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In 2007, Mark Funkhouser wasn’t an obvious choice to be elected mayor of Kansas City, Mo. He was the city’s longtime auditor, not a career politician, and not a well-heeled attorney or businessman either. Six-foot-eight with a West Virginia twang, Funkhouser ran as an outsider candidate, promising to stop the city’s sweetheart deals with developers and make government work “for regular folks.” His campaign adopted orange as its color — a nod to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution — and “Funkytown” as its theme tune. The Kansas City Star endorsed him.
Funk, as he’s known, won a surprise 50.6 percent of the vote. That made him mayor, and it made his wife and campaign manager, Gloria Squitiro, the first lady of Kansas City. She was thrilled; if anyone could change Kansas City for the better, it was her husband.
Looking back now, she says she didn’t know what she was getting into. “Before I got involved [in politics], I had no idea what it encompassed” to be the mayor’s wife, she recalls. “Funk and I were so naive. He won that election, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, we have the opportunity here to move the world’ … We had no idea [that] once he was elected, that was just the beginning.”
No one can really say what the job of a mayoral first lady (or gentleman) is, and that includes the people who’ve held it. What are you supposed to do when you’re married to the leader of an American city? “That was the big question I had,” says Megan O’Hara, the wife of R.T. Rybak, who was mayor of Minneapolis from 2002 until earlier this year. “No one could answer it.”
And who exactly are you supposed to be? That became an urgent question this spring, when Bill de Blasio won the mayoral election in New York City. De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is a poet, an activist and her husband’s closest adviser; she is also a former lesbian, a black woman married to a white man, and the mother of two biracial children, all of which have made her the subject of intense public fascination and scrutiny by the media. In May, McCray revealed to New York magazine that she had struggled to balance work and motherhood after the birth of her daughter Chiara. For this, the New York Post labeled her “a bad mother,” and a furious de Blasio demanded that the paper apologize.
With more husbands serving as first spouse (including Kent Blake, husband to Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake), and with a few same-sex mayoral marriages (in Houston and Seattle, for example), the stereotype of a demure first lady in pearls and pumps, cutting ribbons or chairing galas, is clearly passé. But was it ever the norm? Throughout the 20th century, mayors’ wives — like their husbands — approached their position in different ways. Marie La Guardia was her husband Fiorello’s secretary before he became mayor of New York in 1934. During the Second World War, she set a public example of austerity by hanging her own washing in the yard of Gracie Mansion. (Years later, she complained about the roaches there.)
Ed Koch was New York’s mayor from 1978 to 1989, and although he never married, he had a de facto first lady: Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America. Myerson attended parties at Koch’s side, co-chaired his campaign and served as his cultural affairs commissioner. A lifelong bachelor, Koch was widely rumored to be gay, and Myerson was seen as providing cover for him, a claim she strongly denied.
Some first ladies are beloved. Clevelanders adored Lucille Perk, first lady from 1972 to 1977, a mother of seven who answered phone calls from constituents and allegedly turned down an invitation to the White House because it was her bowling night. Others are seen as enigmatic or aloof. When Washington, D.C.’s Marion Barry married Effi Slaughter in 1978, as he campaigned for mayor, the former model “drew cool and sometimes hostile feelings from the city’s African American establishment, owing to … her reserved demeanor, lack of experience in the civil rights movement and light skin,” according to her 2007 obituary in the Washington Post.
People identify with their mayor and his or her family in a way they don’t identify with, say, their state senator or district councilmember. The mayor’s role is an executive one, and totemic; in that respect, it’s more like the U.S. presidency than any lower political office. Your mayor is the face your city presents to the world. He or she also has power over the hyperlocal matters of your daily life, which makes the connection more personal.
In the late ’70s, black Washingtonians wanted the mayor’s wife to embody the principles of the civil rights movement. Effi Barry, who was mixed-race, underwent sun lamp treatments to try to darken her skin. Later, when Marion Barry was arrested for smoking crack cocaine, wariness of his wife changed to sympathy and admiration. Effi sat stoic through every day of the trial, quietly hooking a rug in the front row of the courtroom.
Flash forward to 2014: The District doesn’t even have a first lady, and no one seems to mind. Mayor Vincent Gray dates a PR executive, Linda Mercado Greene, whom most city residents couldn’t name. It’s not a coincidence that identity politics are on the wane in D.C. (and other cities), drowned out by technocratic discussions of school performance and mass transit. Voters today don’t need a first lady who is one of them. In fact, they may not need her at all.
In Kansas City, Gloria Squitiro had her own distinct professional identity long before her husband ran for public office. She ran a birth-coaching business, helping couples deliver their children naturally. The profession suited her passionate, earthy and forthright personality. She and Funkhouser raised two children together and she had no reason to expect that the turn in his career would make their unit any less collaborative. “My husband and I, we’ve always done everything together. We’re a very intimate couple,” she says. So when it came to his campaign, she was all in, and saw no reason to step back once he took office. “I was my husband’s campaign manager. The role when you win — it’s assumed you become the chief of staff.”
Squitiro grabbed a cubicle right outside the mayor’s office in city hall. The proximity was important; she was his right-hand advisor. She called meetings and rewrote press releases. She remembered colleagues’ birthdays. The problem was, she was a volunteer. Mayor Funkhouser already had a paid staff.
For city first ladies and gentlemen today, there are distinct choices to be made. At one extreme are spouses who embrace public life like Squitiro and like McCray, whom de Blasio has called his “number-one adviser.” These spouses have causes or, more rarely, policies to focus on and will attend events and may give speeches.
At the other pole are the private first ladies or gentlemen who support their spouses behind the scenes, but attend few events and don’t have a signature issue or cause. Most mayoral spouses who choose privacy do so not out of shyness but because of their own professional and family commitments.
It’s “a pretty clear division between two different kinds of roles,” says Catherine Alonzo, a political consultant with the firm Javelina who has worked on several mayoral campaigns in the Southwest.
Current first ladies who avoid the political limelight include San Jose’s Paula Reed, a registered nurse who runs an oncology clinic. An aide in the office of her husband, Mayor Chuck Reed, seemed baffled as to why a reporter would want to speak with Reed about her experience as first lady. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people in San Jose wouldn’t recognize her in the grocery store,” the aide said, adding that during much of the Reeds’ marriage, she worked longer hours than he did.
(Nurses, lawyers and doctors make up a high percentage of current big-city first spouses. In Nashville, Memphis, Orlando, New Orleans and Phoenix, the first ladies are attorneys; in Tampa and Louisville, they’re physicians. Austin’s Julie Byers is a nurse, like Reed in San Jose. An unscientific search also turns up an economic development CEO — Gary Cunningham, Minneapolis; an insurance agent —Tom Price, Ft. Worth; and even an art historian — Amy Rule, Chicago.)
Although the rise of women in the workforce — from 32 million in 1970 to 72 million in 2009 — has no doubt changed voters’ expectations, the impact of feminism on the first lady role is oblique, even contradictory. Now that so many political wives are experienced professionals, it stands to reason that they’d be the most confident, visible, effective first ladies yet. Except, if they’re like Paula Reed, they may be so busy that they simply can’t take on a new pro bono role. First ladies who aren’t interested in politics may also feel freer now to say so, Alonzo notes. The days of obligatory nodding and smiling may not be over for women, but the extent to which those rules determine daily life is certainly diminished, particularly when you are talking about the typically well-educated, professional women who end up married to mayors.
“It’s going to continue to be a mixed bag,” Alonzo predicts, with politically minded spouses carving out a prominent role for themselves, while others may decline it altogether.
Even for an individual, what it means to be first lady can change over time. The public and private roles aren’t ironclad — they’re more like ends of a spectrum, and the same person can move one way or the other. “I’ve seen the same spouse very involved, and at a different time, they’re less engaged,” Alonzo says. “What’s going on in a person’s life really impacts that. Do you have children? How old? What’s your work life like? What a first lady can do will vary hugely as the children get older.”
John Kupper, a political consultant who has worked on mayoral campaigns in Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Charlotte and Salt Lake City, saw this kind of evolution happen for Maggie Daley. When Kupper worked on Richard M. Daley’s first successful campaign for mayor in 1989, Maggie Daley was “very reticent” about getting involved, he remembers. Later on, her kids went to college, and she became much more visible. She founded and grew a philanthropic group, After School Matters, and made public appearances on her own. A major new Chicago park will be named in her honor. (Maggie Daley died of breast cancer in 2011, a few months after her husband left office.)
“She really will have a legacy that exceeds that of many mayors,” Kupper says. “And she earned it. She became an important public figure in her own right, but that was a process that evolved over time.”
Most first spouses today find a comfortable place somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Having a cause is a first-lady cliché, and causes still tend to be of the uncontroversial, “caring” variety: education, nutrition, supporting charities for people with disabilities or the homeless. Squitiro found this expectation stifling. “I ran my own business — I’m not going to do a charity. I wasn’t the tea-giving-type woman,” she says. But the advantage of having a cause, O’Hara says, is that you can start to filter the event invitations, which are legion, and prioritize what matters to you. (Her own focus was Minneapolis’ local food movement.) And some first ladies do stretch in the role. In Denver, Mary Louise Lee, an actor and singer, advocates for the arts; she continues to perform professionally and recently sang the Aretha Franklin song “Think” on America’s Got Talent. The first lady of Indianapolis, Winnie Ballard, used to be a banker, and promotes the decidedly non-feminized cause of financial literacy. Tellingly, I couldn’t find a single example of a first gentleman with a cause.
A first lady may be expected to host the occasional dinner or fundraiser at home — or not (“We were always out,” notes Andrea White, a former first lady of Houston). She may need to be an interior decorator, too, if the city has a mayoral mansion. Recently, McCray worked with a stylist at the furniture chain West Elm to redecorate Gracie Mansion as the first family moved in. One critic “winced” at a photo of McCray with the stylist: Despite her policy role in the de Blasio administration, as first lady, the critic observed, “it still falls to her to get the house in order.” When a woman is eventually elected mayor of New York, who will take over these duties: the first gentleman?
On the public-private spectrum that Alonzo describes, at least one current first lady has embraced a public role with gusto. Nancy Hales, the wife of Mayor Charlie Hales, loves being first lady of Portland, Ore. (The title is even in her email signature.) “Kind of an all-hands-on-deck person” by her own account, Hales has worked as a community organizer and in land-use policy, and she now leads a program at Portland State University called First Stop Portland, which organizes specialized study tours for delegations to the city.
Civic engagement and Portland boosterism come naturally to Hales. Her husband, “a completely urban-focused guy who loves his city,” she says, was a commissioner before they married, so she wasn’t surprised when he decided to jump back into politics. The Haleses have five children between them, all grown, which leaves Nancy Hales time for her first-lady duties. And time, she needs: sometimes seven nights a week. Hales goes to neighborhood fairs, community forums, meetings (“Portland is the city that meets,” she jokes), happily. “We’re very open people, very sociable, I guess.”
A recent profile of Hales in Portland Monthly calls her “the first spouse or partner of a Portland mayor in living memory (maybe ever) to embrace the concept of ‘First Lady.’” If the tone of the article — which notes with approval both her “Marilyn Monroe-platinum hair” and her “badass side” — is any indication, Portland is glad to have her. But Hales says she was initially unsure how to carve out a role for herself. People asked her if she was going to have a cause, and she was dismissive about it.
“I hope I’m striking a course that’s the right one. It certainly feels wonderful for me,” she says. “The city has been extraordinarily welcoming.”
In Kansas City, Squitiro’s warm welcome didn’t last long. First, there were controversies over the first couple accepting a free car, and a request for extra security when the Mayor visited certain (predominantly minority) neighborhoods. Then the Christmas letter Squitiro sent out in 2007 got leaked to the press. It’s easy to see why. The letter describes, in eye-watering, leg-crossing detail, her husband’s prostate exam earlier that year. “Poor Funk didn’t know what a physical entailed once you passed age 50, but I did, and I could hardly wait,” the letter read. “It was only when the nurse told Funk to take everything off but his socks that I saw Funk get an inkling of what might be coming.” (It gets more graphic from there.)
Next came a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination. An African-American former city employee alleged that Squitiro had called her “Mammy” and made sexually explicit remarks at city hall. Squitiro countered that she often adds a “y” to the end of people’s names or nicknames, and denied any discrimination. She says the woman who brought the complaint was a family friend of 15 years. (Former staffers corroborated that Squitiro made lewd remarks. Squitiro’s insurer settled the case for $45,000; the city eventually paid the former aide $550,000.)
Soon after, the city council passed an ordinance that barred family members of elected officials from volunteering in their offices. It was aimed squarely at Squitiro.
Funkhouser, who had cast the only vote against the ban, vetoed it — the only mayoral veto in Kansas City’s history.
The council overrode it.
Funkhouser withdrew to his house, where he could conduct official business with his wife by his side. His chief of staff and communications director had quit. He was defiant. “The idea that once we won the prize, I was going to dump her and say, ‘See you, honey, in four years. Go on back home and bake cookies, fold some laundry. I’ll be there when I get there,’ is absurd,” he told reporters at the time.
As all this unfolded, Funkhouser was mocked as a “henpecked husband.” Squitiro saw herself depicted in cartoons with black tape over her mouth, and on one blog, her head was Photoshopped onto Yoko Ono’s body. Clearly, not everyone was over traditional gender roles — the “first lady of Funkytown” was charmingly bohemian until it became evident that her husband didn’t control her, at which point she became far less popular.
“I am certain that 75 percent of political wives are doing exactly what I did, I just wasn’t willing to lie about it.”
Of course, not every mayor has a spouse. These days, it’s pretty typical for an unmarried mayor to publicly acknowledge his or her partner, and for the partner to assume at least the ceremonial first-spouse duties. Lorrie Higgins, the long-term girlfriend of Marty Walsh, Boston’s new mayor, stood by his side on election night. Kate Kopischke, whose partner is Salt Lake City’s mayor, Ralph Becker, attended the swearing-in for his second term.
It’s too early to say whether “first girlfriends” and boyfriends will be able to inhabit the role fully without alienating socially conservative voters. (What happens when a mayor and his or her partner decide to raise kids outside of marriage?) But the example of Salt Lake throws into relief a national political trend: big cities becoming more Democratic, and more socially liberal, than the states they’re in. A divorced politician in the Mormon stronghold of Utah lives with his divorced girlfriend, and it’s no big deal? That’s because Salt Lake isn’t Utah. Likewise, apart from some state GOP grumblings about her “[turning] Texas into California,” there was no flap when Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker married Kathy Hubbard, her partner of 23 years, this past January. (Parker responded that her critics should get over it, already.)
This year’s election of de Blasio in New York offers a signal of the power a spouse can wield in shaping a candidate’s public identity. The former Brooklyn councilman’s campaign prominently featured his unconventional family: Chiara of the many piercings, afro-sporting Dante, and of course, McCray. Putting the spotlight on them worked: De Blasio won in a landslide, gaining 73 percent of the vote, and 96 percent of the black vote, a larger portion of the black vote than David Dinkins got in 1989 when he was elected the city’s first black mayor, according to the New York Times.
“You have a black woman sitting there who can say, ‘My side of the family is hurting over here, now.’ He’s going to hear that direct,” Walter Edwards, a real estate developer in Harlem, told the Times as he explained why he voted for de Blasio. “He’s not going to get it from somebody off the street he has no relationship with.”
“[The partner] can really help you reach a target demographic,” Alonzo says.
And even if a partner isn’t as influential as McCray or Squitiro, voters are still bound to be curious about their mayor’s closest confidante. In Boston, Higgins had to leave her waitressing job because of the people coming into the restaurant to gawk at her.
The flip side of a first lady having so many opportunities to connect with citizens, during both the campaign and her spouse’s administration, is that those are also opportunities to say or do the wrong thing. The least active, most private mayoral spouse is still part of public life, after all. Most of the current first ladies contacted for this article declined to be interviewed. “The rule is: No harm,” White explains. “Even if [as first lady] you’re not … giving 40 hours a week, at least you can keep your mouth shut or not say something that is going to be misconstrued.”
Having a combative or arrogant personality stirs up problems. One political consultant worked with a former mayor of a Midwestern city, and his wife talked down to constituents. “She was just horrible to people. She was dreadful,” says the consultant, who doesn’t want to be named. Campaign staff had to rein her in.
In some cases, a partner can function as a literal surrogate for the mayor. Carolyn Goodman is the current mayor of Las Vegas and its former first lady. After term limits kicked her husband, Oscar Goodman, out of city hall in 2011, after 12 years in office, the couple figured out a way to stay in power: Run the other Goodman. Though Oscar Goodman told the press that he tried to talk his wife out of running, the foundation of her campaign platform was her marital status. When a television reporter asked her in March of 2011 why she was running for mayor, her response was simple.
Goodman won 60 percent of the vote, becoming the only person in U.S. history to have been both a first lady and a mayor. Interestingly, she doesn’t think being first lady was her best preparation for the mayor’s office.
“The greatest preparation I had for this job was — it sounds weird — the combination of raising our four children … And then of course, building this school was another piece.” The school she refers to is the Meadows School, a private institution that Goodman founded in 1984 and stayed involved with for decades, serving at various times as its president and as a trustee. But Goodman says her years as first lady did get her used to the terminology of city government and prepared her for the scope of the job. “Capital expenditures, planning, sustainability, labor issues. It’s such a huge world in which you live as mayor.”
The showdown in Kansas City over the Mayor’s wife made national news: NBC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal. Funkhouser sued the city to reinstate Squitiro in city hall, and won. But he lost his campaign for reelection in 2011. The family moved to Washington, D.C.
She believes that her husband was targeted by his political opponents, and she was simply a convenient means to an end for them. “It had nothing to do with me,” she says. What if she’d been less in-your-face, more demure? “They would have found a different way [to get to Funkhouser].”
Perhaps, but it seems highly unlikely that things would have gone the same way had Squitiro been a different kind of person. Old notions of decorum die hard, and her brashness — accepted and even admired during the campaign — struck many as crass when it came down from city hall. Squitiro’s experience also highlights the Catch-22 of the hands-on first lady. Conflict-of-interest concerns require you to decline a salary, but doing so delegitimizes your work and opens you up to accusations of meddling with city government. While Squitiro’s constant presence may have been tough for the Mayor’s paid staff to endure, from her perspective, she was giving her all to a job that paid her nothing — on behalf of the people of Kansas City. (McCray’s work for the de Blasio administration, as the chair of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, is also unpaid.)
More believable than her means-to-an-end argument is Squitiro’s assertion that in closely advising her husband, she was doing what many first ladies do — out in the open, not behind closed doors.
“I am certain that 75 percent of political wives are doing exactly what I did, I just wasn’t willing to lie about it,” she says. “The job is so all-consuming. And so intimate.” She looks back on an encounter with Maggie Daley at the U.S. Conference of Mayors one year that opened her eyes to how a first lady could discreetly direct her husband’s staff. “I’d say we all did the same thing, just some of us kept it hidden.”
Only time will tell if McCray will be able to work unpaid in city hall and maintain a strong public persona without blowback. (The de Blasio children recently began month-long city internships, which were approved by the conflicts of interest board, but have nevertheless prompted some complaints about nepotism.)
Despite the downsides, every first lady I spoke to said they would do it again. Goodman gained invaluable insight into what was to become her next job. O’Hara, who earned the moniker “First Lady of Local Foods” during her husband’s tenure, is proud that she was able to help reform regulations for urban farmers and bring a new nutrition expert into Minneapolis’ public schools. “My personal involvement did make a difference,” she says. “It was great to see that.” White overcame her fear of public speaking. Both White and O’Hara say the experience left their children, now grown, with a lifelong interest in civic affairs and public policy.
Even Squitiro says she’d do it again “in a heartbeat,” although she’s not sure her husband would. We may hear more about her life as an embattled first lady. She is almost finished writing the first of two planned memoirs, which she hopes to publish next year. The title? C’mon Funk, Move Your Ass
Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.
Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland. Formerly an editor at Architect and Preservation magazines, she has contributed to a wide range of publications including the Washington Post, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement.