Special to Indian Country Today
It’s easy to find high praise for Democrat John McCoy, Tulalip, within Indian Country or from members of his own party.
But praise that comes from the other side of the aisle tells volumes about the relationships McCoy nurtured during his 17 years representing the 38th District — 40 miles north of Seattle — in Washington’s state Legislature.
“I’ve always admired him,” said state Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-Spokane, who served with McCoy in the House and Senate. “He always treated his colleagues very respectfully. In fact, I would consider him to fit the definition of an ‘elder statesman.’ He’s very personable, very respectful, and he’s sort of generous in wanting to help his colleagues — some of his newer, younger colleagues — to be successful.”
McCoy, 76, resigned April 17 from the state Senate because of health reasons. The Snohomish County Council will select an appointee in May from a list of three names submitted by the district’s Democratic Party precinct committee officers. The term expires Dec. 31, 2022.
McCoy’s retirement caps a long public service career that includes 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, four years as a computer technician in the White House, and 10 years as general manager of Quil Ceda Village, an incorporated village on the Tulalip Reservation.
He was first elected in 2002 to the state House, was appointed to a state Senate vacancy in 2013, and was elected to the Senate in 2014 and reelected in 2018. In his last year, he chaired the Senate Democratic Caucus and served on the Senate Natural Resources Committee; Agriculture, Water, Trade & Economic Development Committee; and the Rules Committee. He also served on the National Conference of State Legislatures committees related to the environment; labor and economic development; and communications, financial services and interstate commerce.
During his tenure in the Legislature, there were never more than five legislators who were tribal members or identified as Indigenous – in a state with 29 federally recognized tribal nations. Several laws he sponsored improved education, health care, voting rights and broadband access for Native Americans in Washington, but he’s proud that his work advanced equality of opportunity for all Washingtonians, Native and non-Native.
In an April 16 letter to his Senate colleagues, McCoy wrote: “It has been the greatest honor to serve the people of Washington alongside you. It has been a gift to advocate for marginalized and disenfranchised Washingtonians, to lift up the voices of our sovereign tribal communities, to expand access to – and quality of – education and health care, and to do so with a team of dedicated public servants.”
McCoy authored or co-sponsored legislation that changed the state.
- Public schools are incorporating Native American history, culture and tribal governance in their history and social studies curriculum, thereby improving all students’ understanding of an important part of Washington history – and the peoples with whom they interact.
- The state is ceding jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters on tribal lands to tribal governments, thereby resolving jurisdictional conflicts.
- Dental health therapists – the dental equivalent of a nurse practitioner – are being trained and licensed to provide dental care on reservations, improving access to care.
- Wireless service providers are required to provide call-location information for cell phones in emergencies, improving public safety response.
- Students struggling with behavioral and emotional issues have better access to mental health services.
- Immigrant workers are protected against workplace and wage discrimination.
- Tribal governments and the state will soon begin entering compacts for the sharing of sales tax revenue generated on tribal lands, in the same way that the state returns to counties and cities a share of sales tax revenue generated in those jurisdictions.
Several McCoy-sponsored bills that became law in 2020 – among them, establishing a sustainable-farm-and-fields grant program, toughening requirements of farm labor contractors, improving conditions for farm laborers, and improving voter access and voter-registration requirements on reservations – had bipartisanship sponsorship.
“I am proud and honored to have my colleagues’ support on a number of my policies that serve Washingtonians in tangible, critical ways,” McCoy said in March. “Each of these bills was brought to the table by members of my community. We have been fighting long and hard for students, farm workers, Native Americans. We’ve been fighting long and hard for Washingtonians in need.”
While McCoy established himself not as a Native American legislator but as a legislator who happened to be Native American, his departure from the Senate leaves a void. State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit/Aleut, is now the sole Indigenous voice among 147 representatives and senators.
The equality of opportunity for Native Americans that McCoy achieved did not come easy. His earlier efforts to require public schools to teach Native American history and culture were unsuccessful; he could only get his colleagues to support encouraging public schools to do so. His efforts to get the state to recognize Quil Ceda Village as a municipality – it is federally chartered – failed, leading to the Tulalip Tribes’ lawsuit challenging the state’s taxation of business transacted by non-Indians there. The lawsuit was settled when the Legislature adopted a law clearing the way for sales tax revenue-sharing agreements between the state and tribal governments.
It took tenacity and years of nurturing relationships to make a difference.
“It leaves a huge void here,” Tulalip Tribes Vice Chairman Glen Gobin said of McCoy’s retirement. “He’s been an ambassador for Indian Country in Olympia. One of the things he did was provide a session on ‘Treaties 101’ and ‘Indian Country 101’ for legislators. He was a real ambassador in that regard. He wanted legislators to not be afraid to ask questions and to know he would respond to them.”
Hawkins recalled attending one of those orientations after he joined the Senate in 2017. “Sen. McCoy set up a Native American history orientation and brought in a local attorney and provided that perspective to the newly elected members of the state Senate,” Hawkins said. “It’s still ongoing, and I found it to be very informative and helpful.”
Hawkins and McCoy served together this session on the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee; Hawkins is the ranking Republican member. He said McCoy’s experience and wisdom had the respect of legislators on both sides of the aisle.
“One of the things I think I’ll remember about Sen. McCoy is that it seemed our colleagues would perk up whenever he had a question or would say something in committee,” Hawkins said. “When he spoke on an issue, we definitely wanted to make sure we honored him with our full attention. He worked hard on a variety of issues – education, broadband, Native American issues.”
‘They told me to stay in the Legislature’
McCoy was born on the Tulalip Reservation but lived all over California as a “Navy brat,” returning to Tulalip when his father took leave. The younger McCoy joined the U.S. Air Force in 1961, retired in 1981, then went to work as a computer technician in the Reagan White House.
He worked in the private sector through the 1990s, returning to the reservation in 2000 to help implement Tulalip leaders’ economic development vision for Quil Ceda Village. Located along Interstate 5, the village quickly became an economic juggernaut, attracting major retailers and the state’s largest outlet mall to complement the Tulalip Hotel Casino Resort, Tulalip Amphitheater and various cultural and outdoor amenities. Quil Ceda Village is now one of the largest sources of jobs in the region.
“John did what our elders taught us – go out into the world and get an education, get some experience and knowledge, then bring those skills back and help the tribe,” Gobin said.
McCoy was elected to the state House in 2002 and took office in January 2003, but in 2008 thought of leaving the House for a position on the tribal council – formally known as the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors. “I got only 80 votes,” he recalled. “Tribal constituents told me to stay in the Legislature.”
Gobin added, “Coming back, helping the tribe, getting involved in state politics, being that ambassador – Tulalip voters wanted him there [in the Legislature].”
Indian Country leaders here are glad McCoy did.
The state Democratic Party’s Native American Caucus “will always appreciate Sen. John McCoy and Rep. Debra Lekanoff’s work to pass the Native Voters Rights Bill in Washington state, especially since one county took two weeks after the state election to pick up a ballot voting box [on a reservation],” caucus chairwoman Julie Sa’Leit’Sa’ Kwina Johnson, Lummi, said.
“John also worked hard with our Native education leaders to include an Indian education curriculum in all state public schools. I’m hoping Snohomish County will appoint a Native to take his place.”
Swinomish Tribe Chairman Steve Edwards called McCoy a “champion for expanding educational opportunities for all Washington students,” especially Native American students. “I am deeply grateful for John’s leadership and dedication to improving the lives of all Washingtonians and for everything he has done for Washington’s Native peoples.”
In retirement, McCoy and his wife, Jeannie, plan on spending more time with their three daughters, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the people of the 38th Legislative District and our entire state,” McCoy said in announcing his retirement. “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.”
Richard Arlin Walker (Mexican/Yaqui) is an Indian Country Today contributor reporting from Anacortes, Washington.