The oddest couple in politics

My brief, unhappy career working for the mayor of Kansas City and his eccentric wife -- the unofficial co-mayor

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The oddest couple in politicsKansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser participates in a forum during the U.S. Conference of Mayors Friday, June 12, 2009, in Providence, R.I. Right: Gloria Squitiro talks about an ordinance that keeps her from volunteering in her husband, Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser's office, during an interview at her home in Kansas City, Mo. Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008. The spat is the most recent disagreement Funkhouser has had with the city council.

Just before my brief career in politics came to a pathetic end, the wife of the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., grabbed a phone from my hand and screamed into the receiver: “Do him real good tonight!”

We were on the 29th floor of City Hall, in the mayor’s office, and I was all spiffy in my suit and tie, my standard uniform as the mayor’s director of communications. The person on the other end of the line was my wife, and she was understandably mortified. I, on the other hand, was elated. After a week and a half on the first lady’s shit list, I was finally back in her good graces and my job in the city’s top office was once again secure.

The moment was charged with the sensation of victory, the fundamental addictive element of politics. Moments earlier the City Council had failed to pass a law that would have essentially banned the mayor’s wife from the building because she had a tendency to do things like ordering a staffer’s wife to have sex. For the time being, she could remain a fixture in the mayor’s office, working as his de facto chief of staff, and I could continue working as her top lackey.

If there’s one thing I learned during my failed run through City Hall it’s that power doesn’t corrupt, it exposes. Politics lays humanness bare, and mostly the ugliest parts of humanness: pride, ego, fear, vanity, coldblooded competitiveness. It drew out my propensity as a people pleaser and turned me into a hell of a sycophant.

For my bosses — Mayor Mark Funkhouser and his wife, Gloria Squitiro — it revealed far worse. In case you missed the front-page stories in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, or the features on “Good Morning America” and “Fox & Friends,” the City Council eventually passed — over the mayor’s veto — the law banning Squitiro from the premises. The mayor then turned around and sued the very city he was elected to serve, calling the ordinance unconstitutional.

He won the case, so she’ll return to her desk in his office. But in the time she was away, a citizen-led recall campaign amassed 20,000 signatures and nearly forced a late-summer recall election for his immediate ouster. And earlier this month the city had to cough up more than half a million bucks to settle a discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit that accused the mayor’s wife of calling a black woman “Mammy,” fretting that Mexicans might throw hot tamales at her and ordering staff to get the mayor out of a meeting with a community leader by saying, “Tell him to take his dick out of her ass.”



This is definitely not what I imagined I was getting myself into when I volunteered in late 2006 to help Funkhouser’s campaign for mayor. For me, it was all about reform in a city in desperate need of it.

—–

Kansas City is a Goliath among corrupt cities. From its earliest days as a muddy sin stop on the banks of the Missouri River, through the years when “Boss Tom” Pendergast ran the town with a greedy fist, to the 1990s when a near quorum of its City Council was indicted on criminal charges, K.C. has been at the forefront of graft.

For the last decade, the city has been caught up in a pork fest — all of it perfectly legal — the likes of which are unequaled in any American city. A small group of developers and attorneys with City Hall connections glommed on to a program for poor neighborhoods and used it to build luxury hotels and fancy shopping centers in the richest parts of town, draining $90 million per year from the city’s budget and racking up $5 billion in debt. Cash poor, the city’s bridges, sidewalks and sewers were literally crumbling, and Kansas Citians were at wits’ end. (Read more about the program here.)

When Mark Funkhouser decided to run for mayor in late 2006, he seemed like an answer to Kansas City’s prayers: a lifelong public servant without so much as a knucklebone of corruption in his closet. For 18 years, he’d been the city’s auditor, an outsider within the system who had probed just about every aspect of city government. He even had a Ph.D. in public policy and sociology. In 2003, Governing magazine named him a public official of the year and published a glowing profile titled “Speaking Truth to Power.”

Funkhouser, or “Funk,” as he’s typically called, was our Everyman who knows everything. Born and raised in the hills of West Virginia, he knew what it felt like to work hard and still be poor. He talked with an odd blend of know-it-all-ness and backwoods corn, and that made him a terrific candidate. He could mix “multimodal transportation linkages” in a sentence with “get folks where they need to go” and not sound phony. If he thought something was stupid, he called it “stupid.” Or “insane.” Or “corrupt.” Or “evil.”

I first got to know Funkhouser when I was reporter snooping around City Hall for the Big Story. I joined Funk’s campaign a few years after I’d left the newspaper business to write a book, which came out right before he announced his intent to run. I was up for a new challenge. But I gave my all to his campaign because I had tremendous respect for him, and because I believed he could turn a mess like Kansas City into “A City That Works for Regular Folks,” our campaign slogan.

But I wasn’t totally naive. I’d done enough political reporting to know that the corruption of idealistic reformers is so common it’s practically inevitable. It was plain to see that the old guard we were campaigning against had been the reformers of the ’70s and ’80s. And one day a couple of weeks before Election Day, when it was looking as if he might just win, I was riding along with Funk in his beat-up old Corolla when I asked him, “Aren’t you afraid the same will happen to us?”

“No,” he said. “I’m too old for that shit.”

But, he added, “I’m just as human as the next guy.”

My first major contribution to the campaign was the selection of its official color: orange, same as the Ukrainian revolution, a symbol for grass-roots change. We ordered a bunch of bright orange buttons, stickers and shirts that said “Funk for Mayor” and picked “Funkytown” and Parliament’s “Tear the Roof off the Sucker” (We want the Funk! We need the Funk!) as our theme songs. And Funk’s wife, Gloria Squitiro, became the campaign’s manager. 

 A doula by trade, Gloria had no political experience, but she seemed to have the right touch for a ragtag campaign like ours. For all of us, but especially Funk, she was the spiritual center of the operation. She was always spotting signs that we were acting out some sort of divine providence. Like when she was riding home with Mark from a candidate forum and she felt the car “being filled, absolutely, with the presence of God so much so that it was almost like a crushing feeling, it was almost like — well, I was afraid and I remember thinking and it just — it’s a knowing, it’s nothing else but a knowing,” she later said in a deposition for a lawsuit against her. “I remember turning to look at Funk and saying, ‘Oh, my God, Funk, you have the opportunity to do so much for so many people. And I remember him look — I mean, this was like a powerful moment for me.”

I cringe now when I read that, because it’s so obviously insane. But at the time I was able to filter out the crazy parts and seize on its essential sentiment: Here was a viable candidate for mayor who would focus his energy and the power of his office on the areas of the city that had been more or less abandoned.

Besides, this was relatively tame stuff for Gloria. My first real experience with her was on Christmas day, not long after I joined the campaign. I was home alone for the holiday, so she invited me to share it with their family. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was an array of toy penises on the coffee table. They were stocking stuffers for Mark and Gloria’s 17-year-old son, Andrew. His mom had bought them for him as a gag. Family tradition, I was told.

As we settled in for our holiday meal, Gloria shared a story — a family favorite, from what I gathered — about how she had told Andrew when he was 12 that vaginas can expand and grab men by the buttocks to draw them in. The boy was mortified, she said, and at this she leaned back and laughed so hard her whole wide body shook.

Even at the time, I could conjure few reasonable rationalizations for her weirdness. But I brushed aside the obvious warning signs that perhaps this might not be the most appropriate first family for Kansas City (or any other city, for that matter) because I liked her, and because I was starting to get hooked on politics. As a reporter, I’d watched the games of power from the sidelines. Now I was suddenly part of a team that had a shot at making it all the way.

I moved swiftly to the inner circle of the operation in no small part because I hit it off with Gloria. She said I was a “genius” (which, considering the terrific failure of my brief political career, only serves to show how clueless she is). I demurred, of course. But I couldn’t resist believing her.

On March 28, 2007, the day after he won by the narrowest margin in Kansas City history, Funk showed that he couldn’t resist her either.

On his first morning as mayor-elect, Funk told the Kansas City Star’s editorial board that his wife would have a job in his administration. She wouldn’t draw a salary, but she’d have a desk right outside his office and she’d be a key advisor. It was a startling detour into nepotism for a lifelong “good government” guy, and it took even those of us who’d worked closely with Gloria and Mark on the campaign by surprise.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have. Gloria was the boss of the Funk family, and we all knew it. Funk was very open about it. He told all who cared to know that as a young man, right before he’d asked Gloria to marry him, he’d read Viktor Frankl’s psychoanalytic classic “Man’s Quest for Meaning,” and he chose family as his life’s purpose. It was obvious that he wouldn’t let something like the well-being of a major American city get in the way of that. Quite the opposite, in fact: The power and air of entitlement that accompanied the office emboldened both of them, and turned Gloria into a monster.

After smudging the mayor’s office with sage smoke, to rid the premises of the evil spirits of the previous administration, Gloria proceeded to take over as the de facto chief of staff. In time she drove away the man who officially filled the position, as well as the office manager — two pros with more than 50 years of City Hall experience between them. She commandeered the mayor’s schedule and reworked it so he could devote Mondays and Fridays to building a consulting business.

At her insistence, we used donations from local businesses — given, ostensibly, to help the urban core — to fly her favorite blues band in from North Carolina for a couple of parties. She wanted to bring in the same band to play at the annual lighting of the mayor’s Christmas tree, using donations meant to buy presents for poor kids, but the fund’s board opted for a local group that played for free.

A little sleazy, sure. But what was really at play here, I think, was her deep, human need to be at the center of attention, to control those aspects of her husband’s life that interested her, and to be loved and exalted. All of which are fine within the power dynamics of a family. But at the fulcrum of power and politics that is a mayor’s office, it’s disastrous.

Gloria proceeded to amass a list of screw-ups too long to list here. Among the highlights: urging Funk to accept a free car; writing a family Christmas letter that included a graphic account of her husband’s prostate exam (which got published in Harper’s, much to her excitement and the city’s embarrassment); and all the crude, racially charged banter she carried on in the city’s highest office, which resulted in the lawsuit that was settled last week.

The case file is full of anecdotes that wouldn’t make it past censors into an episode of “The Office,” like when she chided our receptionist for being “frisky” because he’d had sex with a married co-worker the night before (he hadn’t). Or when she said that an older, dignified, clearly heterosexual City Councilman was “fucking” his young, male aide (he wasn’t). 

After months of this, when it was becoming clear that Gloria’s antics were going to cost the city an enormous amount of money, the City Council moved unanimously, over Funkhouser’s veto — the first in the city’s history — to create a law that essentially banned the mayor’s wife from City Hall.

The stated reason for the new law was that she had become a serious liability, and that’s true. But it was also a calculated, brilliantly effective move to take Funkhouser out.

Like any newly elected official, Funk had enemies gunning for him from the start. Despite all the turmoil, he made some progress early in his administration against the long-running scam to shift redevelopment dollars from poor neighborhoods to rich ones, and the beneficiaries of those schemes weren’t happy about it. His problem was he didn’t have the political aptitude to hide from them where he was most vulnerable: in his love for his wife and his willingness to fight to the death.

In fact, in the heat of the battle — which, obviously, is the standard climate for politics — those two aspects of him, so fundamental to who he is, became the entire mission. The primary focus of the mayor’s office was no longer “a city that works for regular folks.” It was “advancing my agenda with Gloria at my side.”

Gloria’s fighting spirit awoke as well.

“I have never hit anybody in my whole life,” she wrote in a draft of her memoir, tentatively titled “It All Started When I Was Born,” which was unearthed as part of the bias lawsuit, “but I have hit Funk more times in the last month than I can bare (sic). I don’t know how he remains with me.”

After Gloria was banned from city government, what little political capital Funkhouser still had going for him quickly vanished when he sued the city to overturn the law. Disgusted, the Kansas City Star retracted its initial endorsement of him and citizens mounted a spirited recall effort.

I can only imagine what would have happened if Mark and Gloria had carried out the plan they had at the time of my departure: They were going to — I kid you not — get a divorce so that they could circumvent the clause banning spouses from volunteering to work for spouses at City Hall and allow her to return to her desk outside his office.

I quit in part because this level of deceit was becoming commonplace. When the City Council was trying to kick Gloria out of the building, the mayor’s office released, and had entered into the relevant subcommittee record, an official document that was replete with blatant lies. We claimed that Gloria wasn’t involved in hiring or directing staff, something that was obviously untrue. For the sake of a much-needed win, I was directed by the mayor and Gloria to work full-time on a failed political campaign to raise the sales tax to pay for a light-rail line. Whether or not my work on this campaign was against city policy is now the subject of an investigation by the city’s internal auditor.

I’m ashamed, frankly, that I stayed as long as I did. I quit as soon as I was under investigation. But, to be perfectly honest, I might well still be there if Gloria hadn’t turned on me, as she had so many other devoted members of the team who happened to say or do things that undermined, however slightly, her exalted status in the office. During the battle with the City Council over her presence at City Hall, I had suggested to Gloria that she acquiesce and work from home. Our relationship began to deteriorate. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Gloria brought me into the inner circle because she could manipulate me and I would abide by the No. 1 criterion for office staff: adoration of her. As one City Council member said of me, “Mr. Miller not only drank the Kool-Aid, but bought it, mixed it, stirred it and served it.”

Fortunately, I finally got sick on the stuff.

Since my departure, it’s only gotten worse. The “co-mayors,” as they’re often referred to around here, built an insular “kitchen cabinet” of political advisors who were chosen almost entirely because of their stated approval of the take-your-wife-to-work policy — advisors who are the mayor’s virtual ideological opposites. The most notable is one of the region’s best-known right-wing operatives, bare-knuckled Republican Jeff Roe. Even Missouri’s senior Republican Sen. Kit Bond reputedly dislikes him, but not Kansas City’s Democratic mayor.

We went into office with the goal of creating a new politics, one that was utterly transparent. But during the most recent budget process — the single most important duty of our local government — Funk chose to deliberate at his dining room table with his wife and a handful of staff instead of hashing out the numbers in meetings with his colleagues on the council. Then, in the final weeks, after all the public hearings had been held and the job was nearly done, he took a purely public relations stand for more money for police. The move was clearly orchestrated to play on citizens’ fears about public safety and to make his enemies on the council (read: all of them) look bad, and it backfired badly.

When he got elected, Funk said he wouldn’t run again if annual surveys of residents show that city services have not improved. Barely a year into his term, those surveys showed Kansas Citians were less happy — by a large margin — with what they’re getting for their taxes. Yet our mayor is declaring, incredibly, that he’ll not only run again in 2011, but he’ll win.

Worst of all, he’s thrown away longtime friendships and professional relationships, most notably his former chief of staff, with whom he’d worked closely for years, who came out of retirement to work for Mark and did more than anyone else to help him get elected. In the words of one longtime associate, Funk has become “virtually unrecognizable” to those who knew him as a world-class auditor.

But while the arc of Funkhouser’s spectacular failure follows the classic narrative of the reformer who collides with reality, it is, in the end, much deeper than that — a tragedy of near biblical proportions. But I doubt that Funk, unlike Samson, will regain his strength. Because for all the bluster about “speaking truth to power,” there’s one power in his life to whom he simply cannot speak truth. 

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