WASHINGTON — Tom Foley, the Democratic House speaker whose defeat after 30 years in Congress was the crowning blow of the Republican onslaught of 1994, has died. He was 84.
He died Friday according to seattlepi.com, citing an email it received from his wife, Heather.
Foley, from a district in eastern Washington state, was a throwback to a less-shrill era in Congress. He first rose and then fell as a result of the hardball politics that Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, used to seize power after four decades as the House minority party.
Foley became House speaker in June 1989 after Jim Wright of Texas resigned his seat in the face of allegations about his ethics. He lost his seat five years later when Republicans successfully targeted him for defeat after 15 terms, making him the first speaker ousted by voters since William Pennington in 1860.
As speaker, Foley confronted a restive Republican minority as well as a term-limits movement, both nationally and in his own state, that turned his decades of Washington experience into a liability.
Republicans were further emboldened when a Democrat, Bill Clinton, won the White House in 1992 and then tried to implement his massive overhaul of U.S. health care. Foley later said he had concerns about the scope of Clinton’s ambitions but felt he had a duty, as speaker, to a president of his own party as well as to his own constituents.
“If you’re going to accept the role of leader then you must accept a leader’s risks,” he later wrote in his 1999 memoir. “Perhaps I failed to prepare my own constituents for this aspect of my role as speaker. I may have taken it too much for granted that they understood.”
His ascension to House speaker ended a three-decade stranglehold on the position by Democrats from Massachusetts and Texas, and he was the first speaker in U.S. history from west of the Rocky Mountains. He told the New York Times that he represented something new in temperament, too — a House speaker who wasn’t a striving, “Type A” politician who plotted and fought his way to high office.
“I have never been driven by a desire to become speaker,” he said, adding that “circumstance, happenstance, accident has a lot to do with what happens in a political career.”
In 1997, two years after being retired by voters, Foley was appointed by Clinton as U.S. ambassador to Japan. He served until the Clinton administration ended in 2001.
Thomas Stephen Foley was born on March 6, 1929, in Spokane, Wash., the first of two children of Ralph and Helen Foley. His father, a prominent Democrat, was Spokane County prosecutor and later served 35 years as a judge.
Foley earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a law degree in 1957 from the University of Washington. After a stint as a deputy county prosecutor, he was appointed assistant state attorney general in 1960.
He moved to Washington in 1961 to work as a special counsel on the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee under its chairman, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Democrat from Washington. Jackson suggested that Foley lay the foundation for a congressional bid by joining a law firm in Spokane, according to Foley’s memoir, written with Jeffrey Biggs.
Even before he could do so, Spokane Democrats enlisted him to run against the Republican incumbent in Washington’s 5th congressional district, Walt Horan. Foley won, with help from Jackson and the coattails of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential landslide.
He joined the Democratic leadership as majority whip, the No. 3 post, in 1981, as the party began confronting a newly elected Republican president, Ronald Reagan. He developed a reputation as a lawmaker who could work with Republicans as well as fellow Democrats.
In 1982, in a nationally televised response on behalf of House Democrats, he said Reagan had “guaranteed enormous deficits” with his first-year tax cuts and increase in defense spending. He endorsed Reagan’s proposed $98.3 billion package of tax increases “to balance many of the excesses enacted last year.”
The retirement of House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill in 1987 made Wright the new speaker, with Foley moving up one slot to succeed Wright as majority leader.
Starting in late 1988, Wright confronted ethics allegations brought by Gingrich regarding gifts from a Texas businessman and income from bulk sales of a memoir. Wright resigned on May 31, 1989, with an emotional speech blaming politics, not ethics, for his undoing.
Foley stepped in as speaker in what he later called a “poisonous” atmosphere, determined “to calm the turbulent climate.” Days after he became speaker, the Republican National Committee released a memo implying that he was gay, prompting him to state, on CNN, “I am, of course, not a homosexual — I have been married for 21 years.”
He worked and sometimes clashed with the new Republican president, George H.W. Bush, to deal with the deficits left over from the Reagan presidency, ultimately playing a key role in persuading Bush to put “tax revenue increases” on the table.
Many angry Republicans, and giddy Democrats, saw that as a breach of Bush’s “no new taxes” campaign pledge. Foley disagreed: “I thought Democrats should be respectful of a president rising above party. But the partisan instinct is hard to quell, and Democrats, in many cases, rushed in to exploit one of the braver acts of the Bush presidency.”
Even while expending political capital to help Clinton pass his 1993 budget, which raised taxes and trimmed some entitlement benefits, Foley angered some voters back home in Washington by suing to challenge a state referendum passed in 1992 that imposed term limits on state and federal officials.
“I felt profoundly that this was an unconstitutional act,” he said. A federal judge agreed, ruling for Foley in February 1994. Still, the fight highlighted Foley’s long tenure in that other Washington.
As that year’s midterm elections neared, Foley was among a group of top Democrats who tried without success to persuade Clinton to drop a proposed ban on assault weapons, saying it would put many Democrats at risk for defying gun owners in their districts. Clinton held firm, the ban passed, and Democrats lost 52 House seats, including Foley’s.
Foley and the other critics “were right and I was wrong” about the political impact of the weapons ban, Clinton wrote in his memoir.
The Republican who ousted Foley, George Nethercutt, pledged during the campaign to serve no more than three terms. He went on to break that pledge and serve five terms before running unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2004.
Foley and his wife, Heather, married in 1968.