Thomas S. Foley Biography

Thomas S. Foley
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Quick Facts

Birthday: March 6, 1929

Nationality: American

Died At Age: 84

Sun Sign: Pisces

Also Known As: Thomas Stephen Foley, Tom Foley

Born Country: United States

Born in: Spokane, Washington, United States

Famous as: Politician

Lawyers Political Leaders


Spouse/Ex-: Heather Strachan (m. 1968)

father: Ralph E. Foley

mother: Helen Marie

Died on: October 18, 2013

place of death: Washington, D.C., United States

U.S. State: Washington

Cause of Death: Stroke

Notable Alumni: Gonzaga University

City: Spokane, Washington

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education: Gonzaga University, University of Washington, Gonzaga Preparatory School, University of Washington School of Law

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Who was Thomas S. Foley?

Thomas Stephen Foley was a noted American lawyer and politician, belonging to the Democratic Party. He represented Washington's fifth district for thirty years and served as the 49th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives for six consecutive terms. Born into a Democratic family at the onset of the Great Depression, he had a comfortable childhood and received an all-round education. Beginning his career in law at the age of twenty-eight, he entered the House of Representatives at the age of thirty-five and became the chairman of the Agriculture Committee at forty-five. At fifty-two, he was elected the House Majority Whip; at fifty-eight, the House Majority Leader; and at the age of sixty, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Although his district became increasingly conservative, he himself was very liberal and tried to do his work fairly. He believed in abortion rights, championed the federal food-stamps program and campaigned against term limit.
Childhood & Early Life
Thomas Stephen Foley was born on March 6, 1929, in Spokane, Washington. His father, Ralph E. Foley, was a much-respected Superior Court judge, while his mother Helen Marie (née Higgins) was a school teacher. He had a sister named Maureen Latimer.
Although raised during the Great Depression, he had a comfortable life and lived in the affluent South Hill section of the town. As a young child, he was highly influenced by his father, who represented for him “a sense of public responsibility, performance and integrity”.
In 1946, he graduated from Jesuit-run Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane. Although a brilliant student, he never did well in exams, spending his time reading outside books, writing for school papers and taking part in debate competitions. During summers, he worked for the state highway department and local pharmacies
In 1946, he entered Gonzaga University. During this period, he worked at the nearby Kaiser Aluminum mill, which made him aware of the condition of the working class. However, he did not complete his studies there, eventually earning his AB degree in 1951 from the University of Washington.
After earning his AB degree, he pursued law at University of Washington Law School and earned his JD degree from there in 1957. Thereafter, he returned to Spokane, where he began practicing law with one of his cousins.
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Early Career
In 1958, Thomas Foley left his law partnership to become a deputy prosecuting attorney in the Spokane County prosecutor's office. Concurrently, he also began teaching at Gonzaga's School of Law.
In 1961, he was appointed assistant attorney general for the state. Later, he moved to Washington DC, where he joined the staff of Senator Henry Jackson, serving as the assistant chief clerk and special counsel to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs from 1961 till 1963.
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Career as a Congressman
In 1964, prompted by Senator Jackson, Thomas Foley decided to run for the House of Representatives, earning the Democratic nomination unopposed. However, he continued to hesitate till the final filing day because challenging him was Walt Horan, the Republican candidate who had held the 5th district seat for 22 years.
In spite of the hesitation, he won the election and entered the House in 1965 (Eighty-Ninth Congress). During his first term, he was appointed to the Agriculture Committee and the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, continuing to serve in the latter committee till 1975.
In 1975, he was appointed the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, a position he held till 1981. Thus, at the age of forty-five, he became the youngest person to chair a major committee since 1900. In the same year, he was also named chair of the Democratic Study Group.
In 1978, he faced his first electoral challenge, being painted as too liberal in an increasingly conservative district by his detractors. It was a rare three-way race and he won the election, albeit with less than 50% votes.
In 1981, Foley was appointed Majority Whip in the House of Representatives, replacing Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, holding the position for the next three terms. Since it was one of the leadership positions in the House, it enabled him to play a larger role in both national and international issues.
In 1987, when the Majority Leader Jim Wright was elected as the Speaker of the House, he stepped into his shoes to become the next House Majority Leader. The post further enhanced his influence and he soon became known as a problem solver as well as a consensus builder.
Speaker of the House
In June 1989, when Speaker Jim Wright resigned from his position because of his personal business dealings, Foley was elected in his place. With that, he became the 49th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, receiving 251 votes against Minority Leader Robert H. Michel’s 164 votes.
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As Speaker, Foley focused on effective as well as nonpartisan functioning of the House, having little difficulty in dealing with the Republican administration under George H. W. Bush. Very often, he traveled abroad, promoting trade and bilateral relationship with Asian and European countries.
He also presided over many important bills. They include the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act, Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act etc.
When in the early 1990s, a ballot initiative was introduced in Washington to limit the terms of state and federal officials, Foley began campaigning against it, resulting in its rejection in the 1991 referendum. But when in 1992 a second referendum was held on the same issue, it was approved.
As term limit became a law, Foley challenged it in court, declaring that a state law could not set term limit on a federal official. Although he won the suit, his action was seen as self-serving by many. The citizens also did not appreciate his votes on gun control and NAFTA.
In 1994, after a run of thirty years, Foley lost his first election and retired from active politics. In 1997, he was appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, holding the position till 2001. That apart, he kept himself busy, heading non-governmental organizations like Federal City Council and Trilateral Commission.
Awards & Achievements
Thomas Foley had received several international honors like Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (UK), Order of Merit (Germany), Légion d'honneur (France) and Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Flowers, Grand Cordon (Japan).
Family & Personal Life
In 1961, while working for Senator Henry Jackson, Thomas Foley met fellow staffer Heather Strachan. They got married in 1968 and had no children. A graduate of Brown University and George Washington University Law School, Mrs. Foley served as his chief of staff in Congress for nearly 25 years.
Foley died on October 18, 2013, from complications arising out of a series of strokes. He was then eighty-four years old and was survived by his wife, Heather Foley.
Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University and Thomas S. Foley Memorial Highway (U.S. Route 395) bear his name.

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