If you’re looking for a model of the kind of leader we need in politics these days to help us reclaim and reinvigorate our ill-functioning democracy, Mary Ellen McCaffree would be a splendid choice.
At 95 years young, the former Republican state representative from Seattle has lost none of her enthusiasm or passion for making our communities and our democracy work better. She’s an outspoken advocate for the notion that we citizens need to educate ourselves, get involved and make politics work — that we have a responsibility to sustain our democracy.
McCaffree and her husband Ken were kind enough to forward a copy of her book, “Politics of the Possible” that was published a few years ago. I sat down with them this week at their home in Snohomish to learn more about them.
What stood out in the book and our conversation was that she was devoted to the notion of making the state a better place. During her political career and in her personal life, she practiced a disciplined approach to the challenges she faced. She’s a careful listener who considers various sides of an issue before taking a position. She treats those with whom she disagrees with respect. When she had made up her mind, she perseveres in the face of sometimes overwhelming opposition. Doing what’s in the long-term best interest of the community and state has been her approach.
When McCaffree was elected in 1962, Democrats controlled both the houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. She worked to get Dan Evans elected governor and teamed with Slade Gorton, Don Moos, Joel Pritchard and others to enact much of Evans’ Blueprint For Progress agenda, a progressive approach that included major changes to redistricting, additional environmental protections and more. Moos, who retired in Wenatchee, went on to become director of the state Department of Agriculture and was a longtime ally of Gorton.
One key feature of the Blueprint for Progress that did not pass was the imposition of an income tax — which she described as the crucial third leg of the stool to provide stable financing for the state. From her earliest days, she felt it was critical that the state have adequate funding for schools and that tax reform was necessary to secure this for the long term health of the state. It’s hard to imagine that there was a day when Republicans promoted an income tax and were denied by the Democrats. My how times have changed.
Politics of the Possible reflects the optimism and sense of purpose and determination that McCaffree brought to the legislature. It was a different political environment in those days in which lawmakers spent more time building relationships. Ken McCaffree said he believes that social dynamic contributed to a more cooperative and less polarized atmosphere.
For those interested in how democracy is supposed to work, Politics of the Possible is a great read. What comes across that her service to the state was guided by a sense of legacy — a commitment to make things better for future generations.
She wrote the book to provide a blueprint for how politics can and should work for all of us. She told me that democracy is hard work that requires an engaged citizenry.
Our democracy is not going to fix itself. While she’s a great model for legislators, she’s an even better role model of how the ownership all of us need to take in restoring our democracy.