Former House speaker Tom Foley dies at 84



Posted on October 18, 2013 at 9:04 AM

Updated Friday, Oct 18 at 6:43 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former House Speaker Tom Foley has died at the age of 84.

Foley's wife, Heather, said the Washington state Democrat died at his home in the nation's capital.

Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Foley was elected to the House in 1964 from Washington’s Fifth Congressional District.  Over the course of 15 terms, he rose to become chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Majority Whip, Majority Leader, and on June 6, 1989, the 57th Speaker of the House.

SEE PHOTOS: A look back at Tom Foley's career

Foley became the first speaker since the Civil War to fail to win re-election in his home district.

The courtly politician lost his seat in the "Republican Revolution" of 1994. The Democrat had never served a single day in the minority. He was defeated by Republican Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt.

Foley served as U.S. ambassador to Japan for four years during the Clinton administration. But he spent the most time in the House, serving 30 years, including more than five as speaker.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement Friday morning honoring Foley:

"Forthright and warmhearted, Tom Foley endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle.  That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any Speaker or representative.  Take it from the great Henry Hyde, who used to say of Tom, ‘I wish he were a Republican.’   With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman."

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also released a statement upon learning of Foley's death:

“For thirty-six years, Speaker Tom Foley served our country as a quintessential champion of the common good.  A proud son of Washington state, he stood on the strength of his principles and inspired a sense of purpose and civility that reflects the best of our democracy....It was an honor to serve with him as a colleague; it was a privilege to know him as a friend.  We only hope it is a comfort to his wife Heather and his family that so many mourn their loss at this sad time.”

READ MORE: Washington state leaders on Former Speaker of the House Tom Foley

Foley was born March 6, 1929 in Spokane, the only son of Ralph and Helen Foley.  Foley was a true product of his eastern Washington Congressional district—the third generation of a family that settled in and around the Spokane area. His father, Ralph Foley, became the longest-serving superior court judge in the state’s history with a 35-year tenure, according to Foley’s memoir, Honor in the House, written with Jeffrey Biggs. The senior Foley impressed upon his son the importance of social justice and the role of government in solving problems.

Tom Foley attended Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University. He transferred to the University of Washington and then UW Law School.  After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1951 and a law degree in 1957, both from UW, Foley briefly practiced law with a cousin in Lincoln County. In 1958, he took the Spokane County deputy prosecutor position and, in 1960, was appointed assistant state attorney general for eastern Washington.

As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Foley became one of the most powerful politicians the State of Washington ever sent to the "other" Washington.

He came to Capitol Hill in 1961 to work for Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Jackson convinced him to run for the House two years later.  And in 1964, Tom Foley was swept into Congress on the LBJ landslide.

The Spokane Democrat made friends at both ends of the political spectrum.  Washington state Governor Jay Inslee called him a "giant at a time when bipartisan cooperation for the good of the country was the norm, not the exception."

He was also a master of Old Boy politics and backroom deal making -- delivering agriculture, military and infrastructure programs to his largely rural District.

He rose quickly to Democratic Whip, and impressed then-Speaker, Tip O'Neill, who seemed to know what the future held for the gentleman from Spokane.

Foley's ability to explain complex issues, like debt reduction, helped him reach consensus.  And when the Democrats needed passion, he brought that, too, on issues like stopping funding to the contras in Nicaragua.

He became Speaker in 1989 with the resignation of Jim Wright.  Foley began building the Northwest's clout through committee assignments junior members like Norm Dicks and Jim McDermott,

Foley's "aw-shucks" demeanor and political stature helped him get re-elected 14 times.

But even as he accompanied the President on triumphant visits home, his constituents'  mood began to change. Foley voted for a ban on automatic weapons, which angered the NRA.  He voted against term limits when his constituents felt new blood outweighed seniority.  He was defeated by George Nethercutt in the Republican revolution of 1994 - the first sitting Speaker to be voted out of office in 134 years.

In 1997, he became President Clinton's choice for U.S. Ambassador to Japan.  Familiar with trade and agriculture issues that were so important to the Land of the Rising Sun, Foley was given an honor not even offered to President Clinton:  a ride to the Emperor's palace in the Royal Carriage.

Foley is survived by his wife, Heather. They had no children.