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Tom Foley’s legacy left an impact across Northwest

Tom Foley served Eastern Washington at a time when the federal government invested aggressively in the folks back home.     Congressional leaders from both parties occupied the political center and worked together on historic reforms, including civil rights, a social safety net, environmental laws, expansion of airports and interstate freeways, promotion of foreign trade and the funding of research universities.

By the time Foley left office, politics had changed. But so had the region he served. Today, the legacy of Foley’s leadership can be found all over the 5th Congressional District, and well beyond:

Food stamps: In 1964, when Foley stepped into Congress and took a seat on the House Committee on Agriculture, he brought with him a concern about hunger and malnutrition, especially among children. It was a problem known to low-income Spokane neighborhoods, as well as the remote rural stretches of Eastern Washington. Enlisting both Republicans and Democrats, Foley led a rapid expansion of the federal food stamp program. He insisted food stamps be a part of the federal farm bill – giving urban liberals a reason to support federal aid to conservative agricultural states.

Hydroelectric power: Faced with a Northwest energy shortage, Foley teamed with his influential mentor, U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson, to secure funding for construction of a third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam.

Foreign trade: When Foley arrived, the nation’s farm policy focused on the Midwest’s hard red wheat. The soft white wheat grown in Eastern Washington needed stronger markets. Foley took a personal interest in foreign trade, traveling regularly to Japan and other Asian countries, opening new markets for his region’s wheat, as well as other products such as alfalfa and cherries.

Agricultural research: At Washington State University, federal grants obtained with Foley’s support helped fund the scientists who developed productive new varieties of wheat, apples and other crops that relieved world hunger and strengthened his region’s economy. As years went by, this Foley-supported agricultural research institution helped spawn a new industry that brought both riches and tourism to the desert: wine.

Expo ’74: When a few audacious Spokane business leaders began to push for a World’s Fair, they enlisted Spokane’s congressman to help make it happen.

Columbia Basin: Under President Ronald Reagan, foes of federal spending targeted large irrigation projects such as the one that had turned the Columbia Basin into a productive cropland. Foley fought back and the basin’s farmers stayed in business.

Fairchild: By the late 1970s, the Air Force base west of Spokane was showing its age. Budget cutters were on the horizon, looking for installations to close, money to save. Foley flexed his muscles. Throughout the 1980s, $100 million in modernization projects poured into Fairchild Air Force Base, giving it a future that has endured to this day.

The environment: As Foley’s influence grew, oil drillers began sniffing off the coast of Washington. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, its bomb-making days in the past, had become a radioactive nightmare. Foley sought protections against oil spills and pushed for Hanford cleanup to get underway.

Jobs: Spokane business leaders, concerned with the area’s low wages, launched initiatives to strengthen area colleges and attract new employers. One day, lightning struck: Boeing was coming to Spokane. It built a factory and 350 jobs out on the then-sleepy West Plains. Foley, by then the speaker of the House, modestly praised Boeing for its business judgment; others said the canny aircraft maker, a major defense contractor, considered it a good investment indeed to become a Foley constituent. Today that airplane parts factory, owned by Triumph Composite Systems, has been joined by other industries on the city’s western edge.

Spokane airport: From the moment it was built, Spokane International Airport had a chronic problem with fog, which regularly interfered with flights. In 1990, Foley used his clout to get Spokane’s airport onto the FAA’s list for a Category 3 landing system. It took several years to complete, but the $2.5 million system made it possible for appropriately equipped airliners to land even when visibility is poor.

Higher education: The same business leaders who wanted better-paying jobs made a then-audacious argument that Washington State University had been constructed in the wrong city. They dreamed of a branch campus, offering graduate degrees and research programs, in downtown Spokane. Into a corner of the federal budget Foley tucked $15 million, which became seed money for the first building at Riverpoint, the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute. Today, Riverpoint is a multi-institution campus. One of its buildings is home to a branch of the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Highways: Between Ritzville and the Tri-Cities, Highway 395 used to be a lethal, twisty two-lane road. On it, motorists died in alarming numbers and heavy trucks hauled everything from potatoes to nuclear waste. Foley got it designated as a major trade corridor, opening doors to $54 million in federal funds that straightened the road and widened it to four lanes. Former Republican congressman Sid Morrison called for it to be named the Thomas Foley Highway in recognition of Foley’s effort.

Centennial Trail: Outdoor recreation advocates imagined a path for bicyclists and hikers, winding along the Spokane River from Riverfront Park to Coeur d’Alene. Foley secured $3.6 million in federal funds, to help convert that dream into today’s reality.

George Nethercutt, who ousted Foley in 1994, criticized as “pork” the federal aid that built the trail and planted the seed for the downtown higher education campus.

After Nethercutt’s victory, a Spokesman-Review editorial described Foley’s legacy this way:

“Some in these twisted times have attempted to make it a sin to use the government to build and to improve. That is a cross for Nethercutt to carry.

“Foley leaves a different legacy. He worked to strengthen agriculture and defense, keep electricity affordable, make forestry sustainable, reduce pollution, improve airports, enhance universities, renovate downtowns, widen killer highways, boost mass transit, create scenic trails, fund research that fed the world, nourish hungry children, combat bigotry, support the elderly and show, for those with eyes to see, that politics still can be an honorable profession.”

The author, who currently works as editorial operations director for The Spokesman-Review, served for many years as a member of the editorial board and wrote regularly about Foley’s efforts to improve the region.

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