An essential primer for legislators

A new legislator praises a book that explains how it all works in Olympia, harking back to "the decade our American Democracy worked."

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Washington State Capitol

A new legislator praises a book that explains how it all works in Olympia, harking back to "the decade our American Democracy worked."

Last year, in preparation to become a legislator, I asked Sen. Slade Gorton for a reading list. It consisted of one book, at the time still in manuscript: Politics of the Possible: The Decade our American Democracy Worked, by Mary Ellen McCaffree and Anne McNamee Corbett (Island Penworks, 2011, 443 pages). There is much in the book about State Rep. Gorton, as well as State Rep. and then Gov. Dan Evans, and House Speakers John L. O’Brien and Bill Day and Don Eldridge. It is most of all the story of Mary Ellen McCaffree, a good lady who represented Seattle in the State House from 1963 to 1970.
The book is extraordinary. It is not just the history of an institution during an eventful period. It is the best reader a citizen could find on how a legislature works. It is a day-by-day account of lawmaking — on the floor, in the caucus room, in committee, at late-session-late-night gatherings off campus, back in the district. Its content is well-lived and well-documented, the beautiful record of a grand process. Its message is as American as they come: citizens can make a difference. 
McCaffree herself came to politics during the League of Women Voters movement to require periodic legislative redistricting. When she arrived in Olympia in 1962, she became part of the state’s first redistricting project. And on her first day as a legislator, a remarkable coalition of minority Republicans and dissident Democrats ousted the Speaker of the House John O’Brien in favor of moderate Democrat Bill Day.
In four terms, McCaffree became one of the most accomplished legislators in Washington state history. As chair of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, she led the legislative fight for Gov. Evans’s tax reforms. She championed the right of 18-year-olds to vote, helped to establish Washington’s community college system, and pushed for important clean air and water policies. Following McCaffree’s legislative service, she directed the state Department of Revenue and led the King County budget office.
Politics of the Possible is a record of achievement. More importantly, it is a documentary of coalition-building, reform, and public leadership in Washington state. “Legislating is not a solitary activity, nor is it a task for a maverick,” McCaffree writes. “It requires teamwork, skill in the art of compromise, an ability to listen.”
There are plenty of politicians who have written books about their opinions on the issues of the day, and plenty of academics who have written books about theories and institutions, but few politicians or academics who adequately explain what government does and why it matters.
Politicians ought to take their own capacity to teach politics more seriously, because they are best acquainted with the array of tensions, complexities, decision points, rhetorical tools, myths, interests, personalities and all-important relationships that make politics. Precisely because all these political components are so consuming, many politicians fail to look beyond their immediate duties to consider the importance of relating their work to the next generation.
In Politics of the Possible, McCaffree has done something all too rare: the politician has become a teacher. She does this with mighty insight. To the young person (or a person of any age) pondering how she or he might make a difference in public life, McCaffree’s book is a good place to start.


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