tampabay.com

Public servant, secret life

Mark Foley, congressman, hid that he was Mark Foley, gay man. Friends say the deception was the beginning of his undoing.

By BILL ADAIR
Published October 8, 2006


WASHINGTON - Mark Foley loved being adored.

He was thrilled to hear people call him "Congressman." He could tell you each time his picture had been on the front page of the New York Times - and precisely where he appeared in the photo. He once interrupted a bike ride and raced home for a chance to be on Fox News.

It seemed like everyone in the Capitol knew he was gay, but when friends urged him to be open about it, he refused. He was afraid Florida voters wouldn't understand.

And so Foley hid in plain sight, living a high-profile life, driving around Washington in his BMW convertible, but never acknowledging who he was.

Friends and colleagues who are trying to understand his sexual conversations with teenage pages say Foley's love of adoration, under the cloak of his gay life, led him to prey on the pages.

"When people are living a life of secrets and lies, it does beget more secrets and lies," said Eric Johnson, an openly gay congressional staffer who has known Foley, a Fort Pierce Republican, for more than 14 years.

So who was Mark Foley?

He was an ambitious Republican who sometimes groused that he had to vote with his party instead of his conscience. He was a gregarious man who chatted with everyone. And he was a shrewd manipulator who understood that his words - in handwritten notes, e-mails and instant messages - were a currency of power.

 ***

I'm glad to hear your sic busy in school and your working with Brian Bilbray office and setting up the young Republican network. Please stay in touch and we can get together in San Diego during the convention.

- Handwritten note from Foley to a former page, 1995

 ***

Friends, neighbors, congressional colleagues and former staffers spoke in glowing terms about Foley's political and social skills, even as they condemned his behavior with teenage boys.

They say they were always amused by his fondness for the limelight.

"A media hog," said former Rep. Dan Miller, a Bradenton Republican who lived next door to Foley on Capitol Hill.

But journalists loved him.

Foley, 52, delivered snappy off-the-cuff quotes that were better than anything a press secretary could write. And he often dished gossip about his fellow Republicans.

He had an elaborate strategy to appear in photos and TV coverage. He arrived a few minutes early for news conferences, determined the camera locations and stood in a prominent position slightly to one side of the podium. If other members of Congress tried to ease him out of the way, Foley held his ground.

He said appearing in photos was a way to show constituents he was doing his job.

"People want to know you are actively involved," he said. "A picture speaks a thousand words."

His friends and colleagues say they suspect there was a deeper motive at work. They describe him as an insecure man who craved attention.

Former U.S. Rep. Harry A. Johnston, a Democrat who represented an adjoining South Florida district, said Foley would be self-deprecating to a large crowd, "and in a small group, he would tell you how important he was in Washington."

Most members dread fundraising, but Foley loved it. He hosted frequent parties at his Capitol Hill townhouse. Lobbyists in business suits could be seen gathering outside to smoke their cigars.

Likewise, Foley loved hanging out with celebrities. He got a plum assignment seven years ago when he was chosen to be a Republican liaison with Hollywood. GOP leaders were jealous that so many famous actors and singers were Democrats. They wanted Foley to build relationships so Republicans could tap into Hollywood star power - and money.

At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, Foley hosted a raucous party at a nightclub called Shampoo that featured singer Jon Secada. Foley was beaming as he took the stage with the pop singer. Finally, Foley was the celebrity he had always wanted to be, and could use his fame to boost the image of the Republican Party.

"We want to be hip," Foley told the Philadelphia Inquirer that night. "We want people to like us. We're not afraid to let our hair down."

 ***

I just e-mailed will ... hes such a nice guy ... acts much older than his age ... and hes in really great shape ... I am just finished riding my bike on a 25 mile journey now heading to the gym...whats school like for your this year?

- E-mail to a former page, 2005

 ***

One of Foley's closest friends in Congress was Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Republican from Brooksville. When she ran for Congress in 2002, Foley was the only one in the Florida delegation who would campaign for her.

Foley often joked with Brown-Waite about the challenges of being gay. She said she doesn't remember the actual jokes, but says they would trigger conversations about the political ramifications if Foley were to be open about his sexuality.

Many friends urged him to come out of the closet. They said it would allow him to be honest about himself and would make a positive statement for the Republican Party, which had only one other openly gay House member, Jim Kolbe of Arizona.

Brown-Waite said his refusal to be public about his personal life allowed the darker side of his personality to fester.

"He put shackles on himself by staying in the closet," she said.

Some of Foley's gay friends accuse Republican leaders of giving him an incentive to hide his sexuality. They say party leaders wanted it hidden to placate Christian conservatives, and then rewarded Foley with a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee and other perks of power.

"Mark sold his soul to the party," said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political group. The party "told him to keep his orientation closeted and he would be rewarded."

Foley voted with the Republicans on key bills such as intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo. But he had regrets.

"He at times expressed frustration at what he considered the ultra-right wing of the party," said Brown-Waite. On the Schiavo bill, Foley told her, "I should have voted my conscience on that one."

He voted with Republicans on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which said states and the federal government could not recognize same-sex marriages, a vote that angered many in the gay community. But he supported other gay rights initiatives.

He kept his lives separate.

Staffers in his congressional office knew he was gay, but he didn't discuss it with most of them. He would talk in code words, saying he didn't know if he could win a U.S. Senate campaign "because I'm not conservative enough."

Although his attorney has said he is being treated for alcoholism, friends and colleagues say they saw no evidence of a drinking problem.

"I have seen Mark take a drink of wine that he nurses all night long," Brown-Waite said. "I never saw him inebriated, never saw him even close, never saw him slur a word."

For years, friends urged him to be open about his sexuality.

Wolfe, a former aide to Gov. Lawton Chiles and an influential gay leader in Washington, told Foley that the gay community would provide strategic help for his campaign.

"There's no reason to think you can't win," he recalls telling Foley. "We would do polling and do whatever it took."

But Foley said voters - and his parents - would not understand.

Some of his friends and colleagues blame the media for hiding his sexuality. Most political journalists knew he was gay but did not believe it was an appropriate topic to write about.

"The media was always part of this worst-kept secret," said Johnson, who worked on Foley's 1992 state Senate campaign and now works as chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler.

Johnson said he believes Foley was emboldened by the secrecy.

"I think he got a sense of invulnerability."

 ***

how are you weathering the hurricane ... are you safe ... send me an email pic of you as well....

- E-mail to a former page, 2005

 ***

Some people get into politics because of a deep sense of public service. Foley did it for the glamor.

He has told interviewers that the magic moment came when he was 5 or 6 years old and saw the adulation his local congressman received at a shopping mall.

Foley was born in Massachusetts but grew up in South Florida. His father, Ed, was a high school principal, and his mother, Frances, worked for an eye doctor. They were devout Catholics who took the family to church every week, according to a 2003 profile in the Palm Beach Post. Last week, when Foley's attorney announced his client was gay, he said Foley had been sexually molested as a child by someone in the clergy.

Foley attended community college and at age 20 opened a Lake Worth sandwich shop called the Lettuce Patch.

He got involved in politics and served on the Lake Worth City Commission. He ran unsuccessfully for the state House and the County Commission as a Democrat. He got elected to the state House after he switched parties and ran as a Republican.

He gave an effective speech.

"He would speak to the liberals and the conservatives and both sides thought he was for them," said Johnston, the retired Democratic congressman.

Foley was ambitious. He served in the state House just one term and then ran for the state Senate. In 1994, after just two years in the Senate, he decided to run for an open congressional seat. In a year the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress, Foley won easily.

In Congress, he backed the "Contract with America," the manifesto that helped lead to the GOP takeover, but he also supported abortion rights. The 1996 Politics in America directory called him "pragmatic" and "mainstream."

In 2003, Foley launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bob Graham, who was running for president. There was widespread speculation about Foley's sexuality, and many key Republicans believed it would hurt his chances.

When Foley visited Al Austin, an influential Tampa Republican, that was the first question.

"What about your background?" Austin asked.

"My personal life is not going to be an issue," Foley assured him, according to Austin.

Accompanied by his sister Donna, who managed his campaign, Foley drove the state. He spoke to civic groups, Republican clubs and editorial boards. His moderate voting record would be an asset in a general election, but it could hurt in a Republican primary, which is dominated by the party's conservative base. So Foley emphasized new issues with more conservative appeal.

He called for tougher laws on child pornography and criticized a nudist resort in Pasco County that had plans for a summer camp for teenagers. A July 2003 story in the St. Petersburg Times called him "one of Washington's leading advocates for missing and exploited kids."

He was his usual quotable self. When the Supreme Court struck down a child pornography law, Foley said the court had "sided with pedophiles."

Rumors about his gay life persisted. When he believed that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel was about to publish a story about his sexuality, he quickly arranged a conference call with the state's political reporters. But he said he would not address the "revolting and unforgivable" rumors.

"I'm declaring today that I have a right to privacy, like anyone else in this country," Foley said. "The fact that I'm not married has led many people to speculate, but I'm not going to be dragged into the gutter by these rumormongers."

 ***

Teenager: tomorrow i have the first day of lacrosse practice

Foley: love to watch that ... those great legs running

- Instant-message exchange from 2003, as reported by ABC News

 ***

Three months after his conference call about the rumors, Foley ended his Senate campaign. His father had prostate cancer and Foley said he needed to focus on his family.

But many Republicans say they think the real reason was his sexuality. He did not want a public debate about whether he was gay.

Friends say the summer of 2003 marked a distinct change in Foley's personality.

Wolfe, a longtime friend, had a falling-out with him because of Foley's remarks in the conference call. In Wolfe's eyes, Foley was not only hiding his sexuality, he was condemning gay life as "revolting."

Brown-Waite, his congressional colleague, noticed that her usually upbeat friend had lost his enthusiasm.

"After he gave up the Senate attempt, there was a sadness there," she said. "It wasn't the same Mark after that. He wasn't as jovial."

She said he might have felt abandoned by some Republican leaders who had stuck by him for years but had not backed his Senate campaign.

"He started to age a lot after that," she said. "He got gray very fast. He just didn't have the spark."

Times staff writers Tamara Lush, Jennifer Liberto, Adam C. Smith and Elena Lesley and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.

For much more breaking political news, check out www.blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.