Ex-House Speaker Tom Foley played major role in Northwest politics

Tom Foley, one of the last surviving lions from the state’s most storied periods of power and influence in Congress, died Friday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 84.

Tall and courtly, Foley, a Democrat, served 30 years in the U.S. House, ascending to House speaker in 1989 to become the first in that job from west of the Rocky Mountains and the highest ranking politician to emerge from Washington.

“When it comes to writing the political history of the Northwest, Tom Foley will feature prominently,” said Travis N. Ridout, who is the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy for Washington State University. “Here in Eastern Washington, it’s not uncommon to hear Tom Foley stories to this day — that in spite of his not having served in the House for almost 20 years now.”

His six-year reign as speaker provided a sterling bookend to an epoch in which the state enjoyed decades of success securing earmarks and swaying foreign policy because of the political muscle of its two long-serving U.S. senators, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, of Everett, and Warren Magnuson, of Seattle.

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., recalled how the state’s congressional power ebbed from the Senate to the House following Magnuson’s defeat in 1980 and Jackson’s death three years later.

Things the two senators had done for all those years fell into the speaker’s office, he said. That included positioning representatives on the best panels.

“All the committees, he had somebody on them to look after the state’s interests,” McDermott said.

Cathy Allen, a Seattle political consultant, said Foley, Jackson and Magnuson were among a crowd of long-serving male lawmakers from the region who could make things happen in Congress.

“Back then it was a team of older white guys working together that were pretty impenetrable. They were the ones that said this will be funded and this will not,” she said. “It was the glory days of the boys of the Pacific Northwest as opposed to today where women are the power of the West.”

Foley worked for Jackson and entered politics at his boss’ behest, running for the House in 1964, which turned out to be a landslide year for Democrats. He served in a period when partisan confrontation was less rancorous than today and where Democrats dominated for decades.

Former Congressman Norm Dicks, of Bremerton, who entered Congress in 1976, said Foley believed deeply in bipartisanship. Dicks said the two spoke by phone three weeks ago and Foley expressed great concern about the impending shutdown.

“He and (former House Minority Leader) Bob Michel were always able to work things out,” he said.

Foley crowned his long political career by becoming speaker, only to be toppled when Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994, turned out by angry voters with little taste for incumbents. He was the first speaker to be booted from office by his constituents since the Civil War.

Foley died Friday of complications from a stroke, according to his wife, Heather.

She said he had suffered a stroke last December and was hospitalized in May with pneumonia. He returned home after a week and had been on hospice care there ever since, she said.

“Foley was very much a believer that the perfect should not get in the way of the achievable,” Ms. Foley wrote in a 10-page obituary of her husband. She said he believed that “half of something was better than none.”

Foley, who grew up in a politically active family in Spokane, represented that agriculture-heavy area for 30 years.

As speaker, he was an active negotiator in the 1990 budget talks that led to President George H.W. Bush breaking his pledge to never agree to raise taxes.

He was also at the helm when, in 1992, revelations that many lawmakers had been allowed to overdraw their checking accounts at the House bank provoked a wave of anger against incumbents. In 1993, he helped shepherd President Bill Clinton’s budget through the House.

He never served a day as a member of the House’s minority party. The Republican capture of the chamber in the 1994 gave them control for the first time in 40 years, and Foley, it turned out, was their prize victim.

He was replaced as speaker by his nemesis, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., leader of a group of rebellious younger Republicans who rejected the less-combative tactics of established GOP leaders.

Foley was defeated in 1994 by 4,000 votes by Spokane attorney George Nethercutt, a Republican who supported term limits, which the speaker fought. Also hurting Foley was his ability to bring home federal benefits, which Nethercutt used against Foley by accusing him of pork-barrel politics.

In a 2004 Associated Press interview, Foley spoke about how voters did not appreciate the value of service as a party leader, and said rural voters were turning against Democrats.

“We need to examine how we are responding to this division … particularly the sense in some rural areas that the Democratic Party is not a party that respects faith or family or has respect for values. I think that’s wrong, but it’s a dangerous perception if it develops as it has,” he told the AP.

Foley loved the classics and art, hobnobbing with presidents, and his steady rise to power in Congress and diplomacy. He also loved riding horseback in parades and getting his boots dirty in the rolling hills of the Palouse country that his pioneer forebears helped settle.

Foley worked with leadership to get plum committee assignments. Retirement, new seniority rules, election losses and leadership battles lifted Foley into the Agriculture Committee chairmanship by age 44. He eventually left that post to become Democratic whip, the caucus’ third ranking post.

Similar good fortune elevated him to majority leader, and the downfall of Jim Wright, of Texas, lifted him to the speaker’s chair, where he served from June 1989 until January 1995.

He said his proudest achievements were farm bills, hunger programs, civil liberties, environmental legislation and civil rights bills. Helping individual constituents also was satisfying, he said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., tweeted Friday, “Tom Foley was a tireless, dedicated public servant for WA &the nation. I wouldn’t be where I am today w/o his support. He’ll be missed.”

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the No. 4 House GOP leader who holds Foley’s old Eastern Washington seat, called him “an honorable leader and colleague” who was “highly regarded and respected by Democrats and Republicans.”

After leaving Congress, he joined a blue chip law firm in Washington, D.C., by one account earning $400,000, plus fees he earned serving on corporate boards. Foley and his wife, Heather, his unpaid political adviser and staff aide, had built their dream home in the capital in 1992.

In 1997, he took one of the most prestigious assignments in diplomacy, ambassador to Japan. A longtime Japan scholar, Foley had been a frequent visitor to that nation, in part to promote the farm products his district produces.

“Diplomacy is not, frankly, very different” from the deal-making, consensus-building and common courtesy that a successful politician needs, he said.

His father, Ralph, was a judge for decades and a school classmate of Bing Crosby’s. His mother, Helen, was a teacher.

Foley attended Gonzaga Preparatory School and Gonzaga University in Spokane. He graduated from the University of Washington Law School and worked as a prosecutor, assistant state attorney general, and as counsel for Jackson’s Senate Interior Committee for three years.

Then came the long House career.

Foley told the AP that in 1994, he thought about retiring, but talked himself into running one last time.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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