During three decades in Congress, Spokane Democrat Tom Foley ascended higher than anyone from Washington state, serving as speaker of the House and practicing a brand of bipartisan deal-making that seems lost amid today’s political brinkmanship.
Speaker Foley, who was cast out of office in the 1994 Republican tsunami that installed Newt Gingrich as speaker, had been in declining health and died Friday morning in Washington, D.C., of complications from strokes. He was 84.
Other than former U.S. Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, few people from the state left a bigger political imprint nationally than Speaker Foley.
His House speakership put him two heartbeats away from the presidency during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Immensely popular in Congress, Speaker Foley practiced the kind of bipartisan deal-making that allowed for mutual friendship with Republican ideologues like Dick Cheney.
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Speaker Foley’s proclivity for debate sometimes exasperated his more pugnacious colleagues. Former Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., the outspoken Massachusetts liberal, once groused, “Tom Foley can argue three sides of every issue.”
After 30 years, conservative voters in Eastern Washington’s 5th District sacked Speaker Foley as too entrenched with power. His defeat gave way to the GOP revolution under Gingrich and signaled the turn toward heightened congressional gridlock — exemplified by the federal shutdown and debt ceiling fight of the past few weeks.
Speaker Foley’s “speakership was the last speakership of the era in U.S. Congress,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute at Washington State University. “It was the end of a much more civil time.”
Former Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, who served for decades with Speaker Foley, said his friend and mentor was deeply troubled by the partisan rancor that has enveloped Congress in recent years.
“Tom always believed in bipartisanship. He believed you put the interests of the country first. He was very concerned about this situation we face,” Dicks said Friday.
Speaker Foley was remembered by politicians of both parties for his long service to the state.
“America has lost a legend of the United States Congress,” President Obama said in a statement, adding, “Tom’s straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican who now represents Speaker Foley’s former district, called him “an honorable leader and colleague” and said Eastern Washington wheat farmers continue to benefit from the work he did in Congress.
Said Gov. Jay Inslee, “He dedicated his life to making his community, his state and his country a better place. He did it by reaching across the aisle, by bringing people together, by finding common ground.”
Irish immigrant roots
Thomas Stephen Foley was born in Spokane to Ralph and Helen Foley, both offspring of Irish immigrants. When Speaker Foley was 5, his father was elected Spokane County prosecutor, and he later became a Superior Court judge. Speaker Foley and his sister, Maureen, grew up in relative comfort amid the Great Depression.
Speaker Foley was educated at Gonzaga Preparatory School, a Catholic high school in Spokane, and then at the Gonzaga University, his father’s Jesuit alma mater. He transferred during his junior year to the University of Washington.
Speaker Foley earned a law degree from the UW in 1957 and briefly opened a law practice with a cousin. In 1958 he became a Spokane County deputy prosecutor, and he later served as an
assistant state attorney general.
In 1961, Speaker Foley went to work in the U.S. Senate as Jackson’s staff attorney. There Speaker Foley met Heather Strachan, a fellow Jackson staffer, who would become his wife in 1968.
They had no children, but the marriage produced an exceptionally close personal and political union. Heather Foley, a graduate of Brown University and George Washington University Law School, served as her husband’s unsalaried chief of staff in Congress for nearly 25 years. She was his intimate confidant, policy adviser and political antenna.
A self-professed Type B person, Speaker Foley seemed to glide through his career on Irish luck.
Prompted by Jackson, Speaker Foley made his first bid for Congress in 1964. But he dawdled until the final filing day to challenge Republican Rep. Walt Horan, who had held the 5th District seat for 22 years. Speaker Foley squeaked to victory by just 54 votes.
Speaker Foley won most of his subsequent re-elections handily. In 1975, his House peers elected him chairman of the Agriculture Committee after they booted out the Democratic incumbent Speaker Foley had supported.
In 1981, Speaker Foley became the backup choice as majority whip, the No. 3 House leader, when Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois took a pass on the position to assume chairmanship of the influential Ways and Means Committee.
Six years later, Speaker Foley moved up to succeed Majority Leader Jim Wright, who became speaker. Then in 1989, the top job became Speaker Foley’s when financial shenanigans forced Wright’s resignation.
Dicks, one of Speaker Foley’s closest friends in Congress, said Speaker Foley’s popularity allowed him to ascend to leadership without challengers.
He did it “all without being contested, which I think is remarkable,” Dicks said.
Speaker Foley was a skillful parliamentarian whose 6-foot-4 frame and hangdog, but handsome, face belied his taste for high culture and affinity for pomp. Always, he preferred debate over demagoguery.
Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle, who served six years in the House under Speaker Foley, called him a generous mentor and a lawmaker who aimed for the art of the possible. More partisan Democrats called Speaker Foley bloodless.
“People criticized him,” McDermott said. But “he knew that everything in Congress was by compromise, and that nobody ever got all they wanted.”
Eastern Wash. liberal
Speaker Foley was more liberal than many of the wheat farmers and other voters in the 5th District.
He believed in abortion rights. He championed the federal food-stamps program and supported President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society agenda combating poverty and racial inequality.
Speaker Foley left grand physical legacies in his home state. He secured millions of dollars in Congress to erect the U.S. Pavilion for Expo ’74, the world’s fair held in Spokane. The site was converted to the downtown Riverfront Park. He worked to modernize Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane and turn Highway 395 from Ritzville to the Tri-Cities into a four-lane highway.
Later, Speaker Foley found money to create the Spokane River Centennial Trail.
Much of that seemed to have receded from voters’ minds by the time of Speaker Foley’s final congressional race in 1994. An onslaught of damaging headlines and voter disaffection foretold his likely defeat well before November.
In 1992, Heather Foley was called to testify before a federal grand jury related to a probe of the House Post Office. A discovery of embezzlement by clerks there mushroomed into a national scandal that sent Rostenkowski to prison on mail-fraud charges for padding his congressional payroll with nonexistent employees and misappropriating his expense accounts for personal purchases. Republicans alleged that Heather Foley and the Speaker’s Office early on tried to squash the investigation.
Compounding that, Speaker Foley in 1994 dropped his longstanding opposition to gun control and allowed the House to approve a federal assault-weapons ban. That incurred the wrath of the National Rifle Association and sent conservative talk radio into overdrive.
Few things unleashed the ire of Speaker Foley’s constituents as much as his campaign against term limits. Washington voters in 1992 passed Initiative 573 restricting U.S. representatives to serving no more than six years and senators to 12 years. Speaker Foley argued the law was unconstitutional — and in 1993 joined a lawsuit to overturn it.
Speaker Foley’s staff counseled against the political exposure. Both Dicks and McDermott, whose districts were more solidly Democratic, offered themselves as plaintiffs. Speaker Foley rebuffed them.
Jeff Biggs, Speaker Foley’s former press secretary, said Speaker Foley believed principles mattered.
“He said, ‘If a member of the House didn’t at least once in a session take a vote which could be politically damaging, then they weren’t doing their job right,’ ” Biggs recalled.
In November 1994, Speaker Foley lost the election to Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt, who pledged to serve only three terms (a promise he later broke). He was the first speaker to be ousted from office since 1862. The Republican tidal wave also flipped six of the eight House Democratic seats from Washington to the GOP column; only Dicks and McDermott survived.
After leaving Congress, Speaker Foley joined the Akin Gump law firm as a lobbyist.
In 1997, President Clinton appointed Speaker Foley U.S. ambassador to Japan. He returned to Akin Gump in 2001.
Speaker Foley remained engaged in politics. He was a Washington state superdelegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention and traveled to Charlotte, N.C., last year to watch his party renominate Obama.
In addition to his wife, Speaker Foley is survived by his sister and brother-in-law, Maureen and Dick Latimer, of Santa Rosa, Calif., and their five children, as well as a sister-in-law, Jill P. Strachan, and her partner, Jane Hoffman, of Washington, D.C.
Memorial services will be held in Washington, D.C., and later in Spokane.