Tom Coffey, who helped Washington win, wield power, dies at 77

Coffey quit his job at a law firm to become one of the trusted advisers on the campaign and then in the administration of Chicago’s first Black mayor.

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Thomas Coffey (right) smiles as Mayor Harold Washington jostles for position among the politicians at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Chicago. Behind him is Gov. Jim Thompson (center).

Thomas Coffey (right) smiles as Mayor Harold Washington (left) jostles for position among the politicians at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Chicago, including then-Gov. Jim Thompson (center).

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

When too many white Chicagoans were turning against Harold Washington because of the color of his skin, Tom Coffey became a key supporter, working to elect Chicago’s first Black mayor because of the content of his character.

Mr. Coffey eventually quit as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis and moved to the city to become Washington’s chief of intergovernmental affairs and one of the inner troika of trusted advisers running the mayor’s first administration.

He died Wednesday at his home in Hinsdale, surrounded by family. He was 77.

“Tom, from his youngest days growing up, had a sense of social justice, a sense of commitment shown by his service in the Marine Corps,” said high school friend and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin. “When you combine the tenacity of a Marine and the moral leadership of a social activist, you end up with a committed person like Tom Coffey. He was focused on getting to what was right.”

Mr. Coffey went on to found Haymarket Public Strategies, a political consulting and government lobbying firm whose clients ranged from future U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun to future President Joe Biden.

“It is easy to see why Mayor Washington has so much confidence in you,” Biden wrote to him in 1986.

Tom Coffey (right) with future President Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator, in 1986.

Tom Coffey (right) with future President Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator, in 1986.

Provided

Thomas Patrick Coffey was born Sept. 11, 1944, the first child of John and Billie Coffey. His father was an official in the city’s economic development commission. Growing up in St. Thomas More Parish, 85th and Western, he graduated from Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary.

In 1966, he earned an English degree from Loras College, a Catholic, liberal arts school in Dubuque, Iowa. At Loras, he met Mary Alice Butler of Oak Park. They married in 1968.

Mr. Coffey studied law at DePaul University, getting his law degree in 1968, a year many Americans were concentrating on avoiding the draft. Instead, he enlisted in the Marines, serving as a JAG lawyer stationed in Okinawa.

Returning to civilian life in 1974, he joined the Loop law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, where he specialized in antitrust law. He also did work for the African-American Patrolmen’s League, which brought him into contact with U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, influential attorney and political insider Wayne Whalen, and Al Raby, former point man for Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago.

“Tom Coffey, Al Raby and Wayne Whalen were key masterminds in Mayor Washington’s 1983 historic mayoral campaign,” remembered former City Club of Chicago president Jay Doherty. “There were other key players, but these three were essential to Washington’s victory.”

Washington faced fierce, racist opposition, particularly from the white power structure that, after his election, would coalesce around Ald. Ed Vrdolyak to thwart the mayor’s efforts in the Chicago City Council.

“There was a small group of attorneys that were advising the campaign and advising Harold,” said Jacky Grimshaw, who worked on Washington’s campaign and later joined his administration. “All of this stuff ... ‘Harold was a criminal. Harold was a tax evader. Harold was gay.’ All kinds of crap. We needed to have a legal strategy to combat that.”

Thomas Coffey, at the helm of his boat, a 38-foot Hood named “Innisfree” after his favorite poem.

Thomas Coffey, at the helm of his boat, a 38-foot Hood named “Innisfree” after his favorite poem, by William Butler Yeats.

Provided

Washington was the least known among the main candidates, the other two being incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley. Son of the late mayor, Daley was already famous for tripping over his own tongue and wanted a single TV debate. But Mr. Coffey pushed for three and got them. The debates proved key to Washington’s success.

“It was the series of debates televised by Channel 11 (and, in some cases, picked up by other stations) ... that was given much credit for ‘legitimatizing’ the candidacy of then-underdog Washington and tabbing him as a serious contender,” wrote Gary Deeb, then the Sun-Times media critic.

After Byrne and Daley split the white vote and Washington scooted past them, he again turned to Mr. Coffey, tapping him as his point man to the City Council, Springfield and the federal government.

“It shows that Washington realizes his inner circle has been lacking a seasoned political strategist who understands the mayor and his governmental philosophy — yet can communicate with city council foes,” the Tribune wrote.

“Tom Coffey is a very sharp guy,” said then-Ald. David Orr (49th). “He is bright, hard-working and tactful.”

Mr. Coffey relished serving Washington.

“He loved being part of something groundbreaking,” said his son Matt Coffey. “Such as bringing Harold Washington to the [1985] South Side Irish Parade. A lot of people told him not to do it; Washington wasn’t loved by South Siders. He did it anyway.”

But Washington grew suspicious of his motives.

”The mayor was concerned that Coffey had his own agenda,” mayoral press secretary Alton Miller wrote in his memoir, depicting the mayor as detecting what he considered Mr. Coffey’s fingerprints on anonymous stories in the press.

He was edged out early in 1986, while praised for making what progress was possible against the obstruction of white aldermen.

“For the last 15 months, Coffey has been among the most effective political operatives in town and has been the architect of some of the Washington administration’s most notable accomplishments,” the Tribune wrote in February 1986.

Mr. Coffey then focused on creating Haymarket Public Strategies. In his free time, he loved sailing and kept a boat, the 38-foot Hood named “Innisfree” after his favorite poem.

“Tom was a typical Chicago Irishman,” said Grimshaw. “He loved going over to Ireland. He visited often and loved the whole Irish persona. But he was very strategic. One of those men who never met a stranger.”

She thinks he took on Washington because he believed in him, and the two shared a sense of humor and loved to laugh together.

“I remember him calling me, saying, ‘I’m getting involved in the campaign, I want to throw myself into this,’” said longtime friend Anita Remijas. “It was so outside the box for a former Marine, a white guy, a Catholic, a guy from DePaul at Kirkland & Ellis. I think it was a challenge.

“He was a powerhouse, charismatic. He was tough, he was funny. He didn’t mind laughing, but when he needed to talk to somebody, he got right to the point. He just brought a sense of openness, a sense of honesty. Tom wasn’t afraid to laugh, but Tom also wasn’t afraid to slam the door and tell you what you need to hear.”

In addition to his wife, Alice, and son Matt, survivors include another son, Tom Jr.; a daughter, Catherine Callahan; 10 grandchildren; brothers Kevin, Barry and Phil Coffey; and a sister, Judy Coffey-Hedquist.

Visitation is Tuesday at Gibbons Funeral Home, 134 S. York St., Elmhurst, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Interment is Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church, 306 W. 4th St., Hinsdale.

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