About the Book – Preface

This is a refreshing government success story in which the winners are ‘We the people.’ It happened one decade, in one state in our nation’s far northwest nearly two hundred years after our colonies agreed to unite.

More than a history, it affirms for us what is possible here and now: Politics of the Possible provides living proof that politics can be positive, government progress is possible, and a focus on responsive governing can overcome partisan ills. It demonstrates that strong leaders can possess – and sustain – integrity, and that one citizen can honestly enter in and make a difference. In this story, no scandal rocked a single member of the leadership team, nor their central opponents, throughout an entire decade of high profile, high-powered, high intensity political conflict and compromise. The capitol press corps hovered close: they could vouch for it.

This book is intended to serve as a guide for citizens today or down the road – a map for the disillusioned, the disenfranchised, or anyone who feels alienated from our government at any level. It is equally apropos for those disappointed with politics as it is for those enamored with political strategy and effect.

In the Prologue you’ll meet both co-authors and learn why we teamed to re-tell this particular chapter of Mary Ellen McCaffree’s life. The Epilogue returns us to today, suggesting how we can draw from this story to keep our ships of state on course through our tomorrows.

Though this book is sufficiently detailed to deliver a solid lesson in legislative work, we as authors opted to avoid the textbook approach in favor of lively narrative complete with dialogue, political intrigue, honest admissions and amusing episodes to recreate the experience – to make it real. We researched legislative journals (each encounter on the floor of the House and Senate is drawn directly from these), and consulted news clippings, oral history accounts, Mary Ellen’s personal files and her political papers from the University of Washington archives. We interviewed key players and plumbed Mary Ellen’s remarkable recall.

And we were faithful to her open-minded perspective.

The movers and shakers in Politics of the Possible could easily have hailed from either party. Republicans and Democrats alike will recognize themselves among this leadership team we track. We cheer both sides when they play at politics fair and square and when they keep their eyes and actions on governing – with the people’s interests firmly center.

Our hero is not a person, but the democratic process within the system of government designed to serve us all. Mary Ellen McCaffree, our narrator, entered this process as a mother of five actively seeking to fix the problem of her children’s ill-funded schools. We join her journey to the inside, as she experiences the intricacies essential to our government functioning well. We travel deeper inside the process than journalists are ever allowed, entering locked caucus doors, campaign headquarters, the governor’s office, lobbyist parties, late-night legislative haunts and, more publicly, committee meetings and hearings, and action within a state Senate and House.

We grow with the narrator as she progresses from her humble start as a minority freshman, through an early coalition and coup, to her central role in an arduous redistricting battle that revitalizes her state’s two-party system and, more importantly, re-establishes one-man, one-vote. Once her state is back on a balanced track, a series of elections (hers and others) lands Mary Ellen inside the state leadership team, where she ultimately works within the majority’s inner circle and soon agrees to lead a major state reform.

Along the way we witness her party ousting its crippling radical fringe, revisit the turbulence of the 1960’s, and hear a sole black legislator’s lonely plea for civil rights. We experience abortion picketers, Black Panthers, an earthquake and two views on university unrest: from her professor husband and their student son.

We follow a steady political resurgence that finally produces bi-partisan teamwork on an astonishing sweep of major, progressive reforms. Within this decade, this team re-claims and reforms their state government to better serve its citizens. It was remarkable but not miraculous. It can happen again.

Our goal in recounting this story is to embolden more citizens to participate in the process of our government. We’ve de-mystified the gears of governing, stripped the political process bare, and delved into the particulars of this dynamic decade in the hope that readers will no longer shy from active involvement. The process is in place for us, and it works.

While this is not intended to be a technical manual on legislation, we spare few technicalities as we trace the actual legislative path. There is no detour around the reality that creating and passing good laws is complex, formal, often time-consuming, and yes, political.

Our narrator takes us on an inside legislative track.

More uniquely, we’re permitted inside a private home and into a marriage that delicately reconciles a mother and wife’s public service with her devotion to her family.

Devotees of our nation’s history as well, we detour briefly into precedents laid by our founders – the ‘whys’ behind our government’s design. This success story owes a major debt to the earliest families who settled America and then fought, literally, to defend their revolutionary notion that all people deserve equality and respect. They designed our federal government – not a national government, but a federation of individual states – to allow our states to remain central in our lives. Each state is unique, and each is ours. In this book we celebrate one state’s renaissance, made possible by the system of governing we’ve inherited.

In one pivotal decade, by respecting this system and its tenets of equality and respect, the team Mary Ellen joined moved their state to the head of the nation with a host of cutting edge policies and reforms. They were named one of the most effective state governments of the 20th Century. This story deserves to be told… and retold.

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