Former state Sen. John McCoy dies at 79

The Tulalip tribal member spent 17 years in the Legislature, leaving a mark on statewide policy and in his district.

By: - June 7, 2023 5:20 pm

Former Washington state Sen. John McCoy. (Legislative Support Services)

Former Washington state Sen. John McCoy, remembered as an advocate for tribal issues, the underprivileged, and the environment, and for leaving an imprint on his local community and policy statewide, died of natural causes on Tuesday. He was 79.

McCoy, a Tulalip tribal member, spent 17 years as a member of the Legislature, where he was one of the state’s longest-serving Native American lawmakers. Before becoming a state lawmaker, he served 20 years in the Air Force and did a stint as a computer technician at the White House in the 1980s. After returning to Tulalip in the 1990s, he helped establish and manage Quil Ceda Village, an economically important shopping, casino, and hotel complex in northern Snohomish County.

“He leaves a huge legacy in the Legislature, he worked on a lot of issues and was very ahead of his time,” said state Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, who was nominated to fill McCoy’s seat when he retired amid health difficulties in 2020. Robinson mentioned McCoy’s work to expand internet access (“years ago, before it got a lot of attention”) and on clean energy, as examples of his forward thinking.

“A lot of people will remember him for the work that he did around tribal education and expanding access to health care for tribal members, which is very important,” she added. “But that certainly isn’t the only thing that he did. He really looked out for all Washingtonians and particularly people who didn’t have access to a lot of resources. I mean, he was really a true champion of the underdog.”

Teri Gobin, chair of the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors, called McCoy a “visionary leader” and noted how he played an “instrumental” role with Quil Ceda Village and in setting the stage for a legal case that led to a significant agreement with the state for sharing millions of dollars in tax revenue generated within the boundaries of the tribal municipality. “He was the one who was specific in helping us create a tax base, which strengthens our sovereignty as a sovereign government,” Gobin added.

McCoy is survived by his wife Jeannie, three daughters, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, the Everett Herald reported.

A written remembrance of McCoy that Gobin shared described him as “a giant.”

It added: “He was the type of elder we grew up with, the type of man who, behind his stern expression and booming voice, was brimming with kindness and vision. He devoted his life to building that future for the people of our Tribe, our State, and our nation.”

McCoy was elected in 2002 to the House to represent the 38th District, which spans Everett, Marysville and Tulalip. In 2013 the Snohomish County Council selected him to fill an open Senate seat. He won a full Senate term the following year. “It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the people of the 38th Legislative District and our entire state,” McCoy said in a statement at the time he retired from the Senate.

Senate lawmakers adopted a resolution in 2021 honoring him. It said McCoy would “be missed for his steady leadership, strong moral compass, and his ability to find the perfect bolo tie for every occasion.”

“John McCoy was an unrelenting force for those with the least financial resources and political power in the state, giving a voice to those who did not have one in our political process,” the resolution added.

Robinson also highlighted McCoy’s support for legislation to expand dental services on reservations. A bill to strengthen voting access in tribal communities was another one of his successes as a lawmaker.

“The other thing that I learned from him and really admire him for is his ability to play the long game,” Robinson said. “He didn’t get discouraged. He knew things took time, he was willing to just keep working and working and working on an issue if he knew it was the right thing to do.”

Gobin said McCoy made key contributions in other areas, too, such as helping secure a pipeline to supply additional water to the Tulalip reservation, working to protect farm laborers, addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, and improving conditions for salmon.

Other public officials also mourned the loss of McCoy on Wednesday.

Gov. Jay Inslee in a statement called him a “fighter for students, the environment and Tribes” and said “his influence lives on in Tulalip and the halls of the state Capitol.” In Congress, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., took a moment to recognize him during a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing. And state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who served with McCoy for a decade in the Legislature, recalled him as “kind and a truly gifted lawmaker.”

Gobin said she visited with McCoy on Sunday and that he seemed calm even though he was ailing. They shared some laughs and discussed more practical matters, she said. “Everything he did,” Gobin added, “was with integrity and compassion.”

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.