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Q&A: Alison McCaffree, granddaughter of Rep. Mary Ellen McCaffree

(Photo of Jane Fellows, Actor in and Director of “Many Maps, One Voice,” courtesy of Stephen R. Young.)

Alison McCaffree was a mechanical engineer before moving to the nonprofit sector. She launched Washington’s first nonprofit association called Washington Nonprofits in 2011, and more recently established a nonprofit called Politics of the Possible in Action, which “focuses on increasing citizen engagement, enhancing civics education, and honoring public service.”

The organization was inspired by her grandmother, Mary Ellen McCaffree.

Mary Ellen McCaffree represented Washington’s 32nd District in the House of Representatives from 1962 to 1970, and served as Chair of the Tax and Revenue and Revenue and Regulatory Agencies Committees. Eventually, the governor appointed Rep. McCaffree as the director of the Department of Revenue.

After reading the Wire’s recent series on redistricting, Alison McCaffree reached out and offered us a ticket to the one-woman play she produced portraying Rep. McCaffree’s efforts to redistrict Washington, “Many maps, One Voice.” (The above photo, picturing actor Jane Fellows as Mary Ellen McCaffree, is from that play.)

In this Q&A, we talk about the book on her grandmother’s life she helped to write, how the story became a play, and why her grandmother’s message is important in today’s political climate.


Sara Gentzler: In a nutshell, can you introduce readers to your grandmother and how, from your perception, she influenced the state?

Alison McCaffree: It’s really interesting that you start with that question. Because, growing up, I didn’t know that she was a legislator. She was always busy, people knew her in the community, and she had an office in one of her guest rooms — but really, growing up, she was my grandmother.

Now, as an adult, as I’ve gotten to know her, I really admire how she was a Greatest Generation woman. Born in 1918, she saw the Great Depression and World War II. Raising her kids, coming to Seattle in the 40s — just an amazing span of time to be alive, I think. She managed a large family and was active in the community. And then, when it was clear that she could get something done by being a legislator, she did it.

She always encouraged all her granddaughters and all the women around her to get involved and be active, but she wasn’t a “feminist.” That wasn’t her push. It was always good government and effective and efficient running of whatever she was doing. She was a problem-solver in whatever realm she was in.

She never wanted to preach, but she always wanted her story to be an inspiration.

SG: Can you share some memories of her as your grandmother?

AM: My childhood memories are of my grandparents’ house on the Kitsap Peninsula. They lived on the beach. I grew up in California. Summers and winter break, we always came up to this area and visited with them and all my cousins.

If you can picture her kitchen: Very open — they redesigned it and it had lots of light coming in, brick floor, and she had a wood-burning stove. And that was the only stove she ever cooked on in that house.

So, imagine her feeding the stove — and she was an expert at it. She knew exactly how to get the right temperature to cook seven things on the cooktop and have something in the oven. While, all the time, the family conversation is going on at the dining room table, and she’s managing the conversation, saying, “Kids, don’t go there.” Or, “Chuck, you’re being too loud.” She’s managing the people.

One of us would come running in and ask for a cookie, and she always had this great big cookie jar with those big, yellow smiley cookies from the Poulsbo bakery — they’re great, they make you happy just looking at them.

That picture of her managing the whole situation and taking care of people when they came in… Now that I look back, that was her skill. To be able to manage a very complex system and all the people dynamics all at the same time.

SG: How would you sum up her contributions to Washington State?

AM: I think her major contribution was to recognize what impact redistricting had on every other law that we make. When you’re determining representative districts, that has an influence on every other thing. Up until her time, nobody really tackled it.

She was one of the ones that said, “No, this is fundamental and we need to do this right. We need to have both parties in it.”

And then, after her time, it became clear we needed to do it in a different way and not have legislators do it. But it was interesting that she actually put in a bill to create a redistricting commission in her time, and then finally we got a commission in the 1980s, after all that wrangling.

I think she was pivotal in us making our political districts more representative and more fair than ever before.

SG: I really enjoyed the play, I thought it was educational and engaging. I would love to know what inspired you to use this medium — a one-woman play — to express her story and life’s work.

AM: I was living in the Virgin Islands when she called me up and asked if I’d help her write a book. And, of course, she’s my grandmother, so I said yes. And then I asked what it was about, and she said, “My time as a legislator.” And I said, “Oh, you were in the Legislature?”

It was a 10-year project for her to write down her story. And that was a really amazing time — for every 10 stories, one got in the book, “Politics of the Possible,” that Mary Ellen wrote with her friend and editor Anne McNamee Corbett. I was the legs of the operation, I was the one running to the archives and getting everything coordinated — the research assistant.

Out of that, we got the book published and we started a partnership with the League of Women Voters, because it really is a great tribute to the League and what the League does in terms of getting people involved and teaching them how the process works.

I was actually sitting across the table from the President of the League of Women Voters of Washington, and we were just brainstorming: Not everybody can read this big book, how do we use this story to get people more engaged and more involved? Why not a play? And then Ann’s [the League president] eyes got real big and she said, “My sister is a one-woman actress. She would love to do this kind of thing.”

So, that kind of kicked it off as even a possibility that we could tell Mary Ellen’s story through theater. It was this labor of love to tell the story, personify Mary Ellen, and really help educate on not only the redistricting story, but tell the story about how the Legislature works and tell how one person can really influence all this.

SG: Is there significance to the timing at all, or is this just when it came to fruition?

AM: I do think that part of what got Mary Ellen inspired to write the book is that she checked in with her grandchildren and we were all checked out of politics. We didn’t want anything to do with it.

For women, it’s really important to know the shoulders of the women we stand on. It’s really important to know that all types of people are needed in all sorts of movements. For example, Mary Ellen wasn’t the flag-waving, stand-out-in-front type leader.

Her real brilliance was organization and keeping it all together. There were all these other people that were doing other pieces of what needed to get done. But they really needed her to coordinate it all.

I think that story — that no matter who you are, you can make a difference — is more important now than ever.

SG: And what do you think she would view as the most important takeaways from the story?

AM: I also think she would want us to take away the idea of compromise. It’s not a dirty word, it’s the way things should get done. It’s about being civil, trying to understand what other people want, and crafting that solution that’s going to leave everybody getting something.

Something to emphasize is how relevant this story about the 1960s is to today. Anybody can write how a bill becomes a law, but to dramatize how the real work gets done in coming to compromises and making good law, I think that’s really important and extremely relevant.

We had Sen. Hans Zeiger at the play, a current Senator, and he was one of our first readers of the book. He went to Slade Gorton and said he was running for the Legislature, and asked what to read. Slade said, “Read Mary Ellen’s book.” And he loved it. And then he said to me, two years ago, when he got committee chairmanship, that he picked it up again and read the chapter when she comes a committee chair. It made me feel so good, that she’s influencing young legislators 60 years later.

SG: You’ve told me that Slade Gorton — who was actually a part of the story in the play — as well as Sam Reed and Ralph Munroe were all in the audience for one of the showings. Did they give you any feedback?

AM: One of my favorite moments was in the play, when she was trying to get sponsors for the latest redistricting bill. She’s going around and asking her colleagues if they’ll be a sponsor. And, at one point, her line is, “Slade, will you?” And she’s standing right in front of him, holding out a piece of paper and he’s sitting there in the audience. It was beautiful.

They loved it. All three of those guys were reliving it — they were whooping and hollering at times. They loved it because it was a good portrayal, they got all the emotions back that they remember.

We also had former Senator Karen Fraser come, and she loved it too. She said, “You captured the emotion of being a dedicated legislator so well, so perfectly.” I think she was in the Legislature for 26 years, so that’s quite an endorsement.

I love that it is not political-party dependent, either. That this is about governing well.

SG: If people read this and want to see it, are there future showings planned?

AM: There are. The book and the play are products of the new nonprofit I created under Mary Ellen’s philosophy, and that’s called Politics of the Possible in Action. And we are showing it again on the 6th and 7th of April at the Snohomish Public Utilities Building in Everett.

That’s the next planned showing. We’re working on shows in Spokane, Aberdeen, and Lakewood. Those will be later this year or next year.

SG: Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about?

AM: I think Mary Ellen probably would’ve shied away from the portrayal, of her being the only one up there on stage. But I feel good that we’re telling a story of her that she would’ve never told herself. That desire to use her story to inspire.

Politics of the Possible in Action is inspired by her philosophy that everyone needs to be involved, that our government doesn’t work unless we participate. And you can’t really participate unless you understand civics. And so, our organization is dedicated to teaching those civics in creative ways. The best way we’ve found is to tell inspiring stories about people becoming engaged and have them be role models for other people.

My dream is to make Mary Ellen’s story part of a group of all sorts of peoples’ stories so we can have a library of inspirational ways that people have made a difference. So anyone can see themselves in the stories.

And I really want this to be a partnership with other organizations. I know how hard it is for small nonprofit organizations to do that kind of storytelling — Politics of the Possible can partner with people where a story can be useful in their activism.

I would also like to tell the story of one of the last conversations I had with my grandmother before she died. We were working on finishing up the book. I was telling her about working with the League and trying to sell the book, and the advocacy we were doing around the book.

So she’s 95, and we’re sitting at her dining room table. And she put her hand on mine, and she looked right at me, and she said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” And it was so endearing, it was like she was going to live forever — and we, together, were going to get it all done.

That was her. There was never an end — it was always, ok what’s the next thing we’ve got to do? Let’s go do it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.