This morn­ing, we lost a leg­end in Wash­ing­ton and U.S. politics.

Tom Foley, who served the Ever­green State with dis­tinc­tion in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for sev­er­al decades, died of com­pli­ca­tions from mul­ti­ple strokes in the ear­ly hours of the day today, his fam­i­ly has announced. He was eighty-four.

Tom Foley (Portrait from The Legacy Project)
Tom Foley (Por­trait from The Sec­re­tary of State’s Lega­cy Project)

Foley, the last Demo­c­rat to rep­re­sent Wash­ing­ton’s 5th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, rose to be Speak­er of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the late 1980s, becom­ing the first Speak­er of the House from west of Texas.

He was an effec­tive leg­is­la­tor, an able lis­ten­er, and an enthu­si­as­tic men­tor to younger lawmakers.

His career was abrupt­ly end­ed in the 1994 midterm elec­tions, when attor­ney George Nether­cutt oust­ed him from office, but he went on to serve as the Unit­ed States’ ambas­sador to Japan on behalf of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, and he remained engaged and involved in pol­i­tics through­out his final years.

I caught up with him last year with Char­lotte at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion; he joined the Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic del­e­ga­tion’s morn­ing break­fasts and sat with us inside Time Warn­er Cable Are­na dur­ing the gen­er­al sessions.

It was a great hon­or to meet with him and talk pol­i­tics with him.

Fol­low­ing his defeat in the 1994 midterms, The Spokesman-Review praised him for serv­ing with integri­ty while in office and accept­ing defeat with grace. Unlike his suc­ces­sor, he was an hon­or­able man… a wise and thought­ful elect­ed leader.

Remem­brances and trib­utes have been flow­ing freely since the fam­i­ly acknowl­edged his pass­ing, from the White House on down.

“Today, Amer­i­ca has lost a leg­end of the Unit­ed States Con­gress,” said Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma in a state­ment. “For thir­ty years, Tom Foley 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.”

“Tom’s straight­for­ward approach helped him find com­mon ground with mem­bers of both par­ties, even­tu­al­ly lead­ing to his elec­tion as the 57th Speak­er of the House,” the Pres­i­dent added. “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. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Tom’s wife, Heather, and the entire Foley family.”

“Jill and I were sad­dened to hear of the pass­ing of for­mer Speak­er Tom Foley,” said Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden. “Tom was a good friend and a ded­i­cat­ed pub­lic ser­vant. It was an hon­or to work with him dur­ing the bud­get sum­mits of the 1980s that did so much to secure our nation’s future, and when he served over­seas as our nation’s Ambas­sador to Japan. He was a good man.”

“When I was first elect­ed to Con­gress, Tom was serv­ing as Speak­er of the House, and I will nev­er for­get the way he wel­comed me to ‘the oth­er Wash­ing­ton,’ and the incred­i­ble exam­ple he set as a tire­less pub­lic ser­vant for our state,” said Wash­ing­ton’s senior sen­a­tor, Pat­ty Murray.

Tom Foley and Patty Murray
For­mer House Speak­er Tom Foley con­fers with U.S. Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Char­lotte, North Car­oli­na. (Pho­to: Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party)

“Tom spent his life serv­ing his state and his coun­try, and his lega­cy is felt not only in East­ern Wash­ing­ton, but around the world. From his work to build new roads, pro­tect pub­lic lands, and bring fed­er­al resources to Spokane, to his career as a states­man over­seas, Tom touched the lives of every­one he encoun­tered, whether it was a wheat farmer in Wash­ing­ton or a for­eign dig­ni­tary in Japan.

“He will be missed by me and by all those who knew him. My thoughts are with his wife, Heather, and all of his fam­i­ly and loved ones today.”

“Wash­ing­ton lost a his­toric fig­ure today with the pass­ing of for­mer U.S. House Speak­er Tom Foley,” agreed Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee. “Tru­di and I extend our con­do­lences to Heather, the entire Foley fam­i­ly and his friends.”

“Speak­er of the Unit­ed States House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, pros­e­cu­tor, Ambas­sador to Japan – Tom Foley did all of those things in the course of his life. And at the heart of  every one of those roles was a pas­sion to serve. He served the vic­tims of crime. He served the cit­i­zens of Spokane. He served the State of Washington.”

“And he served this great nation of ours. He was a giant at a time when bipar­ti­san coop­er­a­tion for the good of the coun­try was the norm, not the excep­tion. He ded­i­cat­ed his life to mak­ing his com­mu­ni­ty, his state, and his coun­try a bet­ter place. He did it by reach­ing across the aisle, by bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er, by find­ing com­mon ground. A true states­man knows how to unite peo­ple around their mutu­al, shared inter­ests, while still respect­ing the dif­fer­ences among individuals.

“That’s the exam­ple Tom set, and it’s some­thing all pub­lic ser­vants should strive to emu­late. It was an hon­or to serve with him dur­ing my time in Congress.”

“Amer­i­ca has lost a great leader and a won­der­ful human being,” said Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell. “Tom Foley typ­i­fied what is best about polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, lead­ing no mat­ter what the con­se­quences. Today, all Wash­ing­to­ni­ans’ thoughts and prayers are with Tom’s wife, Heather, and the Foley family.”

“Every­one liked Tom Foley… He had an unbe­liev­able abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate and fight for the peo­ple he rep­re­sent­ed. A proud son of Spokane, Tom rose to become the nation’s first Speak­er of the House from west of the Rocky Mountains.”

“He became one of the most pow­er­ful politi­cians in the coun­try, but he nev­er for­got where he came from. His foot­prints are left all over the State of Wash­ing­ton and our nation, from mod­ern agri­cul­ture and trade pol­i­cy to Fairchild Air Force Base and the expan­sion of the Grand Coulee Dam.”

“Tom Foley will always be remem­bered as the King of Agri­cul­ture. He worked across the aisle to cre­ate the mod­ern food stamp pro­gram, com­bat­ing hunger in Amer­i­ca while broad­en­ing the agri­cul­ture market.”

“Rep­re­sent­ing an agri­cul­tur­al dis­trict, Tom worked to make sure prod­ucts grown in Wash­ing­ton State made it to din­ner tables all around the world. He was a leader in open­ing Asian and oth­er mar­kets to North­west wheat and cher­ries. And he worked with both Pres­i­dent Carter and Pres­i­dent Rea­gan to con­tin­ue the Colum­bia Basin Irri­ga­tion Project that kept water flow­ing in East­ern Washington.”

“As Tom said: ‘A strong agri­cul­ture econ­o­my is absolute­ly essen­tial for a strong nation­al econ­o­my.’ Today, those words still ring true. Tom Foley’s impact will be felt for gen­er­a­tions to come in Wash­ing­ton state and across our nation. Tom was a true leg­end, and he will nev­er be forgotten.”

“For thir­ty-six years, Speak­er Tom Foley served our coun­try as a quin­tes­sen­tial cham­pi­on of the com­mon good,” said House Demo­c­ra­t­ic Leader Nan­cy Pelosi, who became Amer­i­ca’s first woman speak­er and the sec­ond from west of Texas in 2007.  “A proud son of Wash­ing­ton State, he stood on the strength of his prin­ci­ples and inspired a sense of pur­pose and civil­i­ty that reflects the best of our democracy.”

“In his years lead­ing the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Speak­er Foley’s unri­valed abil­i­ty to build con­sen­sus and find com­mon ground earned him gen­uine respect on both sides of the aisle. The year I took office, he secured a much-need­ed bud­get com­pro­mise that restored pub­lic faith in our finan­cial secu­ri­ty and con­fi­dence in Con­gress. That char­ac­ter­is­tic pas­sion for fair­ness and deep respect for oth­ers lat­er defined his extra­or­di­nary work as Pres­i­dent Clinton’s Ambas­sador to Japan.”

“Today, our coun­try mourns the loss of a leader whose authen­tic­i­ty, ded­i­ca­tion, and diplo­ma­cy will for­ev­er serve as an exam­ple to all of us who strive to make a dif­fer­ence through pub­lic ser­vice. It was an hon­or to serve with him as a col­league; it was a priv­i­lege to know him as a friend. We only hope it is a com­fort to his wife Heather and his fam­i­ly that so many mourn their loss at this sad time.”

Obit­u­ar­ies and appre­ci­a­tions worth reading:

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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