George R. Nethercutt Jr., Who Ousted a House Speaker, Dies at 79


George R. Nethercutt Jr., who as a first-time candidate for Congress in 1994 defeated Thomas S. Foley of Washington State, making Mr. Foley the first House speaker to be ousted by voters since the Civil War era, died on Friday in Colorado. He was 79.

His death, near Denver, was confirmed by his son, Elliott, who said the cause was complications of a neurological disease. The Spokesman Review of Spokane, Wash., reported that Mr. Nethercutt had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disease that affects walking, balance, eye movements and swallowing.

Voters in Washington State had approved a ballot initiative in 1992 to impose a three-term limit on members of Congress — a limit that Mr. Foley, who died in 2013, had not only opposed but also successfully challenged in court. After unseating Mr. Foley in 1994, Mr. Nethercutt vowed to serve no more than three terms but reneged on that pledge in 2000 and was re-elected twice more.

Mr. Nethercutt was a 50-year-old Spokane lawyer and political neophyte when he denied Mr. Foley a 16th two-year term, winning with 50.9 percent of the vote to Mr. Foley’s 49 percent. His victory was part of the Republican midterm sweep galvanized by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” campaign. The G.O.P. tide also flipped the makeup of Washington State’s House delegation to seven Republicans and two Democrats from an 8-1 Democratic majority.

George Rector Nethercutt Jr. was born on Oct. 7, 1944, in Spokane to George and Nancy (Sampson) Nethercutt. His father was president of the local school board in the 1960s.

George Jr. earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington State University in 1967 and a law degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane in 1971.

He clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Plummer in Alaska, then went to work for Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska as his chief of staff before practicing law in his home state, where he specialized in adoptions. He served as the Spokane County Republican chairman and was an active supporter of George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.

In 1992, Washington voters approved a ballot measure limiting limit House members to three two-year terms and Senators to a pair of six-year terms. Mr. Foley sued and the United States Supreme Court declared the provision unconstitutional, ruling that the state was not empowered to set limits on federal offices.

After winning the 1994 Republican primary, Mr. Nethercutt accused Mr. Foley of having lost touch with his constituents, but Mr. Nethercutt’s promise to abide by a self-imposed three-term limit was considered decisive. (He repeatedly invoked the title of his rival’s lawsuit: “Foley against the People of the State of Washington.”)

Mr. Nethercutt campaigned with the support of Republicans nationally and the National Rifle Association, positioning himself as the most congenial candidate. Appearing in one campaign advertisement with his golden retriever, Chestnut, he complained that Mr. Foley had accused him of everything except kicking his dog.

“I’d never hurt you, Chestnut,” Mr. Nethercutt said, hugging the dog.

In their final debate, Mr. Foley felt compelled to reply, “George, I’m not after the dog, believe me.”

Mr. Foley was the first House speaker to be voted out of office since William Pennington, a Republican from New Jersey, in 1860.

Mr. Nethercutt was awarded a seat on the House Appropriations Committee. He co-founded the Congressional Diabetes Caucus (his daughter had juvenile diabetes).

In 2004, President George W. Bush urged him to challenge Senator Patty Murray of Washington. He lost and retired from elective office.

Mr. Nethercutt founded a nonpartisan foundation to promote civics, which worked with the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. In 2010, he wrote “In Tune With America: Our History in Song.”

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Mary Beth (Socha) Nethercutt, whom he married in 1977; a daughter, Meredith Nethercutt Krisher; a sister, Nancy Nethercutt Gustafson; a brother, John Irving Nethercutt; and a granddaughter.



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