Republican U.S. Senate front-runner Jeff Flake fielded friendly questions at a party meet-and-greet in Payson, although the sharp criticisms of his chief competitor were still ringing in the ears of Rim Country listeners.
The six-term congressman passed up several opportunities to criticize Wil Cardon, the Mesa businessman whose mostly self-funded campaign has worked to label Flake a Washington insider, who has become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Flake said, “We have big challenges, but I wouldn’t want to trade countries with any country in Europe. China’s going to have a great decade — but demographics are destiny” and that nation’s “one child” program will eventually strip it of the workers it needs to support its elderly and sustain economic growth. “We have problems with illegal immigration — but we also have immigration that enriches us. We have advantages here you don’t see anywhere else in the world.”
Mostly, the former head of the ultra-conservative Goldwater Institute think tank and longtime crusader against congressional earmarks stuck closely to his anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation talking points. He spoke for an hour to about 30 people shoehorned into the temporary Republican Party headquarters in Payson.
Flake advocated additional deep cuts in taxes and spending and the wholesale repeal of federal regulations. He said he opposed any restrictions on guns, ammunition or magazines, despite a string of recent shootings. He also said he favored eliminating both the federal Department of Energy and the Department of Education. He even said he preferred having state legislatures appoint U.S. Senators instead of the voters, a system that changed in 1912 with the adoption of the 17th Amendment.
Cardon, who attends the same Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple as Flake in Mesa, has sharply criticized Flake for having once supported comprehensive immigration reform that would have included a way for longtime residents to legalize their status. Flake now says the country must secure its border before considering a guest worker program or legalizing the status of anyone here already.
Cardon has also criticized Flake’s sometime work as a lobbyist and his decision not to stick to a term-limit pledge he made at the time of his election to Congress 12 years ago.
Flake sidestepped questions that invited him to criticize his opponent, except to take issue with Cardon’s complaints that Flake won’t debate him. Flake said he and Cardon have made several joint appearances and he remains willing to debate, so long as the other two, long-shot contenders are included as well. Former Youngtown Mayor Bryan Hackbarth and talk show host Clair Van Steenwyk will appear on the ballot, but haven’t raised much money or shown up in the polls.
On the Democratic side, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona is running neck-and-neck with Flake in preliminary polls. The decorated war hero, police officer and trauma surgeon has amassed donations and endorsements, as the Republican contest has grown bitterer.
But on Tuesday in Payson, Flake kept the focus on his disagreements with Democrats. He assailed the Democratic-controlled Senate for not adopting a formal budget, but instead funding government with a single resolution that doesn’t allow lawmakers to control federal actions through provisions in spending bills.
He said the Forest Service’s failure to manage public lands showed in the Wallow Fire, where the largest wildfire in state history incinerated areas left thick to provide nesting areas for the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl.
“On the left side where they had thinned, the fire had dropped to the ground. On the right side they left for the spotted owl — it was a moonscape. No trees and no spotted owls,” said Flake. “It was the starkest reminder of what forest management really needs.”
Flake talked about the need to dramatically cut federal spending.
“The biggest problem is they think that if jobs are going to be created, government has to do it. But the financial overhaul of the tax code is really exciting to me, like (Rep.) Paul Ryan is doing in the House.”
Ryan has endorsed Flake, as have Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl. Flake strongly supported the House Republican budget plan proposed by Ryan. The plan would have combined drastic spending cuts with substantial tax cuts. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded the budget plan would have shrunk federal spending as a share of the economy to about 16 percent by 2050, roughly the same level proportionately as in the 1950s — before the enactment of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest payments on a national debt that has grown to some $16 trillion.
Flake said the federal government continues to smother the private sector, squander taxpayer money and suppress economic growth with regulations.
As one example, he cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to require the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and other power plants in the Southwest to adopt expensive new technology to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, soot and nitrogen oxides. Power plants that could face costly new requirements include the Cholla, Coronado and Apache generating stations.
The regulations are intended to reduce the haze that cuts by 30 percent visibility at recreation sites like the Grand Canyon. Visitors to the Grand Canyon pump an estimated $721 million into local economies annually. However, Flake said the EPA’s own estimates say that the $1.1 billion worth of pollution control upgrades might not make a visible dent in the problem.
“These federal agencies aren’t responsible to anyone. They’re currently not beholden to Congress because we’re not passing a budget that allows us to direct those agencies how to spend those funds,” said Flake.