- Associated Press - Sunday, May 13, 2012

Since his first House campaign a dozen years ago, would-be Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has worked diligently to cast himself as a conservative gadfly, willing to buck GOP leaders and even a Republican president.

But as a result of the six-term congressman’s work as a lobbyist two decades ago for a Namibian uranium operation with ties to Iran, a GOP primary opponent and Democrats are portraying him as a Washington insider who should not get to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Well before Mr. Flake was a leader in the campaign to eliminate the pet projects and grants that lawmakers add to spending bills, he was a registered foreign agent who represented Namibia and a uranium mine in the southern African nation that gained independence in 1990. Mr. Flake has since received $100,000 in contributions from mining interests and voted a number of times against penalties on Iran.

In Washington’s revolving-door climate, it’s not unusual for lawmakers and lobbyists to switch back and forth.

Rep. Jason Altmire, Pennsylvania Democrat, for example, began his political career as a congressional aide, then lobbied on behalf of hospitals for a decade before winning election to the House in 2006. Several lawmakers have worked as lobbyists between service in Congress.

Mr. Flake says his lobbying past has never been a secret and that it was tied to his “love affair” with southern Africa, where as a young Mormon he did missionary work. He says his focus was on helping the transitional government of Namibia emerge as a democracy and develop its economy.

He says it’s ridiculous to imply that his work representing Rossing Uranium, which was majority-owned by the global mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Zinc of London, played any role in his votes on Iran. He says it was only last year that he learned that the Iranian government also had a stake in the mine.

But his past has become an issue in his bid to replace Mr. Kyl, a race that could influence the presidential vote in Arizona and help determine which party controls the Senate in 2013.

Arizona has one of five Republican-held seats targeted by Democrats as takeover possibilities in November; the others are Indiana, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts. In Arizona, Democrats are counting on Richard Carmona, surgeon general under President George W. Bush.

Democrats say Mr. Carmona, who accused the Bush administration of trying to politicize his job as the nation’s top public health official, could contribute to making the traditionally Republican state competitive as President Obama seeks a second term