs and forths between Mr. Flake and attendants. Subjects included education, the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and Mr. Flake’s stance on Planned Parenthood.
Mr. Flake often found himself on the defensive, although he never descended into anger at his constituents, often emphasizing a respectful disagreement on policy.
“Why is it your right to take away my rights?,” asked Deja Foxx, 16, who spoke in support of Planned Parenthood, and also accused Mr. Flake of experiencing privilege that she herself did not enjoy.
“What I want is for everyone is to realize the American dream,” Mr. Flake responded.
As is often customary at town hall meetings, papers were given to the audience for them to hold up, green for agreement and red for disagreement. Although a few green signs could be seen in the crowd, it was largely a sea of red.
Other attendees shouted at Mr. Flake in an attempt to catch the senator’s ear from the collective sound of the audience.
While several topics were discussed at the town hall, no issue was more prominent than that of health care. Several attendees wore stickers praising the Affordable Care Act, while others offered statements in praise of Planned Parenthood.
One woman, Susie Bell of Gilbert, sat near the front, the words “Obamacare saved my life,” written on her head.
Ms. Bell said that because she was in-between jobs at the time, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, gave her health coverage that she otherwise would not have had when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Ms. Bell accused Mr. Flake, as well as “most lawmakers,” of not being able to understand the concerns of many Americans.
“They have no clue what it’s like to be without health care,” Ms. Bell said. “No clue what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.”
The town hall, which was scheduled to run from 7 to 8:30 p.m., ended up running until nearly 10 p.m., with Mr. Flake speaking to constituents afterward.
In what was very obviously a full house, the crowd was seemingly almost a thousand people strong. Seats only began to empty en mass after Mr. Flake went over the scheduled time.
The crowd seemed to partially respect the receptiveness and attention Mr. Flake gave them. His decision to extend the night to go to 9:30 p.m. got an especially good reaction from the audience. By the end of the night while the boos and jeers remained, they were no longer deafening.
Possibly in anticipation of raucous town hall protests that have rocked other members of Congress this year, Mr. Flake had specified a “Town Hall Code of Conduct” for the event on his website.
It specified that attendees with “signs, banners or objects” that could create a disturbance would be denied admission, also stipulating when those attending could begin parking and line up.
One strange moment came when a woman in a chicken costume came only a few feet from Mr. Flake for several minutes, often waving a pen at the senator. That individual, Melody Steele, said she came to the event in opposition to Mr. Flake’s policy, specifically regarding the Affordable Care Act. She also condemned a fundraiser with Mr. Flake that featured former President George W. Bush.
“I want (Flake} to stop being Bush’s chicken,” Ms. Steele said.
Mr. Flake said in an interview after the town hall that he believed the anger from constituents at the Town Hall was emblematic of a very partisan national political environment.
“It isn’t just Arizona, it seems to be nationwide,” Mr. Flake said. “It is a toxic environment. People feel that they have to tow the party line.”
Mr. Flake, who is serving his first term, is up for re-election in November next year.
Two candidates have announced they will be running for Mr. Flake’s seat, Democrat Deedra Abboud, a Phoenix-area attorney and community activist, and former Arizona State Sen. Kelli Ward, who plans to challenge Mr. Flake in the Republican primary.
David Marino Jennifer Gordon are journalism students at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and wrote the article as a class assignment.