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Congress has returned to Washington after a weeklong recess. And for Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, the change of scenery may bring a bit of relief. Some of his constituents in Arizona are still livid over his recent vote against expanded background checks for gun sales. And they say the freshman senator is ignoring their calls for a public meeting. From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd has that story.
PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: The blowback got so bad over the break that Jeff Flake made a joke about it on Facebook. Referring to a poll that dubbed him the most unpopular senator in the country, Flake said he now ranks just below pond scum.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Pay attention, Sen. Jeff Flake. Please help us.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Please, senator, where are you?
O'DOWD: Victims of gun violence rallied outside Flake's central Phoenix headquarters during the recess, and begged him to come out and talk. Caren Teves' son Alex died in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings. Before April's gun vote, she and her husband wrote to Flake. They asked him to visit their dining room in Phoenix, to see Alex's empty chair at the table. Flake responded with a letter of his own, saying he supported stronger background checks. But then he voted against them.
CAREN TEVES: After receiving this letter, I would expect Sen. Flake to look me in the eye and explain why he ignored me, why he ignored my husband and my family.
O'DOWD: Teves stepped away from the podium and walked to Flake's office door with a victim of the 2011 Tucson shootings. She went inside and emerged a minute later, discouraged.
TEVES: He apparently is in the state, traveling. He's not in his office today. I also requested another meeting - again. I can't even count the number of times I've requested a meeting. No response.
O'DOWD: Teves is not alone in her frustration. Tom Jensen runs Public Policy Polling, the left-leaning group that crowned Flake most unpopular.
TOM JENSEN: It's really unusual for us to see a senator become this unpopular, this quickly.
O'DOWD: After all, Flake was just elected in November. After the gun debate, Jensen's poll found a big drop in popularity among senators in Alaska, Ohio and Nevada. The biggest blow came in Arizona, where 70 percent of voters say they want background checks on all gun sales. More than half now say they're less likely to vote for Flake because of his vote on the measure. Plus, Jensen says, Flake's prominent role crafting immigration reform probably hasn't helped his case with conservatives.
JENSEN: When you kind of add that all into the pot together, he's really done something to antagonize most voters across the ideological spectrum. And that's how you end up with approval numbers like this.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Breaking news: Democrat-leaning firm says Republican is unpopular.
O'DOWD: That's Jeff Flake, responding to the poll. He says he's not ignored his constituents on the gun debate, and he's explained why he voted against the measure written by his colleagues Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey.
FLAKE: I mean it when I say I think we need to strengthen background checks. But people can't assume that the Manchin-Toomey proposal, as it was structured, is the only avenue to do that.
O'DOWD: Flake says their bill was too broad. He worried the language would restrict private gun sales, especially in rural areas. Plus, he says he would vote yes for a different proposal that focuses more on keeping the mentally ill from getting guns.
FLAKE: Legislation language matters. When you're in the Senate, in particular, you're supposed to pay close attention to that.
O'DOWD: Flake says navigating the demands of an entire state, in the Senate, has been tough - tougher than his 12-year stint in the House representing a single Republican district. But as work resumes in Congress this week, he says he hopes a new gun bill will eventually emerge. That way he can make good on his promise to victims of gun violence in Arizona.
For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix.
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