McCaffree believed in the power of the individual to make a difference | Passages

Mary Ellen McCaffree ... served in state House, as first state Revenue director - File photo
Mary Ellen McCaffree ... served in state House, as first state Revenue director
— image credit: File photo

HANSVILLE — Washingtonians could vote at a younger age, attend community college, saw major efforts to control pollution and protect shorelines, and saw changes in how their tax dollars were managed, because of Mary Ellen McCaffree.

But in light of all that, one of her significant accomplishments may be this:

“She seemed like a normal mom,” her son, Chuck McCaffree, said July 1.

That’s saying something, especially when your mom served as a state representative, state revenue director, King County budget director, and aide to a U.S. senator. And, lest we forget, authored a book. Wait — two books.

“I had great pride that she was this pioneer person, a woman going into the Legislature,” Chuck McCaffree said. “But it didn’t seem special. It was just what she did.”

McCaffree, a longtime resident of Hansville who later lived in Bainbridge, died June 24 at her home in Snohomish. She was 96. She will be interred in the Hansville Cemetery on July 21 after a private memorial at Redeemer Methodist Church in Kingston. Her pastor, Cal White, will officiate. A public memorial is scheduled July 19, 1 p.m., in the University Methodist Temple in Seattle.

In lieu of flowers, the family prefers contributions in her memory to the Great Peninsula Conservancy, 423 Pacific Ave., Suite 401, Bremerton, WA 98337; or to the Group Health Foundation, P.O. Box 34015, Seattle, WA 98124-4015.

Her early life fit most people’s definition of normal: Born in 1918 in El Dorado, Kansas, earned a home economics degree at Kansas State University in 1941, married her high school sweetheart, Kenneth McCaffree, and made a home and raised the children while her husband served in World War II. The family moved to Seattle in 1949.

In the 1950s, Kenneth McCaffree taught economics at the University of Washington while Mary Ellen did 1950s mom stuff, devoting spare time to Girl Scouts and the PTA. According to her family, she inadvertently got involved in politics when she took up the cause of her children’s schools, which were considered overcrowded and underfunded. From that experience, her involvement — and her belief that the individual can make a difference — grew.

Over the ensuing years, she worked on two statewide redistricting initiatives and served four terms in the state House of Representatives; according to her son, Chuck, she was asked by Democrats and Republicans to run for the state House. She authored a comprehensive tax reform package and the constitutional amendment lowering the voting age; co-authored legislation that established the state's community college system; and sponsored environmental protection laws.

She served on the first pollution control and shoreline management boards, was the first woman to lead the state Department of Revenue, served as budget director of King County, and as Sen. Slade Gorton’s administrative assistant in Washington, D.C.

Despite her career, “whatever Mary Ellen did, she put family first,” her husband recalled. “She was a devoted mother and wife. With five children, there was plenty to do: PTA, Scouts, Little League, music lessons, paper routes, church activities, and the like. She was always mindful and concerned of how her children were doing: planning summer programs, all the issues with parenting of teenagers, helping with college, and even marriage.”

Their son, Chuck, added, “It was a very tight, very loving family all the time.”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, McCaffree was active in the League of Women Voters and its legislative redistricting initiative. She was president of the League of Women Voters of Seattle and a member of the Governor’s Tax Advisory Council in 1962 when she was first elected to the state House from the 32nd District (Seattle’s University District).

In the House, she worked closely with other legislators — among them future U.S. senators Daniel J. Evans and Slade Gorton and future congressman Joel Pritchard — to reform the tax system in the state, including changes in revenue and taxation laws, abolishment of the three-person tax commission and establishment of the Department of Revenue.

Evans, Gorton and Pritchard were Republicans, and so was McCaffree, but she was not a partisan politician. She was a moderate with a “den mother” personality, former Secretary of State Sam Reed said.

“She appreciated and respected the political process,” Reed said. “She believed it was important to conduct yourself with civility and get things done with bipartisanship. She was a moderate. She knew it’s the big center where you get it done.”

She was a studious legislator. “She was always on top of the major issues, Reed said. “She made a real point to study issues in depth/ She wasn’t an opportunist, going from one issue to another. She took a few issues and really worked them thoroughly.”

Fellow legislators respected her encyclopedic memory, which was frequently consulted for background on issues, Reed said.

McCaffree served on the Temporary Advisory Council on Higher Education from 1965-67. She ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 1970 and left the Legislature the next year. She served as a staff assistant to Gov. Evans from 1971-72.

She served on the Pollution Control Hearings Board and the Shoreline Management Hearings Board from 1973-74, then led the state Department of Revenue from 1974-76. She served as a delegate to the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.

She was budget and program development director for King County from 1978-81, then joined Sen. Slade Gorton’s staff as administrative assistant from 1981-83. In 1984-85, she served on the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. She also served on the board of trustees of The Evergreen State College.

She didn’t slow in retirement. She was president of the Hansville Community Center from 1989-1991, and in 2000 helped found the Great Peninsula Conservancy. She also served on the board of the Kitsap Land Trust, was elected to a local water district board of commissioners, and was active in her church.

She and her husband wrote a book, “Piecing Together Our Separate Lives,” presented as a gift to their family on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.

In 2011, she and Anne McNamee Corbett authored “Politics of the Possible,” about her decade in the state Legislature. She dedicated her book to her grandchildren, lauding  public service as “a commendable activity.” She wrote, “[A]ll of us must participate in the political process to preserve and strengthen our democracy.”

According to her husband, “She continuously encouraged women to take an active part in local and national politics, and dedicated her legislative experience to demonstrate that a woman — women — were as effective legislators as men … She treated everyone with respect and considered all as equal without regard to gender, race, age or beliefs.  She lived by the credo that ‘solving the problem’ was far more important than who got the credit. She did not hesitate to do the detailed work, if that were needed, or to lead and take the responsibility, if that were required. Mary Ellen lived with an undying faith in God and love and family.”

McCaffree is survived by her husband of 73 years, Kenneth M. McCaffree; children, James (Ruthanne) of University Place, Charles (Lee) of Orinda, California, Nancy (Aubrey) Carter of Snohomish, Mary (Jack) Johnston of Everett, and David (Alex) of Everett; 16 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren.


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