Friends celebrate former House Speaker Foley

SPOKANE — With former House Speaker Tom Foley in declining health, friends are taking time to remember the achievements of the Democratic congressman who represented Eastern Washington in Congress for three decades.

Foley, a Spokane native, has a variety of ailments and is in hospice care in the Washington, D.C., area, where he has lived most of his adult life, associates said.

The first speaker from west of the Rocky Mountains, Foley, 84, rose higher in the federal hierarchy than any other Washingtonian. As speaker he was third in line for president.

“He was amazingly effective at bringing people of different views together and finding compromises,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University in Pullman.

For instance, Foley was an architect of the system that saw money for farm programs and food stamps combined in the same spending bill, Clayton said. That way the programs were guaranteed to win support from urban and rural lawmakers, he said.

That compromise is now under attack from House Republicans, who want to see money for food stamps and farm programs separated. That’s a major sign of how polarized Washington, D.C., has become, Clayton said.

“A bipartisan approach to policy making was a hallmark of (Foley’s) career,” Clayton said. “He built bridges across the aisle.”

Foley was also known for his honesty and integrity, Clayton said.

“There was not a lot of spin with Tom Foley,” he said.

Foley was born in Spokane in 1929, and elected to Congress in 1965. He became the 57th Speaker in 1989 and served in that capacity until 1995.

A celebration of Foley’s career was held recently at a downtown Spokane theater. Foley was too ill to attend, but the “living tribute” was taped and sent to him and wife, Heather. Numerous speakers extolled Foley’s achievements during the celebration.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called Foley a legend.

Cantwell credited Foley with helping to bring the 1974 World’s Fair to Spokane, helping expand the power-making capacity of Grand Coulee Dam, and helping keep Fairchild Air Force Base open.

“We owe the ‘Speaker from Spokane’ a debt of gratitude for a career of bipartisan service to our state and our nation,” Cantwell noted in videotaped remarks. “I feel lucky to have served with him.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, also appearing in a video, recalled getting a lesson in the importance of constituent services when he was approached by a man wearing dentures at an Okanogan County fair. The county had once been represented by Foley, but had since been placed in Inslee’s 4th District.

“I’ll just tell you something about Congressman Tom Foley,” Inslee remembered the man saying. “He got me these teeth.”

Foley in many ways was the last of a generation of lawmakers who saw compromise as a valuable way to make public policy, Clayton said.

“Foley was the last major leader to grow up in the Depression and World War II era, and they gave him a different perspective on viewing policy disputes,” Clayton said. “They saw us as all on the same team.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who replaced Foley after the 1994 election, thought compromise with Democrats was a bad thing, Clayton said.

Now the parties are much more at war with each other, he said.

Foley was defeated in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, losing his seat to Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt by 4,000 votes. Foley was the first speaker to be ousted since the Civil War.

Republicans have retained the seat, which is now held by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who has risen to third in House leadership.

After leaving Congress, Foley went on to careers in diplomacy and the law.

He joined a blue chip law firm in Washington, D.C., by one account earning $400,000, plus fees from serving on corporate boards.

In 1997, he took a pay cut to become ambassador to Japan for four years during the Clinton administration.

Foley told the AP in 2003 that his proudest achievements were farm bills, hunger programs, civil liberties, environmental legislation and civil rights bills.

In “Honor in the House,” the biography he co-wrote with his longtime press secretary, Jeff Biggs, Foley recounted with affection his deep roots in the district.

His father, Ralph, was a judge for decades and a school classmate of singer Bing Crosby. Ralph Foley’s father, Cornelius, brought the family to Spokane in 1907 with the Great Northern Railroad. Tom Foley’s maternal grandparents homesteaded in Lincoln County. His mother, Helen, was a teacher.

Tom 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 former U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson’s Senate Interior Committee for three years. Then came the long House career.

He ended up with admirers in both political parties. They included Dan Evans, a Republican who served as governor and a U.S. senator from Washington.

He once said Foley “was an unusually civil politician in an increasingly uncivil arena.”

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