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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former Spokane Congressman George Nethercutt, who gained national fame by defeating House speaker, dies at 79

Congressman George Nethercutt in 2000.  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

George R. Nethercutt Jr., the Spokane lawyer and county Republican chairman who became a national political “giant killer” 30 years ago by defeating the sitting speaker of the House of Representatives, died Friday morning. He was 79 and had fought the debilitating effects of a progressive neurological disease for several years.

After beating Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994 as one of the stars of a GOP revolution, Nethercutt went on to serve 10 years in the House before an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate. He later set up a foundation to inspire a new generation with an appreciation for civics and government service.

“He had a high regard for our country and its institutions,” said Rich Kuhling, a longtime friend who directed Nethercutt’s 1994 campaign.

The foundation sponsored tournaments for students to match their knowledge of civics and sponsored internships in Washington, D.C. Two years ago he published a book, “Saving Patriotism: American Patriotism in a Global Era,” in which he described an effort to educate and advocate for civic knowledge of all citizens, but particularly for millennials and Generation Z.

In 2022, as Nethercutt struggled with a neurological disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy that made it increasingly difficult to speak and walk, his foundation joined forces with the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, endowing a speaker series on civil discourse and civics education.

A Spokane attorney with a general practice that handled family law and adoptions, Nethercutt seemed an unlikely opponent for Foley, who by 1994 had won 15 elections without a defeat.

It was Nethercutt’s first run for office, but he was not a complete political novice. He’d been chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska in the 1970s, was active in George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and was the Spokane County Republican chairman before entering the congressional race. He also had strong community ties, born and raised in Spokane – his father George Nethercutt Sr. had been president of the Spokane School Board in the 1960s – graduated from North Central High School, Washington State University and Gonzaga Law School and was a co-founder of the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery and former president of the local Juvenile Diabetes Chapter. He and his wife, Mary Beth, also an attorney, had two school-age children.

In a wild four-way Republican primary that included two candidates who previously had run against Foley, he stood out as the nice guy with an “aw shucks” demeanor.

“He really was a nice guy,” said Kuhling, who first met Nethercutt when he was opposing counsel in a trial. “Underneath he was a fierce competitor. On the squash court, he would rather slam into the wall than give up a point.”

When Nethercutt topped the GOP field in the late September primary and Foley received only 35% of the total vote, national attention turned to Eastern Washington and with it, piles of money from groups on both sides of the partisan divide.

Ken Lisaius had signed on as the campaign spokesman after an interview in Nethercutt’s office. His parents wondered why he took a temporary job rather than a full -time position because “nobody thought anyone’s going to beat Foley.” But Nethercutt convinced Lisaius he could win.

The morning after the primary, the staff came to the office with phones ringing off the hook. They were ringing at night when the staff headed home.

“The phones never stopped,” Lisaius recalled.

Eric Johnson, a longtime friend and neighbor, recalled arriving with Nethercutt at Gonzaga University for the first debate against Foley and asking if he had a strategy to attack his opponent.

Absolutely not, Nethercutt replied, Johnson recalled recently. “He said, ‘Congressman Foley is someone I have the deepest respect for.’ “

The pair debated nine times. Foley supporters expected Nethercutt to wilt under the pressure as some previous opponents had; he held his own.

With election day approaching and Nethercutt starting to slip in the polls, some advisers wanted him to go negative. Instead he taped a commercial in a park near their South Hill home with the family’s golden retriever, Chestnut, saying Foley was accusing him of everything but kicking his dog.

He hugged the pooch and told it “I’d never hurt you, Chestnut.” The commercial was so effective – Nethercutt later said some people told him they didn’t know anything about his polices but liked Chestnut – that at their ninth and final debate Foley turned to him and said “George, I’m not after the dog, believe me.”

A few weeks later, Nethercutt accomplished something that hadn’t been done since the Civil War, defeating a House speaker who was seeking re-election. A Republican wave fueled by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” washed over the country and nowhere was the wave higher than in Washington, a state which had a House delegation with one Republican and eight Democrats before the election, but seven Republicans and two Democrats after it.

When he got to Congress in 1995, Nethercutt was rewarded with a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which decides how trillions of tax dollars are spent, a rare assignment for a freshman.

John Boehner, who was among the first members of Congress to campaign for the fledgling candidate, said he remembered Nethercutt not just for the historic win but “because he was just a genuinely good person.”

“He was called to serve and did so with grace and compassion throughout his career,” Boehner, who later became speaker, said in a text.

He made the cross-country trip back to Eastern Washington two or three times a month, worked on a wide variety of regional issues, including farming, forestry and national defense, and watched over funding for local and state projects. His daughter suffered from juvenile diabetes and he co-founded the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, now one of the largest bipartisan groups in Congress with more than 300 members.

In a break with Republican orthodoxy in the late 1990s, Nethercutt traveled to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro on a mission to open that country to Washington wheat products and other American farm commodities.

Lisaius, who went to Washington, D.C. as the new congressman’s spokesman, said that class of incoming Republicans was divided between those who went to the capital to “be someone” and those who went to “do something.” His former boss was among the latter, a good listener and “a classy person, through and through.”

“He made time for everybody he could,” Lisaius said, whether they supported him or his opponents. “He said ‘I’m not here to represent just the people who supported me.’ “

Nancy Fike, who managed Nethercutt’s Eastern Washington district office for eight years, remembered her friend and former boss as a statesman and a patriot, but “a lot of fun during long road trips” around a district that stretched from Canada to Oregon and Idaho to the Cascade foothills.

“He wanted to make sure he had a full calendar,” Fike said, referring to his trips back to Eastern Washington. “He had high expectations for all of us. We were his eyes and ears.”

His schedule in the other Washington was equally packed, although he would skip evening political events to spend time with his family, Lisaius said.

When talking to staff about issues or policies, he wanted them to tell him what they thought, not what they thought he wanted to hear, Fike said.

His four re-election campaigns were relatively easy, although he took some flak in 2000 for seeking a fourth term after he’d run on the Contract with America that had a plank supporting term limits and had criticized Foley for challenging a voter-approved law that U.S. House members could only serve six years. By then, however, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled congressional term limits needed a constitutional amendment and Nethercutt’s supporters were saying he shouldn’t give up his seat and seniority on the Appropriations Committee.

In 2004, at the urging of then-President George W. Bush, he ran for the Senate against incumbent Patty Murray. He easily carried the Eastern Washington counties but Murray swamped him in the Puget Sound. That year, then-state Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers won the race for Nethercutt’s seat in Congress. She announced this year that she would not run for an 11th term.

“ George Nethercutt was a giant amongst men who served the people of Eastern Washington with honor and patriotism for a decade,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement on Friday. “George was a man of character who led with kindness and conviction, and he was a person I proudly looked up to long before the day I was sworn in to represent the Fifth District we shared such a love for. He was one-of-a-kind, and I will miss his friendship dearly.”

Nethercutt became a partner in a D.C. lobbying firm and still did some legal work in Spokane. But he began concentrating on the civics foundation and wrote a book about patriotic American songs.

“He didn’t dedicate his time to politics, he dedicated it to civics,” said Lisaius who later worked on the 2000 George W. Bush presidential campaign and in the Bush White House. “He said civics brings people together, politics divides them.”

In 2013 he developed a Civics Tournament for students for fourth- and eighth graders and high school seniors. For the older students, the first prize was a $10,000 scholarship and a trip to Washington, D.C.

“The attitude today is ‘I won. You lost. I get 100%. You get zero.’ That’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” Nethercutt told former Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal during a return to his high school alma mater to generate interest in the tournament.

He was first and foremost a family man, friends said. Johnson said he once asked Nethercutt, who played baseball for North Central High School, if he’d ever hit a home run. Only two, Nethercutt told him, “Once against Lewis and Clark, and once when I married Mary Beth.”

They met while working as staff to members of Congress.

Nethercutt is survived by his wife Mary Beth Nethercutt, daughter Meredith Nethercutt Krisher, son-in-law Ben Krischer and granddaughter Holly Beth Krisher of Highland Ranch, Colorado; and son Elliott Nethercutt of Denver, along with sister Nancy Nethercutt Gustafson and brother-in-law Rich Gustafson and brother John Nethercutt.

George Nethercutt’s family had cared for him over the past two years as the disease slowly robbed him of his ability talk and move without help.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the George Nethercutt Endowed Lecture Series on Civic Engagement at Washington State University or Breakthrough T1D, formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.

Services in Spokane are pending, but likely will be held the week of July 22 at Gonzaga University, Elliott Nethercutt said.