The 5th Congressional District of Washington state is a rectangular chunk of land that borders Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia and stretches from the rolling oceans of wheat in the south, across the mighty Snake and Columbia to what remains of the ancient ponderosa pine forests in the north.
Progressive in parts, seemingly pre-literate in
others, this fascinating district offers hip coffee bars in the
shadow of grain silos, loopy white supremacists, the world's
largest lentil farms, two gold mines, a rural all-jazz FM station,
two Indian reservations, nine Superfund sites and, for some reason,
a big community of new Soviet immigrants. And you thought Seattle
Dominated by unpretentious Spokane,
home to two-thirds of the district's 540,000 residents, and the
leave-us-be ethic of timber, farm and mining towns, the 5th
District seems an unlikely place for trendsetting. But in charting
last November's political earthquake, many analysts found the
epicenter right here, where anxious average Americans performed a
feat unseen in this country since before the Civil War.
They fired the Speaker of the House of
They fired Spokane's favorite
son, Tom Foley.
In the nation's most dramatic
example of voter-revenge in an election that saw dozens of
incumbent Democrats thrown out of office, eastern Washington
dismissed a giant who had won 15 previous congressional races. As
the West's most powerful politician, the courtly statesman brought
back millions of taxpayer dollars to his district in the form of
university research, farm subsidies, defense projects and cheap,
But Foley, who passionately
defended Congress in its sleaziest moments - at first he tried to
keep secret the names of colleagues who bounced checks in the House
banking scandal - had become the personification of an institution
many of his constituents held in contempt.
forgot where he was from," went the talk-radio logic of many
voters. "He cared more about the East than he did us," I heard
often during my research in the district.
Foley's crimes? He was vilified for opposing
congressional term limits, supporting an assault weapons ban,
helping environmentalists too little or too much, not hating Bill
Clinton and, ultimately, for seeming too fond of the wrong
Stir in a lethargic, predictable
campaign against a pleasant Republican who, for a change, wasn't
stockpiling AK-47s for Armageddon, and you have the recipe for a
By just a scant 3,900 votes of
the 196,000 cast, Foley's district elected Republican George
Nethercutt, a 49-year-old Spokane adoption and estate lawyer, in
his first run for office.
The political revolt of
eastern Washington, like that of many other districts, can seem
both complex - what was the real effect of Foley-bashing on talk
radio or the Internet? - and blindingly simple: People just got
tired of the same face after 30 years.
really is a mystery in many respects," observes Washington State
University history professor LeRoy Ashby, co-author of a biography
of former Idaho Senator Frank Church. "This district's prestige and
clout is gone forever."
Are you saying, I asked
Ashby, that the 5th District has effectively screwed itself?
Foley supporters apparently agonized over their votes, but none as
openly as the region's environmentalists. For three decades Foley
was a frequent and eager recipient of the timber industry's money,
and it was on Foley's watch that eastern Washington's overcut
forests came to look like a mangy dog's backside.
"Foley was not our champion," says Dave
Crandall, executive director of the Inland Empire Public Lands
Council in Spokane. "The rank-and-file environmental community was
very upset with him. Some (not Crandall) even wanted to form a
Conservationists for Nethercutt group."
Foley did fight to keep some semblance of democracy in Forest
Service timber sales and probably kept some of those forests from
being leveled altogether. Why couldn't environmentalists unite
behind him for what may have been his last race? And why did others
reject the man who had for so long fed them logs, irrigation water
and cheap electricity? What exactly was the 5th Congressional
District of Washington thinking?
Maybe it is unfair. A moment out of
context. But 5th District environmentalists, when assessing Foley's
commitment to forest stewardship, inevitably recall his fly-over
tour of the district's Colville National Forest during which he
gently, and oh so symbolically, nodded off like a big St.
It was an eloquent statement of Foley's
priorities. You can be sure he didn't fall asleep in meetings with
Weyerhauser officials or English royalty. Trees - logged or
standing - just didn't excite him.
friend of Foley's once joked: "Tom has an active aversion to fresh
air." The green community believed that because Foley seemingly had
no emotional connection to the land, crucial forest issues became
just another political duty - one which he usually delegated an
aide, Nick Ashmore. (Ashmore, now a lobbyist for Boeing, did not
"He hated the spotted owl issue,"
says John Osborn, president of the Inland Empire Public Lands
Council. "And that was what the Northwest congressional delegation
was talking about all the time."
council - one of the nation's most creative forest conservation
groups - waking up Foley to the plight of the million-acre Colville
Forest was a constant challenge.
wildlife perspective," says Osborn, "the Colville is one of the
most unique forests in the U.S. It's got grizzlies and wolves and
the only herd of endangered woodland caribou in the domestic 48
states. It's incredibly diverse. The west side is wet; the east
arid. It's a mosaic of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock,
some lodgepole pine. And it's got over 2,000 miles of logging
roads. Basically, it's just been trashed by overcutting. We're just
trying to save the pieces now."
While on one
front the Public Lands Council challenged timber sales and
monitored logging operations with its citizen-led Forest Watch
Program, Osborn also set out to make mainstream voters hold Foley
accountable for the Colville. So, a terminology change was in
order. Henceforth, the Colville, which is entirely contained within
the 5th District, would be referred to as "The Speaker's Forest."
Then the council began an advertising campaign
with the message, "Your Colville National Forest. A Clearcut
shame!', which placed photos of Colville clearcuts on thousands of
bus boards, yard signs and postcards throughout the region.
"Foley started getting these clearcut postcards
from hunters, fishermen and mainstream businessmen," recalls
council director Dave Crandall with a grin. "His office was not
amused. We think Foley saw his job as avoiding conflict. So we made
that our goal - to create a conflict."
plus side, Crandall and Osborn say Foley helped get funding for an
old-growth inventory and health study of the Colville. Foley also
established a wilderness area, helped craft the National Forest
Management Act, dealt with toxic contamination of the Columbia
River and helped ensure the public's right to appeal timber sales.
"Foley understood the appeals process.
Nethercutt doesn't," says Crandall. "Foley knew basic democracy was
being threatened in the forest and he did something about it."
But because of Foley's inestimable power, his
larger failure to protect the Colville from devastation will remain
his legacy. "Someone who cared about the Colville," says Osborn
somberly, "wouldn't have let the massive clearcutting happen."
Consequently, says Crandall, "There was tremendous ambivalence
about Foley among liberals and environmentalists. I'm not sure
there was anything Foley could have done to win the environmental
But for all the environmentalists who
agonized over their votes, there were plenty of other voters who
"They're after our" ... ziinnnngggg
ZZANNGNGNG ziinnngggg ZZANNGNGNGOWWWWW ".... guns .... They're not
gonna" ... YEOWWWWZIZNZNZNANANANZANG-NGNGNGNGN ... "stop."
The screaming whines of massive planers and
lathes inside the Boise Cascade Kettle Falls plywood plant flood
into the small company lunchroom every time the door opens, causing
Skip Ginter to SHOUT EVERY OTHER SENTENCE, but I quickly get the
idea. He voted against Tom Foley because the Speaker supported
Clinton's crime bill, which included a ban on some assault
"I have quite a sizeable gun
collection," says Ginter - gray overalls, gray muttonchop
sideburns, 48. "I've got some auto-load shotguns, and I've ..."
He's cut off by a young pregnant woman in gray sweatpants who asks
Ginter if he really thinks he needs a machine gun for hunting. A
fellow in a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt joins in and suddenly we're off
on a discussion about the relative merits of ammo clips. Whoa, what
"The people in Washington, D.C.,
have no idea of how we live," Ginter says. "Foley did some good
things, but he quit serving us and started serving people in the
Did Foley, I ask, hurt the timber
industry generally, or you specifically?
pause. "Well, not really," Ginter says.
out walking the floor of the plant, which sits on the Columbia
River (actually Lake Roosevelt) about 80 miles north of Spokane,
being eagerly led on a whirlwind tour of anti-Foley sentiment by
Boise Cascade's human resources manager, Jim Levers, who is pleased
Foley was defeated. "You gotta talk to this guy," Levers says, as
we approach Rod Dupuis, who's pulling strips of veneer off a
rumbling conveyor belt.
"Foley was out of touch
with people like us," Dupuis yells to me twice.
There's no time for elaboration. We're off
again, climbing a catwalk into a quiet, green control room, where
Larry, a lathe operator, watches 400-pound, eight-foot Douglas fir
logs get peeled down to fence-post size in about three
"I had voted for Foley in the past,"
Larry says, "but I just got fed up with him. It was the gun issue.
Guns and abortion."
Anything specific Foley did
to hurt your pocketbook? I ask.
He stops to
think. "No, not that I know of."
Levers tells me that back in the lunchroom a worker named Gary
Garrison should be waiting for me. "He always has something to
say," Levers smiles.
A friendly fellow with
Groucho eyebrows, Garrison comes prepared with a tape recorder -
he's not too trusting of the press - and a file folder of political
notes. He's the head sawyer at another Boise Cascade plant a few
miles away, 53 years old, raised nine kids, has a high school
degree, not a big church-goer, voted for Carter, Reagan and Bush -
not Clinton - and, like many of his co-workers, had previously
voted for Foley.
"I'm religious about voting,"
he tells me, listing the Endangered Species Act, property rights
and crime as the issues most important to him. "I don't own an
assault weapon, have no use for one, and I think I only know one
person who has one," he says, "but the perception around here is
that Foley attacked the gun." Even worse, Garrison says, was when
Foley joined a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of a
statewide referendum imposing term limits on Washington's elected
officials. "Suing his constituents really hurt him," he says,
parroting the highly effective campaign ads of Foley's opponent,
And why would Nethercutt make
a difference? "I think he means what he says," Garrison states with
conviction. "And he'll remember us."
night, I have dinner down the road in Colville with Boise Cascade's
Levers and Dick Just. Upper management fellows in their 50s, they
dress more like golfers than loggers, enjoy Tom Clancy novels and
order red wine before their main course: Tom Foley.
Dick Just starts off telling me of a meeting
about two years ago in Spokane in which he and another company's
manager met with Foley and representatives of the Forest Service
and U.S. Department of Agriculture. "After this meeting," Just
says, "as everyone is leaving and shaking hands, Foley says,
basically, "You forest products people have to understand you may
cease to exist as an industry." I was just shocked. Here I was
begging for his help and he was telling me the environmental lobby
was so strong he wouldn't go out on a limb and support us."
Foley allied himself with "Eastern liberals,
Kennedy and that bunch," Just says, explaining that we've "gone too
far" on civil rights, federal entitlements, school lunch programs
and regulation. "Until you've run a manufacturing plant," he tells
me, "you can't conceive of the state and federal interference. Just
moving our lunchroom (at the Kettle Falls plant) involved going
through three different agencies."
Does he agree
with some, I ask, that many eastern Washington towns, in order to
survive, must wean themselves off a natural resources-based
He leans in, removes his glasses and
bores a hole through me.
"Liberals will tell you
the U.S. should move into information technology, leisure,
etcetera," he says. "What we're embarking on is a deliberate effort
to lower our own production and thus our standard of living.
Environmentalists are dooming us to becoming a second-class power
in the world."
I took this to mean no.
These men seem almost invigorated by Foley's
loss. They talk of Nethercutt opening up a field office in
Colville, coming to town meetings, having breakfast with
small-business owners. They hold Foley responsible both for
individual acts of perceived arrogance and also symbolically for
his allegiance to a government they seem not to trust. But even
they can't muster much hatred for Foley, the man. "He's a gentleman
and a fine human being," Just offers. "He just ceased to represent
"A very nice
Curiously, even as Foley's critics were
linking him to every crisis short of apple-maggot infestations,
they had a hard time calling him anything but Mister Foley or
Speaker Foley. Kind, intelligent and approachable, Foley attracted
little of the personal invective that drove so many recent
political campaigns. Especially in Spokane County, which he just
barely won, Foley was considered something of a community landmark,
a grand library or hospital which, while it might not evoke fiery
passion, was not to be ridiculed, for ultimately the institution
reflects upon those who put it there.
was raised on Spokane's prominent South Hill, born to a respected
county judge, Ralph E. Foley, and a teacher, Helen Higgins Foley.
Almost anyone who considers the son's life traces his solemnity and
even-handed dissection of issues to the way his father presided
from the bench.
"People still talk about the
time when Tom's dad was sentencing some criminal," recalls Gonzaga
University President Bernard Coughlin, "and he was so reasonable
and fair that as the guy is heading off to jail he's saying, "Thank
you, Judge. Thank you." "''''As a young deputy prosecutor in
Spokane County, Foley once said he learned from his dad "to not
make decisions in the heat of anger and pointlessness of revenge."
In July 1964, one day before the congressional
election filing deadline, a chance encounter with a local
power-broker at the spiffy Spokane Club convinced Tom Foley to
challenge the 5th District's 22-year Republican incumbent, Walt
Horan. Foley became one of 67 new Democrats who rode in on LBJ's
coattails, and though his Republican district only once in 30 years
would vote for a Democratic president - Clinton, thanks to Perot -
Foley managed to win all but a couple of races easily.
In Congress, with Washington's senatorial giants
- Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson - as role models, Foley
forged a reputation as a behind-the-scenes negotiator who rarely
chastised other members in debate or led politically unpopular
fights. An aide to former Speaker Tip O'Neill once said: "He's a
just man. That's almost impossible to find in politics." Even Newt
Gingrich, perhaps in a moment of weakness, called him "a very nice
Probably too nice to be Speaker, some of
his own colleagues would say. He didn't twist arms like O'Neill.
Once he even ruled in favor of the Republicans on a voice vote.
Ralph Nader said he frustrated efforts to reform campaign finance
laws and seemed incapable of standing up to big business interests.
One congressman, Jim Trafficant, D-Ohio, dismissed Foley as an
The Speaker's tastes in
classical music, foreign affairs and upper class bonhomie served
him well in the capital, where he and his wife, Heather, whom he
met in Scoop Jackson's office and married in 1968, merited "A-list"
status on the power-party circuit. Recently knighted by Queen
Elizabeth for his unflagging congressional support of England,
Foley always seemed more at home on the shores of the Potomac than
the Columbia - a belief only bolstered by his not returning to
Spokane upon his defeat. But back in Fishtrap and Penawawa, most
people didn't seem to care if Foley was more comfortable in a
tuxedo at the Kennedy Center than he was behind a tractor or
chainsaw. They cared that he pushed through trade deals that opened
Japanese markets for Washington cherries, that he protected the
farmers' Columbia Basin Irrigation Project from anti-pork reformers
and that some $100 million in renovation funds flowed into
Spokane's Fairchild Air Force Base.
it pork. Foley called it returning tax money to the taxpayers. He
helped get a $10 million Department of Agriculture grant for the
construction of a new $20 million library - named after his parents
- at Gonzaga University.
"He did things for this
district that nobody even knew about," says Father Coughlin, the
Gonzaga president. "Everyone knew about our library, but he got
millions in research funds for Washington State University.
Everyone knew about the Air Force base (some think Foley saved it
from extinction), but he also got money for the Spokane
Intercollegiate Research & Technology Institute. Four years ago
Boeing opened a plant in Spokane with 350 employees," Coughlin
says. "That didn't just happen. Tom was instrumental."
There was a time when one's worth as a
congressman was measured by such things, but in the disorienting
world of last November's elections such politics-as-usual was
turned into a liability.
Nethercutt was able to convince at least some voters that Foley's
getting funds for universities, job training and even a new Amtrak
station for Spokane was all but reprehensible. The challenger did,
however, have some heavyweight help in getting this message
No history with
In Spokane's downtown federal court
building, in a hectic office that seems decorated by United Van
Lines, Nethercutt's district director, Erik Skaggs, remembers a
phone call he got last year.
"I was just working
in our office one day and the phone rings," says Skaggs, an
ambitious young staffer who volunteers that he was student body
president of every school he attended. "Somebody says, "Erik, it's
Ross Perot for you on line two." He was calling from his plane and
he said, "I want to come help you. I want to get the Winnebago and
hit the district." "''''Nethercutt couldn't say yes quickly enough.
Perot drew 23 percent of the 5th District's voters when he ran for
the presidency four years earlier.
also benefitted from a $50,000, Charlton Heston-led TV ad campaign
by the National Rifle Association, which had endorsed Foley in
eight previous elections. National groups in favor of congressional
term limits spent a reported $300,000 against Foley. And pulling
the strings was national Republican strategist Ed Rollins, a former
boxing partner of Nethercutt when the challenger used to work on
the staff of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
message was simple," Skaggs explains. "Congress is bad. Tom Foley
is Congress. Every week we had a picnic in the park (alongside the
Spokane River) with hot dogs. We were more of a populist campaign.
Foley was popular with old-money families, business executives,
"But he had no history with the
new influx of Californians coming to Washington," Skaggs continues.
"They're tired of the welfare state and the direction our country
Foley and Nethercutt debated eight
times in what were relatively tame affairs compared to mud-strewn
races around the country. Nethercutt, who promised to serve only
three terms if elected, stuck to general attacks on big government
and labeled Foley a "tax-and-spend liberal" who had raised taxes on
working families, seniors, farmers and single parents. His favorite
line: "We need a listener, not a Speaker."
Foley, who spent $2.1 million on the campaign
compared to Nethercutt's $1.3 million, portrayed Nethercutt as a
callous demagogue who would oppose abortion even in the case of
rape or incest and would cut Social Security, Medicare and
education funding. Foley also reminded voters that, contrary to
popular belief, Democrats had trimmed the deficit, cut the federal
workforce and didn't raise taxes for most Americans.
Foley might as well have been speaking in
Some supporters say privately that Foley,
who had never before run negative campaign ads, was too slow in
using them against Nethercutt. "Foley's not a demagogue," says
Father Coughlin. "But maybe he should've been less a statesman and
more a politician in this race."
reported that as most House members rushed home after the
congressional session in order to begin campaigning, Foley took
five days to return from the capital. However, a close Foley
confidant and veteran of several campaigns says it was always a
losing battle: "Our polls never showed us over 49 percent - at any
time - and they were deadly accurate."
of his core supporters demoralized, Foley's time-tested strategy of
bringing home federal dollars and basking in congressional stardom
seemed destined to become the political version of Chinese
carry-out: Tasty, but easily forgotten.
really beat Tom Foley? For many voters, assault weapons and term
limits were only the symptoms through which they expressed their
dissatisfaction with Foley. (Since when do dairy farmers care more
about machine guns than the price of milk?) Some undoubtedly felt
massive, inexorable forces - immigration? environmentalism? a world
economy? - were fouling their American dream, and that Foley
couldn't help them regain it. Some were just Republicans who had
always wanted a chance to vote for a legitimate challenger to
Some might be considered paranoid. "I had
people seriously ask me about Blackhawk helicopters landing in
Montana as part of some monstrous federal takeover of private
land," Foley told me not long ago. "There were occasionally people
in my district who went way over the line."
were spoiled Westerners who talk a nice game about wanting the
government off their backs, but whined over military-base cuts or
increased grazing fees. A few even admitted to thinking that if
Nethercutt won he'd become the new Speaker.
It came down to
But for many who had previously
supported Foley, there was something more fundamental about his
character that finally made them jump ship. They didn't doubt his
basic honesty; they doubted - strange as it sounds - that he could
actually lead people, that he would fight unpopular battles for
Foley is a thoughtful and personally loyal
man, but rarely did he show great political courage. (His
opposition to a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning was a
notable exception.) A reactive thinker, he learned which way the
parade was going and followed it. He so exasperated Democratic
colleagues with his timidity in battle that in 1992, Texas Democrat
John Bryant stood on the floor of the House and called on Foley to
resign. "For Tom Foley," Bryant said, "political combat ... is to
be avoided if at all possible."
forest management issues that strongly divided much of Foley's
district. No one suggests that healing wounds among timber workers
and environmentalists would be easy.
could do it," a Foley friend says. "One wants to cut trees; the
other doesn't." But what prevented Foley from years ago starting a
series of town meetings throughout timber country to let those
seething towns vent their frustrations? Why wasn't Foley a one-man
tent revival when it came to preaching the economic diversity
Says Boise Cascade's Jim Levers: "Foley
had so much power he could've called together environmentalists and
timber operators, got us into a room and forced settlements. He
could've been a leader, and he chose not to be."
LeRoy Ashby, the Frank Church biographer,
remembers watching the liberal Idaho senator walk into a town hall
in 1980 that was filled with angry ranchers and right-wing zealots.
"Church stood there in front of them and gave a
fiery, impassioned speech defending his positions," Ashby says,
"and at the end they gave him a standing ovation. I don't think
Foley ever exhibited that kind of in-your-face courage. It was hard
to get any sense that he had a fire in his gut about anything."
"I think Foley was very uncomfortable with that
kind of public conflict," says John Osborn of the Inland Empire
Public Lands Council. "Yet, ultimately, his inability to intervene
early in such crises resulted in explosive situations."
Osborn says he tried repeatedly to get Foley to
play the lead role in convincing timber towns that "tremendously
powerful forces of history" were bearing down on them and would
make their dependence upon over-logging impossible to sustain.
"Foley was unwilling to convey that diagnosis,"
says Osborn, an internist at Spokane's veterans' hospital. "He had
the perfect chance to be a catalyst for change, and he wasn't
there. The good things he did in conservation will be overshadowed
by his decision not to communicate with these communities."
Yet, in the harsh light of the Gingrich
Congress, and Nethercutt's support of a bill that will increase
salvage logging some 3 billion board-feet in the national forests,
there is little joy among conservationists about being rid of
Foley's lukewarm forest stewardship. "There's probably never been a
Congress poised to do so much damage to the environment as this
one," says Osborn.
Now people like Osborn are
working overtime to turn horrific legislative proposals into merely
bad ones. All of which makes Osborn a bit wistful. He remembers
that even with Foley's faults, once a year the West's most powerful
politician, who was often watching his weight, would lumber into
their cramped Spokane offices, peel a banana for lunch and just
listen to their problems.
They didn't agree
nearly enough, but in these angry, illogical times, listening would
still count for something.
Defeat is a form of
As I ride the elevator in the Washington,
D.C., offices of clout-heavy law firm Akin, Gump, where Foley now
works, just inches from serious suits talking about lunch with
Kissinger, I remember how out of place you can feel in the
capital's power corridors if you happen to be wearing hiking boots.
Having only seen him on a square Sony, I'm
surprised that Tom Foley is so tall, 6-foot-4, and, at 66, fit. He
pumps iron at the gym six days a week and eats like a New York
model. The hound-dog face that launched a thousand editorial
cartoons - -my staff always tried to get me to smile more," he says
- seems rested and crisis-free. In his front pocket rests a black
plastic comb, a reminder of a newspaper clip that said Foley used
to wear a suit coat to college every day.
offers no new insight into why he lost. Term limits. Guns. Too long
in Washington. Clinton. Talk radio. He takes mild shots at the
Contract with America and the get-government-off-my-back crowd. "We
had people in the health care debate," he says, "telling us we
should get government out of their Medicare." He smiles to let the
punchline soak in.
Vanquished politicians must
necessarily appear to be statesmanlike about their losses lest they
be labeled sore losers.
But Foley seems genuinely
at peace with his fate and humbled by his 30-year taste of power.
"I have this satisfaction that my loss wasn't a repudiation," he
says, bringing his trifocals to his lap. "I won my home county.
I've had a very long and satisfying political career. I am not in
any sense bitter. I lost one election in my life; unfortunately, it
was the last one." n
Selcraig has written for Harper's, The New York Times Magazine and
Sports Illustrated, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas, and
can be reached by e-mail at