Behind Foley's Swift Fall From Grace

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Opinion may be divided over whether the e-mails Florida Representative Mark Foley sent a teen-age male congressional page last year were inappropriate or even constituted outright sexual harassment. But most observers would agree that what was almost as surprising as the allegations themselves was how swiftly the six-term Republican congressman from West Palm Beach quit a thriving career on Capitol Hill after the e-mails were aired Thursday night on the ABC evening news. And a big reason for his abrupt exit, say Florida pundits, is that Foley, 52, was staring at the elements of a perfect political storm that not even a candidate from a hurricane-prone state could withstand in today's nasty election climate: not only possible accusations of pedophilia, but also the possible stain of gross hypocrisy, given Foley's high-profile legislative crusade against child sex offenders. "I am deeply sorry and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida," Foley said in a statement confirming that he would not seek re-election next month.

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His work against child sex offenders is certainly the most glaring irony of the emerging Foley scandal. Foley is a founder and co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus and has played key roles in recent legislation to protect kids, including the Volunteers for Children Act, which gives organizations that work with youths access to FBI fingerprint checks to make sure they don't hire child molesters. Foley's Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which has passed both the House and Senate, overhauls the national monitoring system for predatory pedophiles by closing legal loopholes, setting minimum registration standards and better coordinating law enforcement; he also co-sponsored measures to eliminate child pornography and exploitive child model sites on the Internet — and he has worked closely with the likes of John Walsh, host of Fox TV's popular America's Most Wanted.

Foley's aides insist that the e-mails in question do nothing to belie his commitment to child protection issues, saying the exchanges between the congressman and the page — in which Foley asks what the boy would like for his birthday and requests a picture of him — were innocuous and "nonchalant" chat. But the boy, a page in the office of Louisiana Representative Rodney Alexander, also a Republican, e-mailed other colleagues saying Foley's messages "freaked me out," and he repeatedly called the photo request "sick."

In other e-mail exchanges with the page, Foley discusses another boy who he remarks is "in really great shape — i am just finished riding my bike on a 25 mile journey now heading to the gym — what school like for you this year?" As a result, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning congressional watchdog group, has asked the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct to investigate, saying the legislators have "an obligation to protect the teenagers who come to Congress to learn about the legislative process." The committee, it said, "must investigate any allegation that a page has been subjected to sexual advances by members of the House."

Washington was rife with speculation that Foley resigned so quickly Friday because there might be similar e-mail or instant messages lying in the hard drives of other teens in the capital. But another reason is just as likely: Foley, a bachelor, has frequently worked to squelch rumors that he is gay. In 2003, he called a press conference expressly to insist that he would not answer questions about his sexuality as he prepared for a possible, but ultimately aborted Senate run in 2004.

Despite his earnest reputation on family values issues, Foley's orientation was an issue that Florida Republicans — whose leadership, including outgoing Governor Jeb Bush, has taken a sharp right turn in this decade — wrestled with nonetheless while Foley considered running for Senate (the party ultimately backed eventual winner Mel Martinez). The e-mail scandal simply would have made it more difficult for Foley to swim on that G.O.P. beach, and would have almost certainly made the next month of re-election campaigning horrific for him. (G.O.P. House Speaker Dennis Hastert today said Foley had done "the right thing" by resigning.) "When you look at how vicious political attack ads have become in this country, it's no surprise how quickly a candidate in Foley's position would say, 'It's just not worth it,'" says Susan MacManus, a political expert at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "The atmosphere is just too poisonous and venomous right now to risk it."

Foley, who represented Florida's 16th congressional district along what is known as the state's eastern Treasure Coast, wasn't exactly pristine in that regard himself. His camp charges that the e-mail leaks were part of a smear campaign by his congressional opponent, Democrat Tim Mahoney. But Mahoney, whose campaign denies that charge, had recently taken Foley to court for defamation over an attack ad that accused Mahoney of corrupt business practices that left scores of Florida workers unemployed.

Still, the bigger worry for Florida Republicans now is how to salvage Foley's seat in a year when the G.O.P.'s control of the House was looking increasingly vulnerable. Republican Representative Clay Shaw is in a fight for survival in a district just south of Foley's, and the mere presence of controversial G.O.P. Congresswoman Katherine Harris, who is challenging incumbent Senator Bill Nelson, is expected to galvanize Florida's Democratic voters. Because the state's primary elections are past, Foley's name by law must stay on the ballot.

But Florida statute also dictates that a vote for Foley becomes a vote for whoever gets the G.O.P. nod. A likely replacement for Foley is Joe Negron, a state representative from the same Treasure Coast with a squeaky-clean reputation who has a $1 million campaign chest and key state supporters built up from a bid for state attorney general that he aborted earlier this year. Negron confirmed to TIME late Friday that he is "running" and spent much of Friday afternoon trying to get the party's blessing.

But political experts like MacManus fear this sordid episode could drag Florida voter turnout, already low in midterm election years, to new depths. And Foley's resignation, they predict, will resonate well beyond Florida — and could have a downer effect on young people contemplating careers in politics. "With boomers retiring, we need the new generation to come into politics," says MacManus. "But this is the kind of episode that has a chilling effect especially on younger folks because they identify most with the kinds of things involved — the Internet, the power of bloggers and such." In other words, today's brand of personal politics may, as the congressional page might put it, end up freaking them out.

—with reporting by Barbara Liston/Orlando and Michael Peltier/Tallahassee