THIS MONTH marks the 15th anniversary of the death of a Bay Area political powerhouse -- Bert Coffey. You may not know who Coffey was, but Contra Costa locals feel his impact every day. His legacy lives through the candidates he supported, the crucial bond measures he helped pass, and, of course, his family. Contra Costa County would not be the place it is today without Coffey's influence.
All too often, when you hear about a man who spent his life as a politician, your cynicism kicks in. You expect him to have made a habit of manipulation and deceit, and you assume that his career had its share of scandal. But Bert Coffey would prove your cynicism wrong. Even when it was not politically popular, Coffey held fast to his ideal of a society in which equal opportunity truly existed. In part because of this, the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted him as young union organizer and hindered his blazing start in the Democratic Party.
A half a century ago, Coffey saw that there was too much social and economic inequality in Contra Costa County. At the time, minorities did not have equal access to the area hospitals, colleges, or proper infrastructure. To Coffey, this was inexcusable. From behind the scenes, he helped found the first local public hospital, Brookside, that served patients regardless of race and the Contra Costa Community College District to provide local youth with the opportunity for higher education. He even had a hand in constructing the storm drains in south side Richmond.
When it came time to raise funds and organize local volunteers to march in Selma and support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coffey was the one. Later, as chairman of the California Democratic Party, he led a statewide revitalization and, despite great controversy, he gave his OK for the creation of the first gay caucus in the party. For Coffey, there were never any limits for the cause of equality and opportunity.
For decades, the area's aspiring politicians and elected officials sought his counsel. The candidates he helped elect included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. George Miller III, former Speaker of the Assembly Jack Knox, Gov. Pat Brown, state Sen. George Miller Jr., San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and Rep. Phil Burton and his brother, John, who just became Chairman of the California Democratic Party. Coffey fought for long-lasting reforms that helped the least-fortunate among us. He did so one electoral victory at a time.
Despite Coffey's political power, it was his family that mattered most. As he grew older, politicians still sought his advice. However, when they called they had to compete with stories of his children and grandchildren before receiving his counsel. I remember when I visited his house as a child, it was not politics we discussed, but rather if I applied enough sunscreen before I took the deep dive into his community pool.
In Coffey's memory, Rep. Miller remarked, "Bert's beliefs were heartfelt and unshakable: a commitment to civil rights and civil liberties that involved him in genuine interracial coalitions two decades before Selma, Montgomery, and the March on Washington. Perhaps it was his Jewish heritage or his admitted leftist inclinations as a younger man, but Bert unflaggingly put himself on the side of the powerless, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed. No man loathed bigotry more."
Coffey was called many things over his life: chairman, machine boss, commie, trusted adviser, un-American, political shaman, Godfather, a great patriot. There is no question of Coffey's mastery of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and power-brokering, but the role that he valued most, and the title he held dearest, was the one I gave him -- Grandpa.