Former Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tom Foley, who spent 30 years in Congress before a conservative mood shift made him one of the few speakers ever defeated for re-election, died on Friday at age 84, his wife said.
Foley, the son of a judge and a native of Spokane, Washington, passed away at his home in Washington, D.C., of complications from a stroke, his wife Heather Foley said in an email.
Foley was first elected to Congress in 1964 from eastern Washington state as part of the Democratic landslide behind President Lyndon Johnson, ousting an 11-term Republican incumbent.
He worked his way up from chairman of the Agriculture Committee to Democratic whip, the No. 3 spot in the House, in 1981 and then to party leader in 1986. When U.S. Representative Jim Wright of Texas stepped down as speaker in 1989 in the midst of an ethics scandal, Foley was elevated to the top job.
Washington state Democratic Governor Jay Inslee on Friday called Foley "a giant at a time when bipartisan cooperation for the good of the country was the norm, not the exception."
"A true statesman knows how to unite people around their mutual, shared interests, while still respecting the differences among individuals," Inslee said in a statement. "That's the example Tom set, and it's something all public servants should strive to emulate."
Foley's district had long been conservative but it kept sending him back. By the 1990s, however, the largely rural district had become increasingly conservative and many voters were upset with his support of gun control legislation.
Foley lost his congressional re-election campaign in 1994 during the so-called Republican Revolution led by then-U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich, who was elevated to the position of House speaker after his resurgent party won majorities in the House and the Senate.
In the mid-term election, Foley became the first speaker to be voted out of office since Republican William Pennington of New Jersey in 1860. His Republican opponent, political novice George Nethercutt, ran on a platform of limiting terms to three but when his third term expired he decided to stay in the House for four more years.
After Foley left Congress, President Bill Clinton rewarded his long Democratic work by naming him ambassador to Japan, where he served from 1997 to 2001.
Before his political career, Foley was a lawyer who worked in the Spokane County prosecutor's office and for the Washington state attorney general. He went to Washington, D.C, as a U.S. Senate staffer. From there he ran for Congress in 1964.
Silver-haired and standing 6 feet and 3 inches tall, Foley had a ready smile and a smooth speaking style well suited to television.
His political viewpoints were moderate to liberal. He opposed the death penalty and favored abortion rights.
As speaker, Foley was less partisan than his predecessor. But some Democrats griped they wanted a more forceful leader, especially after he was unsuccessful in getting Clinton's health care proposals through Congress.
"I think I am a little cursed with seeing the other point of view and trying to understand it," Foley once said.