Mark Foley was a popular South Florida congressman until he resigned in disgrace more than a decade ago, rocking the Republican Party and leaving it tarnished.
He’s now enjoying a political renaissance among South Florida Republicans who admire his political skills, applaud his community service, and like his support for President Donald Trump.
After almost 12 years in Congress, Foley resigned shortly before the 2006 election after the disclosure he exchanged sexually laced Internet messages with teenage boys. He’s said there was never any sexual contact, and FBI and state investigations were closed without criminal charges.
Foley misses public office, and said he’s thought about running again. Although he didn’t make a Shermanesque vow that he’d never run, he indicated there’s almost no chance his name will ever again be on an election ballot.
He’s parted with the majority of elected Republicans in one significant policy area. Though he enjoyed an “A” grade from the National Rifle Association while in office, today he supports banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines plus expanded background checks for firearms purchasers.
Foley routinely won congressional elections, in a district anchored by Palm Beach County, with two-thirds of the vote. He was cruising toward victory in 2006.
In a swift and stunning downfall, he resigned after disclosure of sexually explicit internet messages he exchanged with teens.
It was a major blow to Republicans, who already were fighting political headwinds from then-President George W. Bush’s sagging popularityand growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. The party lost control of the House that November.
Foley has apologized on multiple occasions and did so again this month at the Palm Beach County Republican Party Lobsterfest dinner. “I’m sorry for causing the party embarrassment,” he said. “I want to thank all the friends in this room, particularly those who stood by me in some of my darkest hours.”
'My life was over’
After his resignation, he went to rehab for alcohol addiction and disclosed he’d been the victim of childhood sexual abuse by a priest, something he’d kept to himself for decades.
He also came out as gay. Before then, his sexual orientation was long an open secret in South Florida and Washington, D.C.
In recent years he’s hosted a radio show and done some work in real estate, most notably the deal that resulted in a new stadium that brought the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros to the new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches for spring training starting in 2017.
He’s also been a regular at civic organizations, such as Wednesday’s gathering of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches, and at multiple political events: candidate meet-and-greets and mass rallies, club meetings and party fundraisers.
One year, he emceed Lobsterfest. Five years ago, Anita Mitchell, then county Republican chairwoman, turned to Foley to help with outreach to LGBT voters.
At this year’s Lobsterfest, on Aug. 15 in Boca Raton, Foley was lionized, and presented with the only award given out at the dinner, for community service.
“I love this man,” Karen Giorno told the crowd of 450. “I literally could do 45 pages of his accomplishments.”
Giorno was Trump’s Florida director for much of the 2016 campaign. When she had her first meeting with Trump, at his golf course in Doral, Giorno said the first person he told her to contact was Foley.
The keynote speaker, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, paused in the middle of his remarks to give a shout out to “a man who doesn’t need to apologize because let he who is without sin cast the first stone, that great American patriot, Congressman Mark Foley.”
With the increasing frequency of mass shootings, Foley now differs with many Republican elected officials on combating gun violence.
He said he isn’t wavering in his support for the Second Amendment. But, Foley said, “You can’t keep watching this carnage and saying, ‘everything’s fine.’ You can’t," he said. "If we can ban texting [while driving] we should be able to ban assault rifles.”
Foley also supports expanding background checks for firearms purchasers and extreme risk protection orders, which allow removal of weapons from people who pose threats. “You have to start getting weapons out of the hands of people who are demented, who should not possess weapons.”
When Foley spoke at Lobsterfest, he sounded like a candidate.
He talked about his grandmother, a Polish immigrant who worked as a maid at a Travelodge, and his grandfather, a cop. He praised border patrol agents, law enforcement officers and military service members.
“What has happened to our society? What has happened to our values? What has happened to our country? We must awaken the spirit of our democracy,” Foley said. “We must recognize that we all have to participate in restoring the moral order of this nation.”
He praised the Republican Party as “all about the American ideals, the values, and the ethics of the greatest country on earth.”
Foley said in an interview he misses the public arena. “Of course. This was my life for so many years. And you know it’s hard to be in a room with people that were your huge supporters and you let them down. So, there’s a bit of, you know, sadness.”
He still had $955,000 in his campaign account as of June 30, federal campaign finance reports show, down from $1.7 million immediately after he left office in 2006. He’s spent money on charitable contributions and buying tables at various civic and political events.
A comeback would be difficult. Though embraced by many Republicans in Palm Beach County, when Foley’s name comes up publicly in connection with a political event — such as his prominent seat at a 2016 Trump rally at the BB&T Center in Sunrise — controversy erupts online.
And when Foley was seen in a 2018 fundraiser picture with Donald Trump Jr. and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, the Florida Democratic Party blasted out a statement labeling Foley “a sexual predator accused of harassing children.”
Foley all but ruled out running again.
“That ship’s kind of sailed. I’m 65 this September, next month,” he said. “As I sail into the sunset I think about life. And I’ve thought about it, no question. I’m not denying that I’ve thought maybe there’s a chance to get back in and serve in Congress, but as time goes on, I start getting less and less animated towards that conversation,” he said.
“I didn’t leave the way I would have loved to have left, but it is what it is,” he said. “Being back here and being part of this community is just thrilling to me.”