WASHINGTON – It was a shocking end for a rising star.

Rep. Mark Foley’s abrupt resignation from Congress on Friday ended a political career that was promising from the day he entered the House in 1995 as a swaggering leader among the big crop of freshmen who swept into office under Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution.”

He was brash. He was savvy. He looked good on television. Unlike many members of his freshman class, he had legislative experience, the result of four years in the Florida Legislature.

And he remained a favorite among House Republicans even while sometimes straying from the party line.

Foley’s signature achievement came just two months ago amid smiles and handshakes, capped by a splashy bill-signing ceremony in the White House. After years of prodding and maneuvering, Foley saw final passage of his pet project: a bill designed to get tough on sexual predators.

The new law imposes mandatory 10-year prison sentences for sex crimes against people under the age of 18. With the Internet in mind, it outlaws depictions of the sexual abuse of children and the transfer of obscene material to minors. It also shores up requirements for sex offenders to regularly report their whereabouts to authorities.

Along the way, his office sent out one public statement after another, often in bold capital letters, warning that convicted sex offenders were running loose, evading public scrutiny despite a law requiring them to be listed in a national registry.

“We track library books better than we track sex offenders,” was his frequent refrain.

It is, for him, a cruel irony that his political demise comes as result of sexually suggestive messages over the Internet with a young House page. For his staff and many supporters, the fall brought shocked silence, followed by sadness.

“We love this man,” said his chief of staff, Elizabeth Nicholson, her voice breaking when she emerged from Foley’s House office to hand reporters a statement announcing his resignation. “He is a wonderful, funny, caring man. The staff is very loyal.”

Foley, R-Fort Pierce, once appeared to have good prospects for statewide office. He seemed perfectly positioned as a maverick Republican, conservative on some issues, moderate on others, capable of taking an independent path.

He had been a Gingrich protege, and was given the rare honor of becoming a deputy House whip as a freshman in 1995. Yet he steered clear of some of the most contentious conservative causes, never trapped by a House leadership known for disciplining its members.

“We were quite a rabble-rousing bunch in those days and came in busting through the doors. We took charge and thought, “Oh, the potential!”‘ Foley once said, recalling his first years in Congress. “Most got a little too excited about the prospects and found themselves climbing a very steep hill.”

Foley tried to guide his party toward a more pragmatic strategy that did not depict government as the enemy.

“People are still looking to find efficiencies, but not the wholesale slaughter of departments,” he said in 2003. “There will not be the same youthful exuberance, not the same anti-government approach. While conservative, we recognize the value of government.”

Some Republicans had looked to Foley as a possible alternative to Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota, as the party’s challenger this year to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. But Foley backed away, citing his aged father’s health problems and the rigors of a tough statewide campaign.

All this potential ended with a sad, terse statement on Friday, thanking the people of his district for the honor of serving them. “I am deeply sorry, and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent,” he said.

A career of great promise ends with a pitiful apology.

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