Boeing lobbyist shunned limelight, accomplished much

The Seattle TimesDecember 29, 2013 

Forrest “Bud” Coffey kept out of the limelight, but as Boeing’s longtime chief lobbyist his accomplishments included a one-day passage of a bill protecting the company from a potential takeover by oilman T. Boone Pickens Jr.

He was also instrumental in keeping the Mariners and Seahawks from leaving Seattle and building Safeco and CenturyLink fields.

Coffey died Dec. 19 at Franke Tobey Jones assisted-living facility in Tacoma. He was 86.

For decades, Coffey was called the state’s most influential lobbyist. He worked behind the scenes to develop strong relationships in the Legislature, allowing him to influence tax, transportation, labor, education and environmental policies. He was the face of Boeing, but friends and colleagues say there wasn’t anything that didn’t have his fingerprints on it.

“Bud was kind of a legend — a larger-than-life kind of person,” said Randy Hodgins, vice president of external affairs at the University of Washington. Hodgins worked his way up to staff director of the Senate Ways and Means Committee in the Legislature in the ’90s, allowing him to watch Coffey make a name for himself.

“Part of Bud’s legacy was because of the company he represented, but part of it was just Bud — the kind of person he was,” Hodgins said.

Coffey grew up in Kansas, joined the Navy after high school and then attended Wichita State University for two years before starting at Boeing in 1948 at age 21.

He ultimately moved from Kansas to the Pacific Northwest, where he moved up the ladder to become the company’s vice president of government affairs. He started lobbying for Boeing in Olympia in 1971 and stayed for nearly a quarter century.

“He is really the father of modern government relations at The Boeing Co.,” said Al Ralston, who worked with Coffey at Boeing for more than 10 years and took Coffey’s position when he retired.

Coffey trained his staff — by example — to be at the Capitol a half-hour before the first hearing and to stay until a half-hour after the last one. He would arrive early and meet legislators for coffee, then leave late to speak with the last man out the door.

“When people only see you when you need a favor, you don’t have much of a chance of being successful,” said Paul Seely, a Boeing lobbyist who worked for Coffey in Olympia for nearly 15 years. “Bud knew that and taught us that.”

During his tenure with Boeing, Coffey’s colleagues remember him most for his work at keeping Pickens, a Texas oil man and corporate raider, from triggering a speculative takeover battle for Boeing. In 1987, Pickens announced he would buy a 15 percent stake, which Boeing watchers feared would put the company in play. Reports at the time said Ford Motor Co. might be interested.

“In one day he was able to start a special session, create, move and sign into law a bill stopping T. Boone Pickens,” said Ralston, now a partner at Gordon Thomas Honeywell Government Affairs in Tacoma. “All in one day — that was Bud Coffey. His reputation and his relationships with people gave him the ability to work with people of all stripes — Republicans and Democrats.”

After retiring from Boeing in 1995, Coffey played an integral role in keeping the Mariners in Seattle and in building Safeco Field.

King County voters rejected a proposed tax package for the Mariners stadium in 1995, so Coffey brought together then-Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, then-King County Executive Gary Locke and then-Gov. Mike Lowry and didn’t leave Olympia until a special legislative session started.

The Legislature authorized some state funding and an increase in King County taxes on restaurant and bar bills and rental cars, as well as a 10 percent admission tax on events at the new ballpark.

In 1997, Coffey did it again with what is now called CenturyLink Field. Billionaire Paul Allen agreed to buy the Seahawks from then-owner Ken Behring as long as the public voted to help finance the new stadium.

He enlisted Coffey to persuade legislators and county officials to authorize taxes to help finance construction of the outdoor football stadium.

“Whether he was saving baseball, the Seahawks or Boeing, he was an advocate,” King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer said. The two met in 1973 when von Reichbauer was a state senator and later worked closely on the Seahawks project.

“But, every day when the battle was over, it was over. He made his pitch, and if you agreed with him great, and if not, the next day he still treated you the same,” he said.

Coffey is remembered by everyone as a behind-the-scenes man, staying out of newspapers and photographs.

“He was very humble that way,” then-Boeing lobbyist Ralston said. “He was the technician, not the mouthpiece or the out-front person.”

Coffey’s wife of 36 years, Shirley, said he didn’t want the attention on himself.

“He was quiet and unassuming, but he had a reputation for getting it done,” she said.

It was that reputation that made Coffey a legend in Olympia.

“The average person probably wouldn’t know that Bud was involved in all the milestones in our region,” von Reichbauer said. “I just wish there were a lot more Bud Coffeys in Olympia today — he was his own breed.”

Coffey struggled for more than seven years with a progressive neurodegenerative disease and had been living in a Tacoma assisted-living facility for the past five years. His wife, who lives in Gig Harbor and visited him daily, is his only survivor.

There will be no services or memorial.

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