Posted October 3, 2013 by Cooper Point Journal in Letters & Opinion

A Conversation on Positive Politics

Sometimes it seems like we can feel so separated from government and its mechanisms. But not everyone feels so. Recently I had a chance to meet Mary Ellen McCaffree (left), a former Washington State representative. She was the only woman in the leadership group during the Daniel J. Evans (right) administrations (1965-1977), a major accomplishment in a time period when women were not active in politics. She was also vice chairman of the advisory council that recommended Evergreen be located in Olympia. After her service in legislature, Mary Ellen decided to write the book Politics of the Possible when she realized how removed her grandchildren felt from the world of politics. Her book focuses on exploring positive politics to strengthen citizen engagement in our political system. In the conversation below on positive politics, I interviewed Mary Ellen’s granddaughter Alison, the director of Washington Nonprofits, and Mary Ellen’s husband Ken McCaffree, professor emeritus of economics. This discussion reveals how we could all benefit from being engaged as public servants, active citizens, and community organizers at the local level. As Mary Ellen writes, “The caliber of our government – its integrity, its relevance, how well it responds to our needs – really is up to us, as citizens.”


Sometimes politics–both state and national–seem so polarized.  Why do you think issues are so polarized and why can’t we ask, “How can we meet in the middle and get things done?”


Ken: This is one of the most troubling conditions in our society and probably the consequence of several factors.  We have lost a sense of worth in the other individual with whom we may disagree. This led to being disagreeable when you disagree, being personal and negative, rather than respecting the other as a worthy human being even though you disagree with his ideas or policy positions. It doesn’t have to be this way.  Politics of the Possible provides a real life example of positive politics, of how respect for the integrity and dignity of the opposition can avoid polarization by following civility and compromise, bipartisanship and problem solving approach that our founding fathers so carefully crafted for us.


How can one person, who is not affiliated with a political party and does not have a financial backing, create change within their community? 


Ken: Change is a community affair, and not the work of a maverick.  Change comes only by one who leads with a passion, who has a “cause,” and engages neighbors and friends in a common enterprise.   It is a very rare individual who can make much of a dent in her community by her activities alone.  Fortunately much, if not most, of local government and community affairs are essentially nonpartisan and usually not dominated by political parties. This allows anyone, without political party affiliation or financial backing to join in support of candidates or local issues. People do make a difference in our democratic society. An excellent description of local government and community involvement for change is made by John Hughes in his biography, John Spellman: Politics Never Broke His Heart.


Alison: In my role as director of the state nonprofit association Washington Nonprofits, I see people creating change in their community all the time. The key is to be knowledgeable about your topic, talk to people with passion and respect for their viewpoint and experience, and realize that like Mary Ellen in Politics of the Possible, there are many steps in the story of achieving lasting change. An understanding of the governmental process is fundamental to making change in our communities. Building relationships with your local elected officials (mayors, city council people), your state legislators and your congressional representatives is crucial. Learning that advocacy for your cause is something you have to do all the time: defining the change you want, understanding who can help with it, building relationships with those people and persevering until you see it happen. Change, especially in our government system, is a 25 year process not a 25 minute activity. Lay the ground work for others to join you and carry on the fight. Mary Ellen’s passion for adequate school funding in Washington State is what got her into politics. Today, many others have taken up the fight and stand on her shoulders whether they know her or her contribution or not.


How do you become a part of, and not separate from, your community and government?


Ken: Participate in your community activities and in the governmental process. The failure to participate in the governmental process leads to estrangement and feelings of not being a part of the process. Learn the democratic process, and participate.  Every citizen has an obligation and responsibility to participate in our American democratic process. If you don’t like what is going on, the only ones to blame are us, you and me, the citizens. We are the government in our society.


Alison: Community and Government are people. We have a strange abstract way of talking about both of them that disconnects us from the process and the people who are active in the process of community building and governing. Community and Government really should be action verbs.  The best way to be a part is to engage. Talk to your neighbors, your local nonprofits, your elected officials. Be part of the conversation about what we need to invest in for our future. Like Mary Ellen always said: Don’t make the mistake of waiting to talk to people until you know more or become an expert in a subject – the only way to really know more is to engage with others and study and learn. You will then build a network of people in your community and in government positions who care about the same things you care about. Then you will be part of the community and you maybe be, like Mary Ellen, asked to serve in a public service capacity and be an official part of government. It’s great if you choose to serve, but if not, know that active citizens are crucial to the governmental process. Elected officials love to hear directly from their constituents. You already are a part of government, just make the time to actively use it.


Although Mary Ellen served as our former state legislator, her family was undoubtedly touched by her service. How has her service affected and influenced your family today?


Alison: When my Grandma and her co-author Anne McNamee Corbett first started thinking about the book her grandchildren and even some children didn’t have any idea about her service as a legislator. Over the past 10 years, our book project has involved many family members and together we had many discussions about government, getting involved, social change and the state of politics today, the family has become much more engaged. We have begun telling our friends and colleagues about the amazing things that this “Mom of 5” was able to accomplish – and not by a “flag waving, follow-me technique” but by building relationships and doing what needed to get done. I now have a job advocating for community organizations, and this is a direct result of understanding Mary Ellen’s story and the true process for making change happen.


By Ashley Daniel, contributing writer