Former House Speaker Tom Foley dies at 84

Former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash.
Family of Tom Foley

Updated 3:00 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON Former House Speaker Tom Foley has died at the age of 84.

Foley's wife, Heather, said the Washington state Democrat died at his home in the nation's capital. A statement from the Foley family said he died of complications from strokes.

Foley was a Washington state lawmaker who was first elected to the House in 1964 and became the first speaker since the Civil War who failed to win re-election in his home district. 

He was serving as House majority leader in 1989 when then-Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, stepped down amid an ethics scandal and Foley was subsequently elected House Speaker. 

The courtly politician lost his seat in the "Republican Revolution" of 1994.

The Democrat, who had never served a single day in the minority, was ousted by a smooth young Spokane lawyer, Republican George Nethercutt, who won by 4,000 votes in the mostly rural, heavily Republican eastern Washington district.

He was replaced as speaker by his nemesis, Georgia Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich, who later called Washington state the "ground zero" of the sweep that gave Republicans their first control of the House in 40 years. Foley, it turned out, was their prize casualty.

In a 2004 Associated Press interview, Foley said, after Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost his seat, that the same factors hurt them both: Voters did not appreciate the value of service as party leader, and rural voters were turning against Democrats.

"We need to examine how we are responding to this division ... particularly the sense in some rural areas that the Democratic Party is not a party that respects faith or family or has respect for values. I think that's wrong, but it's a dangerous perception if it develops as it has," he told the AP.

Republicans kept Foley's old seat, even in 2006 when the national tide swung back and Democrats retook a majority in the House, and in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. As a party "superdelegate," Foley had remained uncommitted during Obama's presidential primary battle with Hillary Clinton but eventually endorsed Obama in June 2008.

Foley told the AP he instinctively knew in 1994 that his days were finally numbered. He said he thought about retiring that year, but talked himself into running one last time.

For Foley, there was a deja vu quality about that election. Like Nethercutt, Foley had been a young Spokane attorney in 1964 when he ousted a longtime incumbent, the affable Republican Walt Horan, after 22 years in Congress.

Following his defeat, Foley joined a Washington, D.C., law firm and, from 1997-2001, he served as U.S. ambassador to Japan for four years during the Clinton administration. But he spent the most time in the House, serving 30 years including more than five as speaker.

In a written statement, President Obama said, "Today, America has lost a legend of the United States Congress."

He called Foley "a legend of the United States Congress" and said his "straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties."

The current House Speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement, "Today the House mourns the loss of our beloved former colleague ... Forthright and warmhearted, Tom Foley endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle. That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any Speaker or representative.

"With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman."

Former House Speaker and current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement, "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.

"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."