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Former Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Democrat from Washington who spent 30 years in Congress as a kingpin on agriculture, ultimately leading the chamber as the “Speaker from Spokane,” has died. He was 84.
Foley was under hospice care after battling aspirational pneumonia for a year. His death was confirmed to CQ Roll Call by a House Democratic aide. According to a statement from the family, the cause of death was complications from strokes.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement on Foley’s legacy shortly after news of his death broke, calling his rise from committee chairman to majority whip, majority leader and finally speaker “a natural sequence for a natural leader.”
“Forthright and warmhearted, Tom Foley endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Boehner said. “That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any Speaker or representative. ... With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman.”
Boehner also quoted former Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., to Foley’s popularity in the House: “I wish he were a Republican.”
Born in Spokane in 1929, Foley grew up the son of a state Superior Court judge in a home rich with politics. By 1957, Foley had earned a law degree from the University of Washington in hopes of following in his father’s footsteps. He spent his early career working as a county prosecutor, constitutional law teacher and assistant state attorney general, all while cultivating a detached, even-handed approach to politics that became his trademark Congress.
Foley moved to Washington, D.C., in 1961 to take a job as special counsel to Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson on the old Senate Interior Committee.
The young, six-foot-four lawyer became a reluctant House candidate for the 5th District in 1964, at Jackson’s urging, and went on to defeat 22-year Republican incumbent Walt Horan in a Democratic landslide. He represented his wheat-growing constituents on the House Agriculture Committee and was the principal author of the 1967 Meat Inspection Act.
In 1975 he became the first Westerner since the Civil War to become chairman of the committee. His leadership was key to the farm bill system in which federal farm subsidies were linked with the food stamp program, creating an alliance of farm-state and urban lawmakers.
In order to protect his parochial interests in wheat and sugar beets, Foley kept major farm bills under his control in the full committee, instead of parceling them out to subcommittees.
“A strong agricultural economy is absolutely essential for a strong national economy,” Foley once said.
“Today those words still ring true,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement issued after his death.
Foley squeaked out some close elections in his rural district. He rose slowly and methodically through the Democratic ranks, ascending to majority whip, majority leader and, on June 6, 1989, the 57th speaker of the House.
The cool-headed, silver-haired Washingtonian became the first speaker from west of the Rocky Mountains, after Jim Wright of Texas was forced to step down.
Foley was sometimes criticized for indecisiveness and aversion to aggression. During contentious debates on health care policy near the end of his tenure, he quipped: “Everybody’s exercising sufficient leadership. It’s the followership we’re having trouble with.”
Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who served alongside Foley, said they both “shared in the belief that compromise is a good and honorable thing.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., remembered Foley welcoming her to “the other Washington” when she was elected in 1993, and praised his work building new roads, protecting public lands and bringing federal resources to Eastern Washington.
He was defeated soon after, in 1995, as part of the “Gingrich Revolution.” He lost his seat to Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt by 4,000 votes. Foley was the first speaker to be ousted by local election since the Civil War.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Friday afternoon, saying “America has lost a legend of the United States Congress.”
“Tom’s straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties,” Obama said. “After his career in Congress, Tom served as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, where his poise and civility helped strengthen our relationship with one of our closest allies.”
Foley served as ambassador from 1997 to 2001, then returned to D.C. to practice law and lobbying. He retired in 2008.
Memorial services will be held in Washington, D.C., and in Spokane, Wash.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Foley Institute for Public Policy & Public Service at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.