Foley's metamorphosis

Rep. Mark Foley has never been camera shy. Colleagues often joke that once the TV lights show up, not far behind is the outgoing, well-dressed sixth-term Republican lawmaker from Florida with the sun-kissed skin and movie-star blue eyes.

Foley makes no secret of the fact that he’s long been driven by ambition.

At age 6, he rode his bike to the Lantana shopping center in South Florida where he saw Republican Rep. Paul Rogers, his congressman, shaking hands with constituents. People flocked around him and hung on his every word.

Foley was hooked. He, too, wanted to be a member of Congress.

Before leaving the shopping center, Rogers paid Foley $5 to hand out campaign brochures. The future congressman was ecstatic. “For whatever reason it stuck,” said Foley. “That was my dream.”

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In the past two years, something has changed. Not that Foley no longer likes to be on TV — he does — but the 50-year-old lawmaker has gone through a dramatic personal shift that he says has left him with a new freedom about his life and his ambitions.

The wakeup call came in August 2003 while he was crisscrossing Florida with his older sister Donna, his campaign manager, whom he refers to as his “surrogate wife.” They were on the road in Foley’s quest to succeed Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

The call was from his mother, Fran. Only days before, Foley had learned that his father had prostate cancer. But this was different. His 82-year-old father, Ed, who had had quadruple bypass surgery in 2000, had been rushed to the hospital with a 104-degree fever.

At the time, Foley and his “wife” were somewhere in Florida’s panhandle. He had three days of promised campaign stops before he could be at his father’s bedside. In the meantime, he called the emergency-room doctor at JFK Hospital in West Palm Beach, where Foley used to sit on the board.

The moment was surreal. The doctor struck up a conversation about malpractice, pleading with Foley about the medical liability that was breaking his back. As inappropriate as it was, Foley believed that if his congressional status could help his ailing father, he would listen to the doctor’s complaints.

The phone call might have paid off. Foley said his father was “treated like a king” and served special meals throughout his hospital stay.

All the while, a nagging feeling began to form within Foley: “I was guilt-ridden at first that I wasn’t home,” he says.

Days later, he was at his father’s bedside. At that point he had no intention of leaving the campaign. His family was, as always, supporting his career. In one tearful phone conversation, his father told him not to stop his Senate race, not to give up on his dreams.

But for Foley, the nagging feeling inside only worsened as the days passed. He thought to himself, “I have to start thinking about other people for a change.”

I’m sitting there at the crossroads of my life,” he says. “This is a huge health scare, and the cancer has apparently spread. So I just sat there, completely miserable, all the while I’m thinking, I’m not a very good person in my heart.

“A week or two later, I said, ‘I can’t go on with this.’”

In September 2003, Foley dropped out of the race, triggering a media frenzy. The skeptics smelled a scandal. They wondered if Foley had dropped out because he realized he couldn’t win. They wondered if his decision in had anything to do with the news conference he held in May 2003 to declare that he would not discuss his sexual orientation after a few publications tried to out him as gay.

David Johnson, a Tallahassee-based Republican consultant who was working for Foley in 2003 when he bowed out, says the rumors were false.
“He had good money in the bank. He was raising a lot of money, but his father was ill,” Johnson says. “At the time, he said to me, ‘I’m a congressman, a son and a candidate for U.S. Senate, and one’s gotta go.’”

By that point, Foley had raised more than $3 million, 10 times his closest opponent. According to Foley, the attitude at the time was “there is no stopping him. There was a path to victory. I had an energetic reception wherever I went. People were like, ‘My God, this race is yours to win.’”

But the anxiety about his father’s condition made it impossible for him to go through with the race. “What if something happens?” Foley says he thought at the time. In trying to describe his family’s closeness, he says it would have been a “hollow victory” for him to run for the Senate without his sister by his side as his campaign manager and without his parents showing up on the stump.

“It’s just the way we do things,” he says. “We clump, we cling.

“I was supposed to give a fiery campaign speech knowing this is all about me?”

By the time Foley finally told his family members, they were more grief-stricken about it than he was. “They were crying,” he says. “I don’t want this article to make it sound like I was Florence Nightingale. I was not the bedside attendant. In my family’s time of need, it was no longer about me.”

Johnson says Foley would make a “tremendous candidate” for Senate next year, when Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is up for reelection. So far, Foley isn’t saying whether he’ll run. Johnson says it all depends on what Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) decides. “He would be a very viable candidate in 2006,” Johnson says. “I feel like a lot of folks are looking at the race. Katherine is very strong. If she came in, she would probably immediately be the front-runner.

“If Mark or anyone else came in, it would depend on the kind of campaign they would operate. But it would be difficult for anyone to overcome. If she wasn’t in the race, Mark would immediately come to mind as a front-runner.”

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Foley’s ambitious streak continued throughout his youth.

At 16 he created his own auto-detailing business. By his junior year of high school he wanted to quit and move to Manhattan to manage apartments. At 17, his ambition took a turn when he was arrested and charged with marijuana possession. The charges were later dropped.

At 20, he opened his own restaurant in downtown Lake Worth. It was called the Lettuce Patch and was paid for with money his father borrowed. In 1977, Foley became a Lake Worth County commissioner. In 1983, he became vice mayor. In 1990, he was elected to the Florida House. And in 1995, he was elected to Congress.

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Foley’s ambition these days take a more free-spirited tone than it has in the past. He says he has no idea if he’ll run for the Senate next year and isn’t concerned about it.

“The Senate doesn’t have to be the goal,” he says. “I’m not on pins and needles. I will let time dictate. It’s not something I have to decide today.”

Foley says a 2006 Senate run will depend largely on his father’s health, which for the time being is pretty good. After six months of chemotherapy, the cancer is in remission. At 83, “he’s still cranky,” Foley says. “He doesn’t have a big appetite.”

Foley adds, “I’d have to know everything was good in the family. It would take a lot.” He says President Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, has yet to call and tell him to run. “Life is such — you never know,” he says. “I’m definitely not ruling it out. Life will deal with me. I’ll know when I know.”

His father’s illness hasn’t changed their relationship — they have always been close. But some change is inevitable: “Mortality comes to mind. You start seeing your life in a different way. Your passion for the job doesn’t change, but you start taking on issues more dramatically. You start paying attention to the debate on some cancers.”

How much does he worry about his father? “You always worry about it,” he says. “You hear colleagues say, ‘Oh, I lost my mother or father,’ and you think, oh, I don’t even want to deal with that. You have to brace yourself.”

But, he says, you can’t plague yourself with whether each phone call or visit will be the last. “You’d be a nutcase,” he says.

Foley adds that he has no regrets about dropping out of the race in 2003. For him, the decision to drop out seems to have caused a metamorphosis that might not have happened otherwise.

“There was never the regret because it was for the right reason,” he says. “There was a real peacefulness that came over me. I felt like I was maturing for the first time in my life.

“I may not carry the lofty title of senator, but there is a perspective you gain. The lasting memory of family outweighs the title.”

Even so, there is some indication that Foley hasn’t given up on the sweet lure of ambition entirely. When Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) was sworn into Congress in January, Foley was by his side.

And for a second, the lawmaker who had dropped out of the race says, he looked over and thought, “That could be me.”