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Thomas Stephen Foley (March 6, 1929 – October 18, 2013) was an American lawyer and politician who served as the 49th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1989 to 1995. A member of the Democratic Party, Foley represented Washington's fifth district for thirty years (1965–1995). He was the first Speaker of the House since 1862 to be defeated in a re-election campaign.

Tom Foley
Tom foley.jpg
49th Speaker of the United States
House of Representatives
In office
June 6, 1989 – January 3, 1995
Preceded byJim Wright
Succeeded byNewt Gingrich
25th United States Ambassador to Japan
In office
November 19, 1997 – April 1, 2001
PresidentBill Clinton
George W. Bush
Preceded byWalter Mondale
Succeeded byHoward Baker
Chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board
In office
January 16, 1996 – November 19, 1997
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byWarren Rudman (Acting)
Succeeded byWarren Rudman
House Majority Leader
In office
January 3, 1987 – June 6, 1989
SpeakerJim Wright
Preceded byJim Wright
Succeeded byDick Gephardt
House Majority Whip
In office
January 3, 1981 – January 3, 1987
LeaderTip O'Neill
Preceded byJohn Brademas
Succeeded byTony Coelho
Chair of the House Agriculture Committee
In office
January 3, 1975 – January 3, 1981
Preceded byWilliam Poage
Succeeded byKika de la Garza
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Washington's 5th district
In office
January 3, 1965 – January 3, 1995
Preceded byWalt Horan
Succeeded byGeorge Nethercutt
Personal details
Thomas Stephen Foley

(1929-03-06)March 6, 1929
Spokane, Washington, U.S.
DiedOctober 18, 2013(2013-10-18) (aged 84)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Heather Strachan (m. 1968)
EducationGonzaga University
University of Washington, Seattle (BA, JD)
Speaker of the House
Tom Foley,
official congressional portrait
Official portrait as chairman
of the Agriculture Committee

Born in Spokane, Washington, Foley attended Gonzaga University and pursued a legal career after graduating from the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. He joined the staff of Senator Henry M. Jackson after working as a prosecutor and an assistant attorney general. With Jackson's support, Foley won election to the House of Representatives, defeating incumbent Republican Congressman Walt Horan. He served as Majority Whip from 1981 to 1987 and as Majority Leader from 1987 to 1989. After the resignation of Jim Wright, Foley became Speaker of the House.

Foley's district had become increasingly conservative during his tenure, but he won re-election throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In the 1994 election, Foley faced attorney George Nethercutt. Nethercutt mobilized popular anger over Foley's opposition to term limits to defeat the incumbent Speaker. After leaving the House, Foley served as the United States Ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton.


Early life and legal practiceEdit

Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Foley was the son of Helen Marie (née Higgins), a school teacher,[1] and Ralph E. Foley (1900–1985), a Superior Court judge for 34 years.[2][3] He was of Irish Catholic descent on both sides of his family;[4] his grandfather Cornelius Foley was a maintenance foreman for the Great Northern railroad in Spokane.[2]

Foley graduated from the Jesuit-run Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane in 1946 and attended Gonzaga University[5] for three years; he completed his bachelor's degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, then attended its School of Law and was awarded a law degree in 1957.

Following law school, Foley entered private practice. In 1958, he began working in the Spokane County prosecutor's office as a deputy prosecuting attorney,[6] and later taught at Gonzaga's School of Law (in Spokane) from 1958 to 1959. He joined the state attorney general's office in 1961 as an assistant attorney general.[6]

In 1961, Foley moved to Washington, D.C., and joined the staff of Senator Henry Jackson, the then-Democratic Senator From Washington.[6] He left Jackson's employ in 1964 at his urging to run for Congress.[6]

Congressional serviceEdit

In 1964, Foley was unopposed for the Democratic nomination for Washington's 5th congressional seat,[7] which included Spokane. He faced 11-term Republican incumbent Walt Horan in the general election and won by seven points, one of many swept into office in the Democratic landslide. He was re-elected without significant difficulty until 1978, when he narrowly defeated conservative activist Duane Alton. The next race in 1980 was also close, when physician John Sonneland finished just 4 points back. Though the fifth district became increasingly conservative, Foley didn't face serious opposition again until his defeat in 1994.

When Foley was a freshman congressman he was appointed to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. He has to give up the latter appointment when he became Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in 1975.

In 1981, when Foley was appointed Majority Whip by Majority Leader Wright and Speaker Thomas (Tip) P. O'Neill he gave up the Chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee to serve on the House Administration Committee. (He was the last appointed Whip in the House. Subsequent Democratic Whips have all been selected by the House Democratic Caucus) He served in that capacity until 1987 when Tip O'Neill retired. He was then elected House Majority Leader. In 1989, Jim Wright of Texas stepped down as Speaker of the House amid an ethics scandal, and Foley was elected to succeed him. He became the first Speaker from a state west of the Rocky Mountains.

Term limitsEdit

During his time in the House, Foley repeatedly opposed efforts to impose term limits on Washington state's elected officials, winning the support of the state's voters to reject term limits in a 1991 referendum; however, in 1992, a term limit ballot initiative was approved by the state's voters.[6]

Foley brought suit, challenging the constitutionality of a state law setting eligibility requirements on federal offices. Foley won his suit, with a United States District Court declaring that states did not have the authority under the United States Constitution to limit the terms of federal officeholders.[8]

However, in Foley's bid for a 16th term in the House, his Republican opponent, George Nethercutt, used the issue against him, citing the caption of the federal case brought by Foley, "Foley against the People of the State of Washington". Nethercutt vowed that if elected, he would not serve more than three terms in the House (but ultimately served for five terms). Foley lost in a narrow race. While Foley had usually relied on large margins in Spokane to carry him to victory, in 1994 he won Spokane by only 9,000 votes, while Nethercutt did well enough in the rest of the district to win overall by just under 4,000 votes.

Foley became the first sitting Speaker of the House to lose his bid for re-election since Galusha A. Grow in 1862. He is sometimes viewed as a political casualty of the term limits controversy of the early 1990s. President Bill Clinton attributed Foley's defeat to his support for the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.[9]

Electoral historyEdit

Here is a chart of the voting results in Foley's election race. There are subtotals for the city of Spokane, rural Spokane County, and a Spokane total, as this is the main part of the 5th Congressional District.

Year Candidate Party Spokane Outside County District
1964 Tom Foley* D 41,377 17,587 58,964 84,830
Walt Horan (Inc) R 32,262 16,757 49,019 73,884
1966 Tom Foley* D 35,533 15,334 50,867 74,571
Dorothy Powers R 25,357 13,232 38,589 57,310
1968 Tom Foley* D 41,203 19,227 60,430 88,446
Richard Bond R 29,659 16,988 46,647 67,304
1970 Tom Foley* D 40,791 20,532 61,323 88,189
George Gamble R 19,926 11,928 31,854 43,376
1972 Tom Foley* D 58,282 35,060 93,342 150,580
Clarice Privette R 12,468 8,637 21,105 34,742
1974 Tom Foley* D 30,717 18,726 49,443 87,959
Gary Gage R 16,925 12,020 28,945 48,739
1976 Tom Foley* D 41,720 27,905 69,625 120,415
Duane Alton R 30,318 25,519 55,837 84,262
Bear Sandahl L 834 407 1,241 1,959
Ira Liebowitz USL 403 181 584 935
1978 Tom Foley* D 28,346 18,858 47,204 77,201
Duane Alton R 20,923 18,942 39,865 68,761
Mel Tonasket I 5,574 4,580 10,154 14,887
1980 Tom Foley* D 41,256 31,604 72,860 120,530
John Sonneland R 32,857 33,662 66,519 111,705
1982 Tom Foley* D 39,810 32,362 72,172 109,549
John Sonneland R 18,482 20,420 38,902 60,816
1984 Tom Foley* D 56,820 49,360 106,180 154,988
Jack Hebner R 20,517 23,729 44,246 67,438
1986 Tom Foley* D 43,011 37,939 80,950 121,732
Floyd Wakefield R 12,510 14,281 26,791 41,179
1988 Tom Foley* D 56,249 53,791 110,040 160,654
Marlyn Derby R 14,438 17,772 32,210 49,657
1990 Tom Foley* D 38,553 37,121 75,674 110,234
Marlyn Derby R 15,082 18,363 33,445 49,965
1992 Tom Foley* D 49,675 45,919 95,594 135,965
John Sonneland R 32,508 40,108 72,616 110,443
1994 Tom Foley D 39,331 35,323 74,654 106,074
George Nethercutt* R 30,265 41,065 71,330 110,057

Later careerEdit

From 1995 to 1998, Foley was head of the Federal City Council, a group of business, civic, education, and other leaders interested in economic development in Washington, D.C.[10]

In 1997, Foley was appointed as the 25th U.S. Ambassador to Japan by President Bill Clinton.[11] He served as ambassador until 2001.

Foley was a Washington delegate to the 2004 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions.[citation needed] On July 9, 2003, Governor Gary Locke awarded the Washington Medal of Merit, the state's highest honor, to Foley.[citation needed] He was North American Chairman of the Trilateral Commission.[12]


Foley died at his home in Washington, D.C. on October 18, 2013, following months of hospice care after suffering a series of strokes and a bout with pneumonia.[13] He was 84 and is survived by his wife, Heather. He had been experiencing aspiration pneumonia. Services were held at St. Aloysius Church at Gonzaga University, as well as in Washington, D.C.[14][15] Speaker John Boehner, and Nancy Pelosi, who had also served as Speaker, issued statements honoring Foley.[16] In a White House statement, President Barack Obama called Foley a "legend of the United States Congress" who "represented the people of Washington's 5th district with skill, dedication, and a deep commitment to improving the lives of those he was elected to serve.", going on to praise Foley for his bipartisanship and subsequent ambassadorial service under former President Clinton.[17] Vice President Joe Biden also released an official statement, saying "Tom was a good friend and a dedicated public servant.", citing his work in Congress with Foley in the 1980s on budgetary issues.[18] Washington Governor Jay Inslee also released a statement, acknowledging Foley's efforts to reach consensus and emphasize mutual common ground, and his work in the legal system and in Congress.[19] Former President George H. W. Bush, whose presidential term overlapped Foley's service as Speaker, stated Foley "represented the very best in public service- and our political system" and "never got personal or burned bridges."[20]



  1. ^ "House speaker's mother dies at 88". Spokane Chronicle. (Washington). January 5, 1990. p. A1.
  2. ^ a b "Retired Judge Ralph Foley dead at 84". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. (obituary). April 17, 1985. p. A10.
  3. ^ [1] Archived 2013-10-19 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ "Foley, Thomas S. (1929-2013)". Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  5. ^ "Tom Foley". Spokane, Washington: The Gonzaga Bulletin. January 29, 2015. Retrieved July 25, 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e Song, Kyung M. (October 19, 2013). "Ex-House Speaker Tom Foley reigned in friendlier political era". Seattle Times. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  7. ^ "Horan, Foley express appreciation to voters". Spokane Daily Chronicle. September 16, 1964. p. 5.
  8. ^ Egan, Timonty (1994-02-11). "Federal Judge Strikes Down Law Limiting the Terms of Lawmakers". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-01-17.
  9. ^ "My Life". Vintage. Archived from the original on 31 July 2012. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  10. ^ King, Colbert I. (September 8, 2007). "Fred, Did We Really Know You?". The Washington Post. p. A15; "Order in the House — and the Garage". Washington Business Journal. June 30, 1997. Retrieved November 27, 2016.
  11. ^ Commentary: "Is Tom Foley the Wrong Man to Send to Tokyo?" BusinessWeek. May 12, 1997; Wudunn, Sheryl. "New U.S. Diplomat Tries to Speak Japan's Language," New York Times. April 8, 1998.
  12. ^ a b c d Trilateral Commission: Foley, bio notes
  13. ^ Clymer, Adam (October 18, 2013). "Thomas Foley, House Speaker, Dies at 84; Democrat Urged Parties to Collaborate". The New York Times.
  14. ^ "Tom Foley, former speaker of the US House, dies at age 84". The Washington Post. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2013-10-19. Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  15. ^ "Former Speaker of the House Tom Foley dies at 84 - - Oct. 18, 2013". 2013-10-18. Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  16. ^ Tom Kludt (October 18, 2013). "Boehner, Pelosi Pay Tribute To Former Speaker Foley". Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  17. ^ "Statement by the President on the Passing of Tom Foley".
  18. ^ "Statement by the Vice President on the Passing of Tom Foley".
  19. ^ {{|0=2013-10-18 }}
  20. ^ "Former House Speaker Tom Foley dead at 84". CNN. October 18, 2013.
  21. ^ Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: FOLEY, Thomas Stephen, (1929 - 2013); Retrieved 19 October 2013
  22. ^ Tom Hayden, Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America, p. 116; Retrieved 19 October 2013
  23. ^ Deshais, Nicholas (August 27, 2018). "Say Hello to the new Foley Highway". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved September 24, 2018.

External linksEdit

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Walt Horan
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Washington's 5th congressional district

Succeeded by
George Nethercutt
Preceded by
William Poage
Chair of the House Agriculture Committee
Succeeded by
Kika de la Garza
Preceded by
John Brademas
House Majority Whip
Succeeded by
Tony Coelho
Preceded by
Jim Wright
House Majority Leader
Succeeded by
Dick Gephardt
Party political offices
Preceded by
Lloyd Bentsen
Jim Wright
Response to the State of the Union address
Succeeded by
George Mitchell
Preceded by
George Mitchell
Response to the State of the Union address
Succeeded by
Bob Michel
Political offices
Preceded by
Jim Wright
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
Succeeded by
Newt Gingrich
Government offices
Preceded by
Warren Rudman
Chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board
Succeeded by
Warren Rudman
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Walter Mondale
United States Ambassador to Japan
Succeeded by
Howard Baker