Longtime Washington State Sen. John McCoy, Champion of Indigenous Rights, Dies


OLYMPIA — Former state Sen. John McCoy, a Democrat who during his 17-year tenure in the Legislature worked to boost K-12 education, protect the environment and expand the rights of Indigenous people, died Tuesday. He was 79.

Born on the Tulalip Reservation in the midst of the second World War, McCoy would grow up to embark on a military career that took him around the world.

But in the 1990s, he returned to Washington, serving his community first in tribal government and eventually in the state Legislature, where he championed Native peoples' rights and other needs of his constituents.

"Everybody asks, what's your toughest job?" McCoy said in a speech in 2009, six years into his legislative career. "My toughest job is serving two sovereigns. And if, at the end of the day, if I did no harm to either, I've had a great day."

He said he was committed to representing his district beyond the Tulalip Reservation.

"People like to label me the representative from Indian country," McCoy said. "I think I've proven that I represent all the citizens within my district."

Teri Gobin, chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, said McCoy was "a great advocate" for tribes locally and throughout the country. She said he took the time to listen and share his knowledge with his colleagues in the Legislature.

"That was what made a difference," Gobin said. "He would listen and he would hear the challenges facing Indian country and treaty rights, and bring us forward so he could make others understand it, where usually it was us from the outside trying to go in and explain it to representatives or senators."

"But having him there helped bring our issues forward a little bit better," she said.

McCoy was born in 1943, the eldest of five children. His father was in the Navy, and in a March 2022 interview for the Tulalip History Project, McCoy recalled attending 14 different K-12 schools throughout his childhood. The day after his high school graduation, his cousin drove him back to Washington, where he worked as a fisherman.

"As you know, fishing around here is hard work," McCoy told "Hibulb Conversations" host Mytyl Hernandez in the Tulalip History Project interview, adding, "And quite honestly, I got tired of being cold and wet all the time."

But a strong work ethic would propel him through decades of public service, which began in November 1961, when he joined the U.S. Air Force, working in Texas, Turkey and Germany in the following years.

He started dating the woman who would become his wife, Jeannie, while serving at the Blaine Air Force Station in Whatcom County at the station's communication center, according to a draft of a biography written by Tessa Campbell. They married in January 1965.

During the Vietnam War, McCoy was sent to the Philippines to work at Clark Air Force Base, initially across the street from the morgue, remembering "flatbed trucks piled high," he told Hernandez. The Air Force reassigned him in 1968 and McCoy returned to the United States.

He trained as an Air Force computer programmer, then worked in the private sector and began to do contract work on computers and technology, including for the White House during the Reagan administration, according to Campbell's draft biography.

In the early 1990s, McCoy returned to Tulalip. He worked in different roles for the Tulalip Tribes, from management in the Tulalip casino to economic development. He helped to bring computers and high-speed internet to the reservation and to develop the Quil Ceda Village shopping center. The Puget Sound Business Journal named McCoy executive of the year for his work on that development in 2005.

He served five terms in the state House of Representatives starting in 2003, representing Snohomish County's 38th legislative district.

In 2005, he sponsored legislation that encouraged schools to teach the history of local tribes, which was later strengthened to require that schools teach students about tribal sovereignty in Washington using a curriculum called Since Time Immemorial or other tribally developed curriculum.

In 2013 he was appointed to the state Senate after Sen. Nick Harper resigned. In the Senate, McCoy worked to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act in 2019, which made changes such as allowing voters on reservations to use nontraditional addresses and to use tribal identification to register to vote.

He also helped expand dental care on reservations and to pass the Kelsey Smith Act, which required telecommunications companies to provide call-location information to police in an emergency involving serious risk of death or harm.

He retired from the Senate in April 2020.

"Through changes in committees, leadership roles, and even chambers over the course of my legislative career, it was always an immense privilege to represent my neighbors," McCoy said in a statement upon his retirement. "I am deeply grateful for that privilege."

His death this week prompted fond remembrances from Washington political and tribal leaders.

Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, remembered McCoy kindly taking her under his wing in the early 2000s, while she was working as governmental affairs director for the Swinomish tribe. When she was sworn in as a state representative years later, in 2019, she and McCoy were the only Native American legislators.

McCoy did "groundbreaking work" building the relationship between Washington's federally recognized tribes and state government, she said.

"I think John brought a voice to the state that had never been heard before within the floor of the People's House," Lekanoff said, adding that he "brought communities of color to feel as if this is a place where their voice matters."

In a tweet Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee said McCoy "was an inspiring and effective leader whose dynamism as a legislator served everyone in our state."

"His influence lives on in Tulalip and the halls of the state Capitol," he said.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who leads Democrats in the Senate and served with McCoy for a decade, said McCoy was "gracious, thoughtful, kind and a truly gifted lawmaker."

"He cared deeply about the environment, education and was a tireless advocate for any issues that impacted Indigenous communities," Billig said in a statement. "I learned so much from John and am honored to call him a friend and mentor. He was truly one of a kind."

Lekanoff described McCoy as compassionate and as someone who inspired others to be better people.

"When you're with John, you stand up a little taller, you are more attentive," Lekanoff said. "You are aware that you are standing next to a man who is very well respected as a Native American leader, as a veteran and as an elected official."

McCoy "never forgot where he came from," said Chelsea Craig, assistant principal of Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary School in Marysville. She also works at the district level supporting the Since Time Immemorial and the Tulalip sovereignty curriculum.

"Tulalip was ingrained in his heart, in everything that he did," Craig said.