TULALIP — Former state Sen. John McCoy — a Tulalip tribal member who often served as the only Native American voice in the state’s Legislature during his 17-year tenure — died Tuesday.
McCoy was surrounded by family and loved ones at his house in Tulalip when he died of natural causes. He was 79.
“People have been coming up to me, saying what an incredible life and incredible career Dad had, but Dad didn’t just have one life and one career — he had several,” said Angela McCoy, John McCoy’s eldest daughter, in an interview Wednesday.
“Any other person in the world would have been honored to have any one of his careers — to have done just a fraction of the work that he’s accomplished,” Angela McCoy continued. “I’m immensely proud of everything that Dad did.”
Born on the Tulalip Reservation, John McCoy followed his father’s footsteps and joined the U.S. Armed Forces as a young man. He served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years and spent time at bases in Germany, Turkey and across the United States.
After retiring from the Air Force, John McCoy returned to Tulalip where he took over as the executive director of governmental affairs and managed the tribe’s business. He was instrumental in the founding of the Tulalip Resort Casino.
Because of McCoy’s work, the Tulalip Tribes were able to create a tax base by cutting a deal with the state to earn a portion of sales tax from the Quil Ceda shopping village, Tulalip Chair Teri Gobin said.
“It was strategic and about strengthening our sovereignty,” Gobin said in an interview Wednesday. “He brought us into a new age.”
Gobin went on to list more accomplishments, like expanding broadband and securing a water line between Spada Lake and Everett.
“He worked at breaking down barriers, building bridges and educating tribal and non-tribal people on how we were more alike than different,” Gobin said. “He was a visionary, and he made a huge difference.”
Angela McCoy said her father’s military background may have seemed strict to some, but not to their family. She said it translated to a strong sense of morals, ethics and duty in life that he carried with him always.
“If there’s a rule that’s unjust or an oversight, then you work at getting it changed,” Angela McCoy said Wednesday. “While business manager for Tulalip, he spent so much time in Olympia lobbying for different pieces of legislation that lobbyists and legislative members would joke, ‘You spend so much time down here, you might as well run.’ And he did.”
John McCoy ran for state representative as a Democrat in 2002 in the 38th Legislative District, representing Everett, Marysville and Tulalip. He won, and he continued to win reelection until 2013 when the Snohomish County Council selected him to fill a vacancy in the state Senate.
As a lawmaker, he fought for tribal sovereignty, education and the environment. John McCoy pushed for the passage of the Native American Voting Rights Act to expand voting access in tribal communities. He was also key to the 2015 passage of “Since Time Immemorial” tribal educational practices at Washington K-12 schools.
“He made sure that when (Washington) schools taught about Native history, they talked about local Native tribes, not just plains or Navajo,” Angela McCoy said. “There was a push to use local tribal resources and people to help teach field trips to the Hibulb Cultural Center.”
His legislative work also created structure for tribes to develop their own curriculum about their cultures, language and teachings instead of relying on non-Native school districts to develop those lessons. John McCoy also built bridges between the tribes and universities.
This year, John McCoy and wife Jeannie — who grew up together in Tulalip — celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary.
“He was a dedicated leader, active in the community, proud United States Air Force veteran, tireless advocate for Washingtonians throughout our state, and a role model for all of us who choose to serve the public,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said in a statement. “Snohomish County and the state of Washington are more innovative, healthier, and economically stronger because of his lifetime of service. My deepest condolences go out to his family, many friends, and the Tulalip Tribes.”
In April 2020, John McCoy retired from the state Senate in a letter of resignation to Gov. Jay Inslee.
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the people of the 38th Legislative District and our entire state,” John McCoy said. “When I first came to the Legislature in 2003 as a member of the House of Representatives, I was humbled to represent such warm and vibrant people in Everett, Marysville and Tulalip. 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. I am deeply grateful for that privilege.
“To my community members: thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to fight for you. Thank you for the chance to work with you and to bring your ideas to life at the Legislature. And thank you for trusting me with such an important job – elevating your voices and building a state where every one of us can thrive.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen also expressed his condolences.
“As a citizen and as a member of the State Legislature, John was a formidable advocate for tribal rights — for the Tulalip Tribes and for all tribes,” Larsen said in a statement. “He focused on expanding access to education through new technologies and by ensuring that Washington state education included knowledge of Native peoples.”
John McCoy is survived by his wife Jeannie, three daughters (Angela McCoy, Sheila Hillaire and Cara Tohannie), 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
To celebrate his life and legacy, the McCoy family is welcoming friends and colleagues to services at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Tulalip Gathering Hall and 9 a.m. Monday in the Tulalip Resort Casino. Family members also hope to hold a memorial in Olympia in the future.
This a developing story. Check back for updates.