To those in political circles, Mary Ellen McCaffree was known for pioneering the redistricting of Washington in favor of increased funding for education, fighting for tax reformation and advocating for environmental conservation laws as a four-term state representative throughout the 1960s.
But to her husband of 73 years, Kenneth, and her five children, she was a Girl Scout leader, devout churchgoer, and — most important — Mom.
Rep. McCaffree died in her Snohomish home on June 24. She was 96.
Born on Feb. 25, 1918, in El Dorado, Kan., she was the first of four children. She met her husband-to-be in high school and went on to graduate with a degree in home economics from Kansas State University.
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Her husband’s career brought the couple in 1949 to Seattle, where he began teaching as an economics professor at the University of Washington. There, Rep. McCaffree met Lois North, the wife of another faculty member, and the two decided to join the League of Women Voters of Seattle.
Together, they advocated for a state income tax, the right for 18-year-olds to vote and, most notably, a constitutional amendment that would redistrict the state every 10 years. Rep. McCaffree was the legislative chairwoman for the Parent Teachers Association Seattle Council, and believed redistricting could reroute state funds to Seattle schools.
“She felt the same way I did,” said North, past president of the League of Women Voters of Seattle. “If you don’t take part in your government, it’s not going to work.”
It wasn’t long before Rep. McCaffree was tapped to run in the state House of Representatives. She entered the race for the 32nd District as a Republican and won in1962, with help from her family.
“Her basement was a campaign headquarters,” remembered former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
Rep. McCaffree went on to serve four terms. A 1962 Seattle Times article described the efforts to keep her in office as a “family fun project.”
Even while he was away at college, Rep. McCaffree’s son, Charles McCaffree, enlisted his fraternity brothers to help with the election.
“Family was first, and she did all of these amazing things after that,” he said.
Charles McCaffree said his mother’s biggest accomplishment outside of raising her children was the successful passage of the redistricting bill. She was also very proud of her tax-reform efforts, even though they failed in the House.
Republican colleagues in the House affectionately called her “mother.”
After eight years as a representative, Rep. McCaffree ran for the state Senate in 1970 but lost to the Democratic incumbent, Pete Francis.
She spent the next decade as the director of the state Department of Revenue and director of the King County Department of Budget and Program Development before serving as Gorton’s chief of staff for almost four years.
“Philosophically, we saw eye to eye,” Gorton said. “She was very moderate in her attitudes, and she could work well with Democrats.”
When Gorton would go home for the night, Rep. McCaffree would stick around, continuing to work. She often would bring her children into the office with her.
Her daily escape was her ritual of waking up early and turning up opera music as she washed the dishes and made breakfast.
Even as she aged, Rep. McCaffree remained active in the Hansville Community Center in Kitsap County and the Kitsap Land Trust and the Great Peninsula Conservancy. But she wanted to leave her grandchildren and great-grandchildren with a message about the importance of public service.
Rep. McCaffree published “Politics of the Possible,” which chronicled her experience as a Washington legislator, in 2010.
“She was always concerned with what I was doing and what I was doing to help people get things done,” Charles McCaffree said.
Besides husband Kenneth, of Snohomish, and son Charles, of Orinda, Calif., Rep. McCaffree is survived by children James, of University Place; Nancy Carter, of Snohomish; Mary Johnston, of Everett; and David, of Everett; as well as 16 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd St. in Seattle. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be sent 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, noted as a memorial for Rep. McCaffree.