Tom Foley, the Democratic House Speaker who lost his seat in the 1994 Republican takeover, died at home in Washington state today. He was 84.
Foley’s wife Heather said the former politician had suffered since December from stroke complications. He has been on hospice care at home since May after a bout with pneumonia.
Foley became the first speaker since the Civil War to fail to win reelection in his home district when Spokane, Wash., lawyer George Nethercutt defeated him. Foley served 30 years in Congress, including five years as speaker, despite coming from a heavily Republican district.
Current House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised Foley in a statement released earlier today: “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.”
Known as an “unusually civil politician,” Foley wasn’t the victim of scandal or charges of gross incompetence. Instead, Nethercutt used his ability to bring home federal benefits against him, accusing Foley of pork-barrel politics. After Nethercutt beat him in the polls, Georgia Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich replaced him in the speaker’s chair.
In a 2004 Associated Press interview after Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost his seat, Foley said the same factors hurt them both: Voters did not appreciate the value of service as party leader, and 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,” he said. “I think that’s wrong, but it’s a dangerous perception if it develops as it has.”
Foley loved the classics, art, and the steady rise to power in Congress. But he also loved getting his boots dirty in the rolling hills of the Palouse country that his forebears helped settle.
Born in 1929 to Northwest pioneers on both sides, Foley attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, working summers as a camp counselor, pharmacy delivery boy, highway crewman, and aluminum company laborer. He built a reputation as a criminal lawyer before his long House career.
After 1994, Foley served as U.S. ambassador to Japan for four years during the Clinton administration and remained active as a Democratic Party delegate.