Connecticut can’t quite get a bead on Tom Foley.
If voters elect him governor in three weeks, polling says it will be mainly for the fact he is not Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first-term Democrat. Deep into his second run, Foley still prompts questions about who he is, why he is running and what, exactly, he would do if elected.
For a man who owns a vintage Ferrari and a fighter jet, expensive hobbies of a successful man who thrills to movement, his political persona has been reserved, his campaign to unseat a governor cautious and plodding.
So, it was unexpected when the 62-year-old Greenwich businessman playfully talked over the course of a two-hour interview about being “a little crazy” for his notable detours: bolting from prep school at age 17, taking a civilian job in Iraq at mid-career and, now, running for governor for a second time.
Foley, who tends to speak slowly in a low, flat rumble of a voice, described himself as hard-wired for speed, for the exhilaration of moving through three-dimensional space. As a boy, he dreamed of flying. Not piloting a plane, but flying like a plane or a bird, free of gravity and rules and physics.
He said he is a free-thinker, still a bit of the 17-year-old boy who talked his parents into letting him bolt from the Kent School after his junior year and hitchhike across America. It’s a long story. Drawing it from him takes work, some of it on the record, some of it off.
“That year, I became an adult,” he said. “It worked great for me. Some kids, it might not.”
His older brother, Gifford, who won the Silver Star for exploits on the ground in Vietnam as a Marine corporal, had the same DNA, even more so. He, too, loved to fly. Speed and flight were not enough. He flew acrobatics, testing the limits of man and machine. He was killed during an air show in July 1990 when his plane plunged into the Niagara River near Buffalo.
Voters know little of these things.
Foley’s campaign rhetoric is earth-bound, his personal narrative understated and crimped. As a politician, he doesn’t try to soar or emotionally connect. That’s his plan, a reflection of his analysis of what he sees as his own “skill sets” and temperament, as well as his opponent’s weaknesses.
Ignoring the taunts of Democrats and pleas of some fellow Republicans, he is sticking to a plan to define himself as the anti-Malloy and offer a broad vision of “a new direction” for Connecticut, not saying how he’ll get there. He says that Malloy has erred in raising taxes by more than $1.5 billion in 2011 to close an inherited deficit of $3.6 billion, but he never sketched out in full his own plan beyond saying he would have cut $2 billion in spending.
“I’m not being unspecific about what he’s done wrong,” Foley said. “That tax increase was a huge mistake. It slowed down the economy, no doubt about it.”
The graduate of Andover, Harvard College, the Harvard Business School, McKinsey & Co., and Citibank who grew rich recognizing and buying underperforming assets sells himself as a problem-solver ready to fix a broken and underperforming Connecticut, able and willing to bring the best and brightest to government.
“I tend to do things a little off the beaten path. People say, ‘Well, you don’t speak very emotionally.’ The business world, it’s a world of persuasive argument. It’s a world of math and logic,” Foley said. “It’s not an emotional world.”
His biggest failure? Not politics or business
Foley was seated at a corner table of the nearly empty cafeteria of the Legislative Office Building, unaccompanied by staff. He leaned forward, contemplating a question routinely asked of applicants trying to be hired as a chief executive officer:
What was your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?
It is a query that could have yielded an answer about politics or business, perhaps something about his wrenching loss in his first run for governor, when he lost to Malloy by just 6,404 votes. No man has come closer and lost in Connecticut in 56 years. He could have talked about overpaying for an acquisition, taking on so much debt it cost him control of the first company he ever bought, the Bibb Co.
Instead, Foley took a deep breath and said, “I think the biggest failure was having my first marriage not work out.”
He was 37 when he married, fresh off a long run of unbroken success, all according to plan: Two years at business consultant McKinsey & Co. after Harvard, then a stint at Citibank learning about venture capital, giving him the contacts in 1985 to bankroll his own investment firm, NTC Group.
His plan always was to own his own company, be his own boss.
“I wouldn’t have made a good person working his way up through a corporation,” Foley said. “I’m pretty outspoken. I don’t get a big charge out of doing exactly what people are telling me to do.”
Investors backed him in the purchase of three companies that made him rich: Bibb Co., a struggling textile company in Georgia; T.B. Wood’s Sons, an undervalued manufacturer in Pennsylvania; and Stevens Aviation, a subsidiary of the fading textile giant, J.P. Stevens. The novelist Tom Wolfe would have called him “a man in full,” someone who always had a plan, a blueprint taking him from one success to another.
His marriage soured quickly.
“When you are the age I was when I got married and you’ve had things go so right in your life, you think you can fix anything,” Foley said. “That was the first thing that happened to me I really couldn’t fix. And it was really, really painful, involved a young child…and felt really scary.”
His lower lip trembled as spoke, his eyes grew watery and a tear rolled down his cheek. He sat in silence, his back to the rest of the tables in the cafeteria.
“Sorry,” he said, his voice tight. “So, I went through a period of three, four years when I didn’t have control over my life in a way I had before.”
The divorce is part of his political narrative.
As was reported during his 2010 race, he and his ex-wife were arrested after an incident in 1993. She was leaving with their son, a baby. She told police he cut off her car. He says he pulled alongside her and rapped on the window, asking her to talk.
The incident was fodder at a debate after Foley questioned Malloy’s honesty, noting he was investigated as mayor of Stamford for dealings with contractors. Malloy, who was later cleared, responded by bringing up that arrest and another motor vehicle incident in 1981. After the debate, Malloy shot back: “I never drove my wife off a road.”
“I never drove my wife off the road, and she never claimed I did,” Foley said during the interview, contradicting press accounts during the 2010 campaign. “I tried to appeal to her at a traffic light, knocking at her window. That was not an anger situation.”
The charges were later dropped, and Foley played a major role in raising their son, Thomas Jr., who made a commercial for his father in 2010 and has campaigned with him in 2014. The son is now back at Harvard, finishing work on his undergraduate degree.
“Tommy’s worked out great,” he said.
Foley’s second marriage came 20 years after his first. He married Leslie Fahrenkopf at Christ Church in Celbridge, Ireland, in April 2009, four months after he ended his three-year tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. He was 57. She was 41, a former White House lawyer and daughter of a former Republican national chairman, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr.
After a miscarriage in 2010, Leslie gave birth to twins in September 2011. His first campaign commercial this year showed Foley and Tommy working under the hood of a car, Foley rolling on the lawn with the twins, and Foley and Leslie, walking hand in hand. His latest commercial also stars his wife and twins.
At his last debate, Foley said the candidates should be judged in part on their success as parents, a thinly veiled reference to the legal troubles of one of Malloy’s sons.
A relationship with Bush: political, not personal
Joe Biden, whose resentments of class and privilege were memorably recounted by Richard Ben Cramer in the book “What It Takes,” a deep and nuanced account of the 1988 race for president, used to tell friends, “There is a river of power that flows through this country.”
It flows through places like Exeter and Andover, the prep schools that prepare students for what Biden saw as the main channel of that river, the Ivy League. That river shaped Foley’s life.
Foley never returned to Kent as a student. He found the school, which was founded by an Episcopal monk to educate sons of the clergy, too rigid for his tastes. It also was a place where his older brother cast a long shadow.
After a year in Denver, where he lived with an uncle, working in a factory and reading the literature of W. Somerset Maugham, Foley looked for a place to finish prep school.
Foley said he hitchhiked to interviews at Exeter in New Hampshire and Andover in Massachusetts, showing up with long hair and a beard. Exeter was a non-starter, but Andover felt like home.
At Andover, class of ’71, he was a classmate of two future governors, Jeb Bush of Florida and Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, and Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights.” George W. Bush graduated seven years earlier.
Foley said he was not an intimate of the Bush brothers, but their larger social circles intersected. His brother, Gifford, was George W. Bush’s classmate at the Harvard Business School. (Gifford married April Hoxie, another classmate who dated the future president.) Foley, who was a Harvard undergrad while Bush was getting his MBA, said he encountered Bush once or twice.
In 1994, Bush visited Connecticut, seeking financial backing for his campaign for governor of Texas.
“He got to me through that, not through a friendship, and I agreed to help him,” Foley said. “Our relationship is political. We’re not family friends.”
Foley would become a major fundraiser for Bush’s successful campaigns for the White House in 2000 and 2004, a relationship that would send him to Iraq for sevens months, starting in August 2003, to oversee private-sector development after the fall of Saddam Hussein for the Coalition Provisional Authority.
As Foley tells the story, L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, the American in charge, told Bush during a meeting in Qatar that he needed a businessman.
“And I think I was the next business guy he ran into,” Foley said.
Not everyone moves in circles where one runs into the president. Foley said he was in Maine visiting Craig Stapleton, a close friend from Greenwich who is married to Bush’s first cousin, Dorothy Walker. Foley accompanied Stapleton to the Bush compound while the president was visiting.
Bush asked if he could go to Iraq.
“I thought he was kidding,” Foley said. “He said, ‘No, I’m not kidding. Jerry needs a business guy over there to handle the economy and the state-owned enterprises. I need you to do it’. ”
The first of two parts.