December 8, 2007

Kansas City Missouri’s First Lady, Gloria Squitiro, plays a role at City Hall that is unfamiliar to the area’s electorate. She has opinions, is unafraid to express them, and has the Mayor’s permission to do so. She even has a desk at city hall. Squitiro is one of a growing number of political wives who, by their actions, reject the traditional role ordinarily reserved for them. Maria Schriver, First Lady of California, comes to mind, as does Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was First Lady of the United States. As often happens to people who are on the cutting edge of social change, these First Ladies have been ridiculed, as well as admired.

Over the seven months of Mark Funkhouser’s tenure as Mayor, Squitiro has been blamed for a multitude of perceived political blunders and, in two recent opinion columns in the city’s daily newspaper, she was told that she should cease giving advice, while Funkhouser was told that he should get a new advisor.

Squitiro has had little opportunity to respond to these accusations, or to inform the public about what she actually does on a day-to-day basis and why she and the Mayor continue to view her role as both appropriate and essential.

Kansas City Hispanic News asked the First Lady to talk about her role at City Hall as she sees it, and to respond, in her own words, to some of the criticisms she has received to-date. Following are questions posed by Hispanic News, and Squitiro’s responses.

KCHN: By way of background, can you explain the role you played during the Mayoral campaign?

The main thing about the campaign was that it was never intended for me to be a part of it, other than to help him get a foot in the door. … Because he was working as city auditor, he could not activate the [campaign] plan, or tell anybody, because it would have been unethical for him to do so. So it fell to me… So right before we went to Europe to do the research for his book – that was the summer of 2006 – we were at the carwash on State Line, when he decided to go ahead and run for Mayor. We had talked about it, and talked it to death … and we decided, ‘Okay, we’re going ahead and doing this.’ So I had two weeks, basically, to set up his announcement party at the Art Institute, and do all this stuff, like setting up the catering, before we left for Europe.

When we got back from Europe, my only job then was to find a headquarters and get the gas and electric and all that stuff set up and then I was turning it over to him. Well, then we had his announcement at the trailer, and so I’m there waiting for the first volunteers to come in… Then the person that Funk wanted to be his manager could not do it, and that really put a lot of pressure on Funk to hire a campaign manage, but we didn’t see how that would be possible. We didn’t have any money coming in at all in the beginning. So we found two people to be the campaign manager who were willing to take it on a promise and a bet… Well it wasn’t too long before we realized that Funk and I knew more on an instinctual level about how to run a campaign than so-called political consultants, and it became him and I deciding what to do. And what I mean by ‘ deciding what to do’ was it’s just common sense. You know, he had this image as a head guy, numbers guy, auditor, very black and white, no emotion whatsoever, and I thought it my job to let people see what I knew he was and just to humanize him and let that passionate side come out. That’s all that I did really. And then I took over writing the newsletter and again, trying to get his other side – the father the husband – out. … Then the emails started coming in and I started answering the emails; and again, it’s just putting that personal touch on it. And that’s what I did. It’s nothing more than that, really.

KCHN: What are you doing now in the Mayor’s office?

You know, many people have asked that, so Funk and I started making a list of what I did. I printed it out for you. But to describe what I do is so hard.

There’s hundreds of letters to write that I feel, that Funk feels, need to be personalized to honor the person, if it’s something that should be honored. I don’t want what I’m going to say to sound like it’s anything special, what I’m doing, but Funk and I never anticipated the whole celebrity part of it. We could no more have imagined that people would care that Funk was walking down the street and think he was something special, and they want his autograph, and they want to be in a picture with him. Never dreamed of that. So when I heard how many murders there were in Kansas City – it’s an ungodly amount – well, there’s one thing we can do that plays off that whole celebrity thing, and that is to write a letter to the next of kin of murder victims from the Mayor, and just say, ‘my god, this is horrible. We’re sorry, and we’re going to try to fix this somehow.’ It can’t erase their pain. It can’t even touch their pain. But maybe it could let them know someone cares. So I write a letter like that. I just got a stack today. I spent hours last night while Funk was out of town writing letters. … Even the mundane things I’m doing take a lot of hours. It’s night and day.

KCHN: What caused you to decide to go to work in the Mayor’s office?

… We knew from the get-go that it was going to be a family thing, but the family was coming first. There would be family involvement, but we didn’t know what that meant when we were telling each other that, or exactly what it means now. … But it was always Funk’s dream, and I was helping him get his dream, because the deal was, the pact was, that you get four years, maybe eight years, buddy, and then your life is mine. …

So I’m helping him with his dream, with my end goal in mind, but honestly, my involvement to where I am now came when we were at a [candidate] forum in the Third District, in a church in a basement that was filled with literally no one else other than 50 Black ladies. And I remember going down there and listening to them and looking around, looking at the people who were up there, the Mayoral contenders who were past council members on the city council, and thinking to myself, ‘hey, what have you ever done for these people?’ I mean, we’re walking into the church on literally crumbling sidewalks … and it’s like, ‘my god, how can you be standing up there in front of these people telling them what wonderful things you’ve done for them during your term.’ I just remember hearing one woman after the other, until I got choked up thinking, ‘my god, it really is the women who are the heroes of the world.’ … Here they are, dealing with horrible conditions … and I just remember being so proud of what women do in life. How we as mothers, grandmothers, keep it together for everybody. So I left there and I was kind of choked up a little bit, and then this strange thing happened to me, and I don’t know how much to say on this, but it was like a sign from God, and it all of a sudden hit me that we’re getting an opportunity to do good for a lot of people. And the power of that, having come from where I had just come from, and seeing what I just saw and knowing that Funk could do it, that he could make the changes that are necessary for these people, and that’s when I was in it. It wasn’t just that I’m helping Funk get his foot in the door; it was, ‘okay, I’m going to be at his side, and help him keep the promises that he’s made.’…

We bought this house … the obligation is both of ours … we made a promise on it. The children are our children; we have an obligation together to raise them. Funk and I have always done things together, and I’m just making sure that he keeps his obligations. Part of that is selfish. I know my husband, if he does not do 150% in this job, he is going to be miserable for the rest of his life, with the … ‘what I should have done, what I could have done,’ all the ‘what if’s.’ I’m not going to have a husband who is gloomy on my time. The time after these four or eight years is my time, so that’s kind of what cinched it that I’m going to be up there

KCHN: The role you’ve assumed in the Funkhouser administration is much more visible and involved than is ordinarily expected of a political wife. Some people applaud this and others deplore it. Do you see yourself as helping to redefine the role played by political wives?

I ’m not into politics at all. I could care less what it does for the role of political wives. All I know is that if you’re married – and this is from my experience, my tiny little experience here – I can’t imagine … that what I’m doing is not what’s done all over the world. You cannot be in this job, trying as hard as Funk’s trying to do a good job, and not be immersed in it twenty-four hours a day. How could he possibly do it unless I was a part of it and our children a part of it? It’s ludicrous to think that this isn’t happening in every other family. What’s different is that he’s trying to make the office authentic, transparent, and acceptable. So I’m visible instead of hidden.

Do you know how much pressure we’ve gotten to hide me? It’s like, ‘Of course you’re doing it. Of course everybody else is doing it, but don’t let anybody see you.’ I mean, they’re trying to give us advise to cover me up, and that’s not going to happen. That’s not who we are. We don’t hide things. …

KCHN: Do you think your involvement is putting the Funkhouser administration at risk, as some people would say?

Funk cannot move a step without people coming up saying, ‘you’re doing a good job, keep it up. We’re with you all the way.’ I think the community loves this guy. I think there are a dozen people in the community that have very loud voices, and are relentless, and want people to think that the community dislikes him. I mean, his latest polling numbers … are through the roof. They love him.

KCHN: Do you think that people have made erroneous assumptions about the level of influence you have? How would you define the influence you have on policy matters?

… I would have absolutely no idea how to run a city. Nor would I have the first friggin’ interest in doing so. That’s boring to me. Where my influence comes in is helping him achieve his goal in areas where we complement each other. … For instance, there were seven city Mayors who sent him a letter. It was so heartfelt. It was like, ‘we believe in what you’re doing, we believe in light rail. If we can help, let us know.’ … His desk is like a mountain and I’m trying to sort through the paper and figure it out, and I come across this letter, and I ask, ‘what are you doing with this letter?’ He says, ‘filing it’. I say, ‘Funk, don’t you know what this is. This is huge.’ So we plan a breakfast with these Mayors, to get them to join hands with him publicly and have a press event in the train yard at Union Station, and create a buzz. That’s what I now how to do.

KCHN: Is there no one on staff to perform functions like that? In other words, if someone were to say, “You’re replacing the role of an employee,” how would you respond?

I’m not replacing anyone. I’m his wife. No one knows him like I know him. When he’s not there, because he’s constantly out meeting people, there’s not enough time in the day to spread him as far as he needs to be spread. I know what he thinks. I know what he wants. I know how to communicate that to the staff when he’s not there to do it for himself. And the staff, for the most part, don’t have a problem with that. They actually welcome that, because they never get enough of his time. And when I don’t know something, what he thinks, I say, ‘I don’t know. You’ll have to wait till he can tell you himself.’

KCHN: Are you actually making decisions for him on these occasions?

Absolutely not. That’s what I’m not doing. I’m letting them know what he feels and thinks and what he wants when he’s not available to do that for himself. … It’s like, ‘what does Funk think about A, B, or C?’ [and I say] ‘Okay. Here’s what he thinks about A,B,or C.’ Or, ‘I have no friggin’ idea. You better wait till he gets back.’

KCHN: It has been reported locally that some people on staff have difficulty dealing with you, that they don’t know exactly what your role is, and that they don’t know how to respond to you. Does this ring true to you based on your day-to-day experience?

I think that in the beginning there probably was. I mean they didn’t quite know what I was suppose to be doing or how they were suppose to be responding to me. But what you don’t know is that they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing either. Or what anybody else was supposed to be doing. This was a group of ten people that had never, ever been worked together, or worked in a Mayor’s office, that were thrown together.

This was a new staff. Funk had two staff from the Auditor’s office that he took with him, so he worked with them before. But not the others – except the secretary. I don’t think that people understand what a difficult situation it was for everyone. … You had a group of people thrown together in an environment they’d never been in before. It’s not like when you come into an already established office. … So yes, everything was difficult. Not just me. I would say, if you’re looking today, do people have a problem with me? I think the large majority of the staff are comfortable working with me, and the reason I’m up there is that Funk is never there and the next best person who knows what he’s thinking and what he wants is me.

KCHN: Recently, there was a column by a Star editorial writer saying that Funkhouser suffers from “Advise Deficit Disorder,” and that the way to cure the “Disorder” is to get rid of you. How do you respond to that?

I guess I would try to keep believing what Funk keeps telling me: That the easiest target is me, and that’s why they’re going after me. This is all aimed at him, at undermining him and what he’s trying to do, and I am just the simplest way to get there. They’ve tried every which way to get him, and this is, I think, my third go round and they’re back to me again. So I think it’s absurd. … If I wasn’t out there, all this would be going on still. In a different form, but it would still be going on. Funk’s a pretty clean-cut guy so there’s not too much to get on him. So this is, I guess, what they’re trying to get.

KCHN: Might they be trying to say that using you as an adviser is a form of political naiveté, and is ill advised?

But he’s winning. He’s succeeding. I mean, if you look at the poll numbers. I don’t know poll numbers from anything, but I know reputable firms are doing them. I’ve been told there never has been numbers higher than 56% approval rating. His approval rating is in the 70’s. That’s failure? He’s getting terrible advice? I mean, what do they want? He’s getting things done that he said he would do, and he’s getting it done fast.

KCHN: Now that you’ve been in the office, right there where things are happening, is there anything new, anything that you didn’t expect. You did mention celebrity. Is there anything else you didn’t expect that surprised you?

Yes. It has surprised me just how loud a dozen people can appear. A very small group that wants you to believe it is thousands and thousands strong, when it’s twelve people. The level of viciousness has been a great surprise, and I’m glad we didn’t know this would be a part of it, because I doubt we would have gotten into it knowing that. It’s so ugly. To me, when I think about it, it’s like, ‘what does this guy want to do but to lift up the people who’ve been forgotten? Why would you want to stop him from doing that?’ … I can’t understand that kind of a mind. That surprised me. … I was naïve.

KCHN: What do you mean when you talk about “twelve people”? Are you actually referring to twelve specific individuals?

No. I’m just using that to mean a ‘few people.’

KCHN: You said that you started doing the newsletter [called From Funk’s Front Porch] during the campaign. Some pundits have criticized you for continuing the newsletter, saying it should be discontinued now that Funkhouser is in office. How would you define the newsletter then and now, and how do you respond to those critical of the newsletter?

The newsletters were extremely important during the campaign. I mean thousands of them went out. I think at the end, 10,000 a week went out, and I could barely keep up with the responses. There were at least 200 responses after each newsletter that I would then have to write back. Because we did feel like the personal touch was craved. I mean, this is what people voted him in for, was that personalization. That he was assessable, someone to grab, and he wanted me to keep that going while he was Mayor. And I was like, ‘how in the world can I possibly do that?’ I’m at home and I don’t know what’s going on up there. I mean we talk, but that’s not the same as living and breathing it. That’s when he told me he wanted me to be up there with him, day-to-day. And it started with the newsletter.

The goal of the newsletter is exactly the same now, and that’s to personalize him, to make him assessable by citizens; to humanize him instead of him just being the Mayor who’s making all the decisions, to make the office transparent, to let people know what’s going on in the office day-to-day. It’s the same reason why the Blog is there with daily updates. It’s just the accessibility, the communication that he wants to happen.

I think that probably there’s probably been a thousand responses since he’s been in office, and I’d say there’s been probably a half-dozen who say, ‘you guys are fools to keep this thing going.’ … But most of the people are like, ‘we are so grateful you’re doing this. Please keep it up, and don’t let it wear you out.’ They value it. People want more of a connection.

KCHN: You’ve been blamed for a wide range of so called ‘political blunders.’ For example, it has been said that you ordered police protection for forums taking place in minority neighborhoods, but not in others. Can you expand on that?

This was right after Simler, and I had gotten threats that I did not want publicized at that time, because I didn’t want them to become reality. So these were threats that came in, and like Funk and I told everybody, our family comes first. … It just so happens that the calls came in at those two town hall meetings. So yes, that’s all it was. It was because of those specific calls, the day of town hall meetings. … Now, to avoid this issue, we just let Chief Corwin know when the town hall meetings are and if he deems it necessary to have protection, we have protection. …

When we went into office he [Chief Corwin] said, ‘if you ever need anything you call me.’ So I called him, and the next day it’s in the newspaper. So now what happens, if a threat comes in, I’ll tell Funk, ‘get on the phone and tell Corwin that we want protection.’ Funk will say, ‘I don’t need any protection.’ And I’ll say, ‘Funk, you’re a father, and I’m your wife, and I want it, so call Corwin.’ … I am a mother first and I’m going to protect my children’s father first, in any way I can and I don’t care who thinks what about it.

KCHN: Perhaps the most notorious decision that has been attributed to you is the decision to appoint Francis Simler to the Parks and Recreation Board of Directors. That decision led to negative coverage nationwide, and to the decision by the National Council of LaRaza to cancel their national convention, costing Kansas City an estimated $5.1 million. Can you discuss that issue, and your role in it?

Francis Simler was a campaign worker, and supposedly we were great friends … I’ve had meetings where I was told she’s my best friend. I mean, this woman is a 74 republican grandmother from the Northland that I’d never laid eyes on before in my live. The campaign was so fast paced that Funk and I were aghast, every single day, that we had these people slaving away for us, that we can barely look up and say hello to. I mean I don’t know Frances Simler; how many kids she has, what her kids names are. If you’re my friend, I know all that. I know intimate details about your life. I don’t take friendship lightly. I didn’t know her. What I knew was that Funk wanted someone from the Northland who had his vision, which was to bring the parks back to children and especially inner-city children, and make it a place where they would thrive. And I remembered Frances Simler – and I remembered her only because I think she was a victory gardener or something like that – and I said, ‘what about that Frances Simler?’ And he said, ‘that’s a great idea.’ And he went and visited her, and saw that, not only is she a victory gardener, but she’s an artist and what have you, and he asked her if she would be willing to be on the park board. She wrote back and gave every reason why she couldn’t be. I think because her husband was very ill. But she wrote what she would do if she were on the park board, and it was everything he had been looking for. I think I called her back and said, ‘Francis, I’m sorry, and we understand, your husband is first. Do you know anybody else you could recommend who has your vision and goals?’ By then, she was like, she knew she wanted it. So I told Funk that, and he called her, and that’s how it happened. It was basically from her email that said she couldn’t do it, but here’s what she would do if she were on it.

Q. Is there a system for vetting people for boards and commissions that was in place in the city when you came, and that is in place now? Was Frances Simler’s background examined under such a system?

They’re political appointments. That’s what nobody seems to get. These are powerful political appointments. I don’t know what’s been done in the past, but I can imagine that friends were put on there who were owed a favor. They are political appointments and that’s how political appointments are made. What we wanted to do, what Funk wants to do, is to make everything open and transparent. And so, yes, we had an application process. Did that mean that was the only way? I mean, the application was used to draw lots of people in besides the people he already knew.

Because of Frances Simler and the big stir with that, we realized there had to be a lot more forthcoming questions asked. Who would ever have thought ‘what organizations do you belong to’ should have a part of the application? Obviously it does. But again, that was one of his very first appointments when everything was new, there were no processes in place, a new staff … could you say it was a mistake – there was an obvious big to-do about this appointment. Would he have, knowing what he knows now, would he have done it? I can’t say for him honestly.

KCHN: Can you answer for yourself? Would you do it again?

Appoint Frances Simler? That’s a really tough question, because you have to look at it within the framework of seven months. … What no one seems to realize is that I come from immigrant parents. My father was born on the boat on the way over here. He did not speak English until he was thrown into Kindergarten and had to fend for himself. Italians in New York City where my parents grew up were treated worse than Hispanic immigrants in this city. … So in the beginning I was extremely confused [about Simler]. Do we take her off. Do we not take her off. Because I was buying into the notion that this group, and this woman specifically, was like a KKK person.

Now I think to equate the Minutemen and what they’ve done to what happened to Black people by the KKK is ludicrous. To me that is not apples and apples. I think once I got past that, that they weren’t similar – of course in every group there’s bad seed. I mean, think of priests using boys. Do we say, ‘oh my god, we need to banish the whole Catholic religion?’ I mean there are some people who would like that, but would we do that, based on bad seeds? … As Funk has said, if she acts in a biased way, in a bigoted way, if she uses her position to further her cause, she’s out the door. … I’ve been brought over to thinking about things in his way, because they are not listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, as some would have us believe. I personally called them and talked to them.

KCHN: It’s true that the Southern Poverty Law Center does not consider the Minutemen to be a hate group, but they do consider them a “nativist extremest” group, which means they target individual immigrants as opposed to immigration policy. This leads to what can be called “profiling,” because the Minutemen identify people they believe to be undocumented based on their language and appearance. Did you consider this?

He’s considering what the initial charges were: That they’re a hate group. … Now all I can say is you have to go back to the initial argument that was made. They were called a hate group, and they’re not a hate group. We’ve dealt with that issue. … We do not have the Minutemen on the Parks Board. We have a woman on the park board and she has been warned repeatedly, if she acts in a racist or bigoted way, she loses her position. If she uses her position in a political way, like some members of the community were doing, she’s out of there. The Hispanic chairman of the parks board said ‘she is not a racist.’ The two Black men on the park board are saying ‘she is not a racist.’ They are saying she is bringing a lot to the table. Why would we remove her? …

Would he appoint another member of the Minutemen? I can’t imagine that he would do that again, because of the hurt feelings that went on from this appointment and he wouldn’t want to do that. If he can avoid that now, he’s going to avoid it. But to take a woman off, to persecute her, because a few members of a group she happens to belong to, what they have done, not what she has done, and not what her beliefs are, I agree with him. I don’t think she should come off there. …

Q. The Simler appointment seems to have distanced some people in the Hispanic community from Funkhouser and made them more suspicious of him than they might have been if this had not happened. Do you see any way to mend hurt feelings or resolve shattered expectations?

The short answer is that at the end of four years he’ll be judged whether he got over that or not. Did he fix the curbs and sidewalks like he said he was going to do? Did he help make sure that more minorities are hired at city hall? Did he make sure that minorities are treated fairly in Kansas City? Did he appoint to his boards a sample that’s representative of the minorities in the city. Judge him on that in four years. This one issue is being treated as a be-all, end-all when it’s a grain of sand. … If he makes life better for every child is in Kansas City, then he’s done his job. I think he will do that, and if the Hispanic community wants to overlook that after four years and go back to this one grain of sand, I don’t think there’s anything we can do about that.

Do I believe that the Hispanic community as a whole is in an uproar? I absolutely don’t believe that. I think it goes back to some of the dozen that have other agendas at play here than is said what’s at play. And how do I know this? Again, the polling. Seventy-four percent of Hispanics think Funk is doing a fabulous job. How can that be if we have a whole community against him? I don’t see how those numbers could be there. … I don’t think Simler is the only issue for Hispanics. They’ve already spoken. They tell Funk every day. We went to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He couldn’t move two steps in there without people coming up to him saying, ‘great job, don’t let those people from our community make you think that we all think like they do.’ … He’s listening to the people with the complaints in the community, and he’s having people in the community who do not have complaints come up to him. The majority of what he’s seeing is support for what he’s doing. How else do you judge it?

KCHN: How do see your role evolving over the remainder of Funkhouser’s term?

I have no earthly idea. I didn’t know when I came into all this at this time last year, and I have no idea now, except to stand by his side and do what he needs and wants me to do until I don’t want to do that anymore. …

KCHN: Do both you and Funkhouser still believe that your role still serves his purposes and the betterment of the community?

Funk will not let me quit. He won’t let Simler, or the friggin park board make me quit. As he says to me every week, ‘babe, don’t let them make you lose your nerve,’ and I’m not going to let them make me lose my nerve. I’m going to hang in here until it’s not what I want to be doing any more.

KCHN: Are you enjoying the experience?

No, it’s horrible. I’m not enjoying it.

KCHN: Are there some rewards?

The only reward is in knowing what he’s going to be able to do, and I absolutely know that if there’s a person who can do it, it’s him. The reward is in that big picture off in the distance. Right now, we’re in the mud in the trenches, and who the hell can see out of there. It’s muddy, it’s raining and it’s nowhere I thought I’d be.