Rep. Jeff Flake is refusing to say whether he will abide by the term-limits pledge that has been a staple of his congressional career.
Flake, R-Ariz., has staked much of his reputation in Congress as being a man who abides by his campaign promises.
The most forceful promise he has made throughout his congressional tenure is that he would live up to the term limits pledge he took during his 2000 campaign.
But when pressed by the Tribune on whether he intends to abide by that pledge, Flake said only:
"I have long since passed the time that I thought announcing the date of my departure was a good idea. But a personal pledge is hard to break."
In an interview Thursday, Flake refused to give a yes or no answer to the question. When asked whether he would break the personal promise he made to voters, he said only that "it’s tough to do."
Flake represents the 6th Congressional District, which generally runs from the Salt River to the Gila River Indian Community, and from Country Club Drive in Mesa east to Florence Junction.
A cornerstone of Flake’s campaign in his crowded Republican primary four years ago was that he would abide by the term limits set by voters through an initiative that passed by a 3-to-1 margin in 1992. Though the courts later voided the provision limiting members of Congress to three two-year terms, Flake said he would impose that limit on himself.
If Flake wins re-election and abides by his promise, the term that begins in January would be his last.
Stan Barnes, who is challenging Flake in the Republican primary, said the congressman’s waffling takes away his best argument for reelection: That he is a man of his word.
"You cannot run as a man of principle and break the most important promise you have made to the voters," Barnes said. "I think his waffling on term limits and his pledge means he’s not the man some people think he is."
Barnes has not promised to abide by the term restriction, saying such a pledge would limit his effectiveness in Congress, making him a lame-duck the moment he takes office.
"I think his term-limits pledge is part of the reason he is a meaningless protest vote in Washington," Barnes said of Flake.
Term limits was a volatile issue throughout the 1990s. Flake’s predecessor, former Rep. Matt Salmon, a Mesa Republican, campaigned in part on that pledge when he won the seat in 1994. When Salmon took office, he notified the House clerk that he was not to be seated or paid if he tried to stay longer than six years.
Flake’s promise to limit his tenure was a major factor in Salmon’s decision to endorse Flake in 2000, Salmon said. He added he still believes Flake will abide by that promise.
"Jeff has told me repeatedly over the years that he is a man of his word and that he will keep his word," Salmon said. "I have no reason to doubt it. I personally don’t doubt for a minute that he will keep his word."
Paul Jacob, senior fellow for the national group U.S. Term Limits, also said he is confident Flake will not break his pledge.
Because of the seniority system in Congress, it is not unusual for an incumbent seeking a final term to be vague on whether the promise will be kept, Jacob said. Congressional leadership often punishes members who have taken the term-limits pledge, viewing them as short-timers and limiting their influence, he said.
"I’m inclined to believe he is a man of his word and he’s given his word on that," Jacob said of Flake.