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Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake takes defensive stand on issues during Mesa town hall

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake takes a question from the audience during a town hall Thursday, April 13, 2017, in Mesa, Ariz. Flake is holding his first public event with constituents since January after coming under withering criticism for his voting record and avoiding such gatherings in recent months. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s constituents came prepared with pointed questions regarding health care, internet privacy and border protection on Thursday, as the junior senator hosted a public town hall for the first time since January.

Attendees who traveled miles to the Mesa Convention Center in order to address Flake in person put his feet to the fire regarding his position on health care and his aim to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Flake faced an anxious and unrelenting crowd — which peaked at 1,700 — that delivered a consistent chorus of boos and chants of “Health care for all,” “Shame on you!” “No stupid wall!” and held up cards of green and red when they agreed or disagreed with something the senator said.

During a majority of the two hour-plus town hall, which was scheduled to last an hour and a half, the senator stared at a wall of red sheets of paper.

One attendee said the Affordable Care Act has saved her life and asked Flake if he would vow to reject any plan that would not cover pre-existing conditions, to which he responded that he wants to keep the pre-existing condition provision.

The town hall attendees also grilled Flake on his vote over a bill that blocks internet privacy, which would allow telecommunications companies to track consumers’ browsing activities without permission.

“When are you going to choose your country over your party?” one constituent asked. “You sold my privacy up the river,” another said.

During an interview with KTAR before the town hall, Flake justified his vote for the bill.

“Nobody’s been sold out,” Flake said. “I want uniform regulation to make sure privacy is dealt with the data itself, not who carries it.”

Other issues that were brought up Thursday included: Funding a U.S.-Mexico border wall (“The notion of a 2,000 mile wall, no one believes that’s going to happen”), continuing the DACA program to allow young immigrants the opportunity to go to school and get a job (“I think they ought to be taken care of and given a path to citizenship”) and cutting public funding for Planned Parenthood (“Taxpayer money should not be used to provide abortion services”).

Flake is a moderate Republican seeking a second term in 2018, but has faced backlash from both the left and right.

Liberals are upset with his votes in the opening months of the Trump administration, and Kelli Ward, a conservative former state lawmaker, has already announced her candidacy to challenge Flake in the Republican primary next year.

Flake, who has been an outspoken critic against President Donald Trump during the election, pointed to the president’s recent action in Syria as an example of the country following through on the “red line.”

“The president has taken good actions as of late,” Flake told KTAR before the town hall.

But Flake has since received intense backlash from anti-Trump activists for his support of the president’s cabinet nominees, including the billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Constituents brought up Arizona’s standing in education — ranked among the lowest in the nation — to grill Flake on his nomination of DeVos for education secretary.

“You and your kids went to public school — why did you vote for her?” one woman asked. His response? “Elections have consequences.”

“I’m glad here in Arizona, parents have a chance to send their kids to good schools,” he added to a furious crowd.

The town hall was expected to be a divisive one before it even began. In his announcement online, Flake established a “Code of Conduct” for attendees to follow.

The code included requirements such as not bringing signs, banners or “objects that create a disturbance.” It also stated people will be immediately removed if they do not comply with the posted and audible instructions.

The code of conduct said it is was put in place “to ensure a safe, enjoyable, and productive town hall.” Attendees at the town hall on Thursday responded by bringing a “Code of Conduct” of their own.

The constituents did attempt to get Flake to sign their code during the town hall, to no avail.

A political action committee called American Bridge 21st Century also created a Snapchat filter that superimposed a laptop with the caption “Jeff Flake voted to sell your internet privacy to the highest bidder” over pictures taken at the Mesa town hall.

Sen. Andy Biggs, another Arizona senator who recently held a public town hall of his own, offered some advice for Flake.

“Have fun with it, smile,” Biggs told KTAR’s Reality Check. “People are going to have opinions, they are going to say what they want to say. Just keep smiling and embrace it. Where else can you have this kind of participation, besides this great country?”

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