Foley was extraordinary lawmaker

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Rep. Tom Foley wasn’t a politician, he was a lawmaker with great political skills.

The Spokane Democrat ran for Congress 16 times but wasn’t particularly comfortable as a campaigner. He was good at it, but he didn’t like it much.

That was obvious to me in 1980 when Foley, who died this month at the age of 84, was challenged that year by Republican John Sonneland.

Two years earlier, in 1978, Foley had fended off a strong challenge from Duane Alton (the well-known Spokane tire king) so some believed Foley could be knocked off. Sonneland, a Spokane physician, was viewed as a potential threat to unseat Foley as opposed to some of the scarecrows put up by the GOP in previous elections.

As a reporter, I covered debates between Foley and Sonneland. Foley was masterful. His debating skills were extraordinary as was his political acumen and command of the legislative process. The mindless chitchat and running from event to event was the stuff the Spokane Democrat wasn’t crazy about.

Sonneland ran a strong campaign in the conservative-to-moderate 5th Congressional District, and as a result gave Foley a run, garnering 47 percent of the vote.

But Foley, once again, returned to the comfort of his House of Representatives. It was the place where Foley flourished.

He was first elected in 1964 in an upset of entrenched Republican incumbent Walt Horan.

I spent some time with Foley in the Capitol in 1985 for a story I was writing. It was clear Foley thrived within those marble walls, looking at all sides of an issue before taking a stand. He was always prepared for a legislative battle, which is why he was consulted and respected by then-Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Foley had unfettered access to O’Neill. I saw this firsthand as Foley, the majority whip at the time, walked me past several aides on the way to the speaker’s office. He popped through the doorway and boldly introduced me to the speaker.

That moment made an impression. Foley was highly regarded within his party as well those on the other side of the aisle.

It was because Foley treated every member of the House with respect and his moderate politics made him a good choice for Republicans to turn to in seeking a compromise. And in Foley’s mind, compromise was necessary for progress.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” Foley would say — and say often — as he quoted Prince Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century German aristocrat and statesman.

Foley enjoyed telling stories, usually about the legislative process. One of his favorites was about former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

Dicks was newly elected to the House and came to Foley, a more veteran legislator, for some advice.

“Tell me the reasons why I should vote against this bill,” Dicks said to Foley, who promptly ticked off several compelling reasons to reject the legislation.

Dicks cast his vote against the bill, but noticed Foley had voted in favor of the bill. Dicks, stunned, went over to Foley to ask why.

“You asked me for the reasons to vote against the bill, not the reasons to support it,” Foley told Dicks.

Foley was an amazing legislator, which is why he was elected Speaker of the House in 1989, a post he held until he was defeated for re-election by Republican George Nethercutt, a Spokane lawyer.

The 1994 campaign was intense and drew national attention.

Foley felt obligated to debate (and he was good at it), so he and Nethercutt went at it more than once.

At an October debate in Walla Walla at the Elks Club, Nethercutt tried to paint Foley with the very same brush Foley had used when he won the House seat from Horan 30 years earlier.

Nethercutt spoke to Foley in front of a packed house, reminding him he told Horan that 22 years of service in House was enough and that it was time for some new blood in Congress.

“I was young and foolish at that time,” Foley said the instant Nethercutt stopped speaking.

Nevertheless, Foley lost the election. The timing was bad. Republicans were on the upswing nationwide. The GOP took control of the House, elevating Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to speaker.

I felt bad for Foley at the time.

Three years later Foley was the keynote speaker at an editorial writers conference I was attending. He greeted me as if we were long-lost friends (a well-honed political skill), inviting me to sit down with him for a conversation.

Foley did most of the talking. I noticed his intellect was as sharp as it had ever been, his demeanor was far different.

He was relaxed.

Foley no longer had to be “on” all the time as the congressman or speaker.

I spent an enjoyable hour or more listening to his stories, laughing and discussing the politics of the day.

Losing the election in 1994 probably prolonged his life by years, and it certainly saved his sanity.

Foley would have been miserable as the House minority leader, the post he would have held had he been re-elected. Politics were changing. Debate was too often becoming unpleasant, even personal.

The 30 years Foley spent in the House were the right 30 years for his civil and cerebral approach to legislating, and the people of his Eastern Washington congressional district benefited as a result.

Rick Eskil was the U-B’s political reporter for 10 years before becoming editorial page editor. — rickeskil@wwub.com

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